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March 21, 2011 / arthill

Crop it

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, however, there is.

You’ve read the books and the advice on websites.  Compose your photo properly in the viewfinder.  Eureka!  A great shot and you don’t need to do anything with it.  Right.  If that’s you, you don’t even need to read the rest of this post.  Just get back out there and keep creating masterpieces.

If you’re like me though, you shoot a lot of pictures that could be improved a great deal with judicious cropping.  I’m all for composing as well as can be in the camera and indeed, when I’m shooting water lilies or cityscapes or still lifes I try to do this.  But lot’s of times I’m rushed, barely able to get the moving subject in the viewfinder, or, in the heat of battle I just forget about composition and position the subject right smack dab in the middle of the picture.  Other times I’m too far away to get a decent, relatively close in shot so I take what I can get – the subject surrounded by lots of uninteresting space.

Another fairly common situation for me is that I want a shot with vertical orientation but I’m indoors with a n external flash mounted on the flash shoe.  Turning the camera vertically is not an option so I shoot horizontally and crop later.  Here’s an example:

IMG_8051 dan and amy IMG_8051 (2)

And then there is the Rule of Thirds. I won’t go into a full discussion of this here. The rule was first written down by John Thomas Smith in 1797 in his book Remarks on Rural Scenery.  I’m thinking that in 200+ years enough has been written about this rule that I don’t need to add much to it.  Basically it says that important elements of your photo should be on imaginary lines that divide a photo into thirds or, even better, at the intersection of those lines.

  You can read more about it and see examples at

It’s important not to get too hung up on the rule of thirds; there are plenty of times when breaking the rule is perfectly okay.  Close-up flower pictures are a good example.  But it is pretty clear that most of the time it is better not to have the horizon split your picture in half.  It just looks better if the horizon is about a third of the way from the top or a third of the way from the bottom.  So, what do you do? Crop it! 

Let’s say you come back with this shot


Your image editing program lets you drag a rectangle around to indicate what part of the picture you want to keep.  Position the crop box so that the horizontal line indicating the top third of the picture is on or near the horizon.


The result is this

IMG_8106 (2)

I highly recommend that you do most of your cropping using Windows Live Photo Gallery since it superimposes the rule of thirds grid on your photo.  Photoshop Elements and Picasa do not give you that grid so it just makes it more difficult to achieve just the right crop.

Let’s look at some other examples where you may want to crop.

Getting closer/removing distracting background elements.  I shot this recently in Julian California


I cropped it to remove unnecessary background

IMG_7375 (2)

Same idea here and I changed it to vertical orientation as well

From this


to this

robin IMG_8782

From this


to this

kyle IMG_8553 (2)

So, that’s it.  The concept isn’t complicated at all.  Essentially it’s just trimming away some of your picture to make it better.

Theoretically you compose every shot just the way you want it IN the viewfinder.  Practically, you don’t. Smile

So get out that cropping tool and cut away something.  Your pictures will look better.  Too many people take it as a badge of honor to post everything on-line just as it came out of the camera (SOOC). Don’t be one of those. I’d much rather look at an image that displays your cropping skill and judgment than occasionally be impressed that your in viewfinder composition was spot on.  Sure, theoretically in viewfinder composition should be as good as you can make it.  Practically it often isn’t.  So crop already.


Leave a Comment
  1. Ed Spadoni / Mar 21 2011 12:08 pm

    Well said Art. I happen to believe that cropping is one of the most valuable post-processing improvements you can make to an image, and it’s probably actually done the least. This is where having an eye to see the “art” in the image really comes into play. Ed

  2. arthill / Mar 21 2011 1:42 pm

    Thanks Ed. I hate to see so many people posting images that could be improved a lot with a simple crop.

  3. Susan Wilde / Mar 21 2011 9:42 pm

    Very well done article. I hope many will take the time to read it. So many times I’ve seen photos and think “If they would have only cropped a little bit”. This can take photos from “Nice” to “WOW”.

  4. Need Assistance / Jan 15 2013 9:29 pm

    Hello, Can you please provide guidance on how to replicate what you illustrated in the before and after picture with the bird? That is how do you change a picture from vertical to horizontal? What software did you use? I did not see this option in windows gallery. Thank you in advance!

  5. Through My Eyes / Mar 7 2013 5:06 pm

    Thanks for the tips 🙂

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