I probably developed the habit of cropping from my days of figuring out how to use Adobe Photoshop. I realized back then that after looking at them more closely, I was not happy with how I composed most of my shots.
On one hand, this was a good thing, because I spend a lot of time being critical of my own work and thought about how to improve. The downside is that there were times when I become sloppy when I’m actually shooting, thinking at the back of my mind that chances are, Photoshop will bail me out later. Now, the above is a discussion for another time.
Today, I see cropping as one of the most important post-processing technique I consider whenever I look at a picture.
The first reason is obvious. As it was at the beginning for me, there are things that end up in the frame which I would eventually decide I don’t want. Take the picture below:
I found myself in one of Carlos Celdran’s Corregidor tours some years ago. One of my tourmates suddenly asked me to take a picture of her with her son, who was all over the place. I just took the shot as quickly as I could because I didn’t know if the kid was going to have the patience to hold that particular smile for another three seconds. I didn’t even bother shifting my perspective. Even though the frame wasn’t as well-lit as I would want it today, the result wasn’t so bad. But looking at it again on my computer, I thought the background didn’t do anything very meaningful for the frame. I wasn’t careful with including the boy’s hands in the frame either. That’s when I decided to crop it, and zoom in on the subject even more.
A few days after I sent this and a bunch of other photos to my tourmaters, the lady thanked me, telling me how some of her friends were asking her if they had a professional photographer accompanying them in the tour. Of course, they didn’t. I had been shooting with a DSLR for less than a year and I still didn’t know much about making the most out of my gear. But that was probably the best compliment I ever received as a photographer at the time.
Cropping doesn’t just allow you to clean up your composition and give more emphasis towards your subject. It also has the ability to transform the narrative of your photograph. This can allow you to save what would otherwise be just another boring or meaningless picture, like this one:
I don’t remember what I was thinking, but I somehow ended up taking a boring picture. I would love to go back to Holland and do that walkabout all over again. Well, actually, I did. But I never found that pink bike again. So, I had to resort to cropping to find a way to salvage this. One of the possibilities I came up with is this:
It’s still not as awesome as I would have wanted, but it’s something. See how things shifted. Rather than have the whole bike as the subject that’s smack in the middle, I focused on the rear end. Zooming in also increased the prominence of the bike in the background. Yes, a step to the right would have given the bike in the background some separation from the main subject, but we can’t do anything about that now. The point I’m really driving at here is that I have subtly altered the composition and story — the subject changed from the pink bike to the wheels of the bike. That bike at the background also became more prominent.
This transformation in narrative is also capable of happening in epic proportions. A few years ago, I stumbled upon what is probably one of the most powerful examples I have ever seen that illustrates this — a meme, of all things:
The magnitude of impunity enjoyed by mass media and even social media in cherry picking and distorting from the whole truth can be mind boggling. It is a sad reality we face everyday. And it is as prevalent in photography as anything. It is something that we have to be vigilant about as a consumer. And as photographers, this power is something we must appreciate and respect.