Editing Techniques: Cropping to Improve Images

When it comes to digital images, cropping removes pixels which means resolution is reduced. This is the primary reason photographers try to avoid cropping. For example, let’s say your 42-Mp digital camera creates images in the 4:6 (2:3) aspect ratio, such as in the illustration above. That is 5300 x 7955 pixels or 42 megapixels (Mp). And let’s say you wish to crop it and make it a 4:5 aspect ratio, such as what you see in the image below. Now you are left with 5280 x 6600 pixels, or 35 Mp. With this crop, you lose approximately 18% of the image pixels (7,317,527 pixels to be exact) or resolution.

I would guess that cropping is more common among wildlife photographers than say, landscape photographers. The reason being is we often cannot get very close to the animal(s). While great focal lengths (400mm or higher) help, there are times when you cannot get close enough to the animal to fill the frame. Consequently, we resort to cropping as you see in the images below.

I cropped the bird image severely such that only 30% of the image remained. Interestingly, when I started photographing birds with a DSLR almost 15 years ago, my camera had a resolution of 10 Mp. The cropped photo above, shot with a 42-mp camera has a higher resolution than my uncropped bird images from 15 years ago!

So, how much pixel real estate can you give up comfortably when you crop an image? First, let me just say as someone who has successfully printed large images (20x30 or greater) taken from cameras with resolutions ranging from 10 to 42 Mp, your camera’s resolution is secondary when deciding to crop an image. Instead, improving your images composition and impact should be reason enough to crop.

But, if losing resolution makes you uncomfortable, consider the following: 1) if you do not intend to print a large image, severe cropping will have very little, if any noticeable loss of quality as seen on social media. That is, if the image is exposed well and sharp where it needs to be, cropping will not negatively alter it; 2) if you do intend to print an image large and don’t think you have enough resolution to do it, software editing programs such as Photoshop have ways to enhance an image’s resolution for that purpose. Either you learn how to do that or allow the professional printers to do it (which is what I did); and 3), to print or not to print, you must always consider cropping as a means of improving an image. ALWAYS.

Here’s another wildlife example where cropping from a 6:4 aspect ratio to a 2:1 ratio removed unnecessary elements and allowed the frame to be filled with the bird and bait fish. This was shot with a 24-Mp camera and cropping removed 40% of that.

Once you finally get comfortable with cropping, now consider the aspect ratios. Regardless of the image, any cropping I perform will adhere to an aspect ratio that is considered standard for framing purposes. All my images begin with a 4:6 (or 6:4) ratio and most of them retain that ratio after cropping. But quite often, I crop an image into a 4:5 ratio or a 2:1 ratio, and if I have two or more images stitched into a panorama, 3:1 ratio. Also on rare occasion, I have used a 1:1 ratio. Because my square and panoramic images are uncommon for me, I typically work with three aspect ratios, 4:6 (or 6:4), 4:5 (or 5:4) and 2:1 (or 1:2). Any one of these can be printed with standard matting and framing dimensions making your prints more desirable to potential buyers.

My decision to crop mostly comes down to improving the composition and add impact to the image. Take a look at the two images above. I had cropped out a portion of the original image which had a 6:4 ratio into a 2:1 ratio (the top image). After examining it, I decided the rock outcropping on the far left was not benefiting the image, so I cropped it out and returned the image to a 6:4 ratio.

Below is an example where I cropped and maintained the original 4:6 aspect ratio. About 15% of the image from the bottom left corner was removed. It is a subtle change but it improved the composition by removing what I considered to be negative space on the left and bottom, thereby placing greater emphasis on the water.

In summary, ask the following when deciding to crop or not to crop:

Will it improve the image?

How much resolution am I willing to give up?

What is the best aspect ratio for the cropped image?

Now, you can add cropping to your list of tools to improve your images. Use it to your image’s advantage!

Thanks for looking on and if you want to learn how to get started with editing in Photoshop or need help with your current editing workflow, I offer tutorials at $75/hour. Please check out my website and feel free to contact me at bigcypress214@yahoo.com.