Nick Carver Photography Blog

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Photography Tips: How To Crop Photos Correctly

Skill Level: Beginner

Cropping a photo after the fact seems like the most basic of basics. I mean, come on, how much can I really write about cropping a photo? Well, surprisingly, most beginners in photography don’t know how to crop a picture correctly. Errors in the process result in unexpected printing issues and some serious frustration.

The key to properly crop photos involves aspect ratios. The aspect ratio is simply a ratio that indicates the length of the photo compared to the width. For instance, an aspect ratio of 1:2 means the long edge of the photo is twice as long as the short edge.

Every print size available has an aspect ratio. There are standard aspect ratios and non-standard aspect ratios. If you crop your photo to a non-standard aspect ratio, one of two things will happen: either (1) you’ll get the print made on a standard size paper and as a result, the sides of your photo will be lost, or (2) you’ll print the photo on non-standard size paper, but then have a hell of a time trying to find a frame that fits it.

Let’s look at some common print sizes:

  • 4x6
  • 5x7
  • 8x10
  • 8x12
  • 10x15
  • 11x14
  • 12x18
  • 16x20
  • 16x24
  • 20x24
  • 20x30
  • 24x30
  • 24x36

In order to determine the aspect ratios for each print, we simply reduce the dimensions like we would a fraction:

  • 4x6 = 2:3 aspect ratio
  • 5x7 = 5:7
  • 8x10 = 4:5
  • 8x12 = 2:3
  • 10x15 = 2:3
  • 11x14 = 11:14
  • 12x18 = 2:3
  • 16x20 = 4:5
  • 16x24 = 2:3
  • 20x24 = 5:6
  • 20x30 = 2:3
  • 24x30 = 4:5
  • 24x36 = 2:3

So, you see, some print sizes are 2:3, some are 4:5, and some are seemingly weird ratios like 11:14.

Many people crop their photos free hand. Meaning, they crop it to whatever they think looks good, completely ignoring any preset aspect ratio. That’s fine to do so long as you don’t plan to print the photo on standard size paper. If it’s just going up on Flickr and Facebook, no problem. Aspect ratios don’t really matter in digital sharing.

How to crop a picture - crop photos correctlyThis photo was cropped to no specific aspect ratio - it was cropped free-hand.
So long as I don't plan to print and frame this image, the non-standard
aspect ratio is no problem. It doesn't really matter for digital display. 

But if I want to print this free-hand cropped photo as an 8x12, the 2:3 aspect ratio will force me to lose some of the image:

How to crop a picture - crop photos correctlyPrinted as an 8x12 (2:3 aspect ratio), my photo loses some of the sides

If I want to print it on 8x10 paper, the 4:5 aspect ratio will force me to lose a lot of the image, too:

How to crop a picture - crop photos correctlyPrinted as an 8x10 (4:5 aspect ratio), my photo loses a lot of the sides

And when I send the file to the printer for an 8x10 print or an 8x12 print, they’re just going to print the center of the image, forcing the edges out.

But maybe I want one of those edges. Maybe the right side is really important and I only want to lose the left side. Or maybe I’d rather keep both sides and just expand the top and bottom to include more of the image I previously cropped.

That's why when you crop photos, it’s best to crop to a specific aspect ratio so that you know exactly what will be included in the print. If you plan on printing an 8x10, crop the image to a 4:5 aspect ratio. If you plan on printing an 8x12, crop it to 2:3. You may need to create duplicate files with different cropping for different size prints.

Every image editing program worth its salt will allow you to “lock in” a certain aspect ratio when cropping. This is how it looks in Adobe Lightroom:

How to crop a picture - crop photos correctlyIn Adobe Lightroom, just choose
an aspect ratio and make sure
the padlock icon is "locked"

By simply choosing an aspect ratio and clicking the lock to lock it in, you can force the cropping box to maintain the proper aspect ratio. That way you can control exactly what will be cropped and what won’t.

And here’s the thing...your DSLR camera is very likely shooting photos in a 2:3 aspect ratio. Some cameras shoot 4:5 natively, but almost all Nikon, Canon, and Sony DSLRs shoot in 2:3. So if you want it to print exactly as it came out of the camera, stick to 2:3 aspect ratios.

Oh, and here’s the other thing...many of the most common frame sizes don’t match your camera’s 2:3 aspect ratio. For instance, 8x10 and 5x7 frames are plentiful, but 8x10 and 5x7 prints are not the same aspect ratio as what your DSLR spits out.

So stick to the proper aspect ratio, whatever print size you plan to make. It’ll make the process a whole lot less frustrating.