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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.

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego ZooFemale Jaguar, Nindiri, at the San Diego Zoo
35mm Ilford Delta 400 film pushed 1 stop
Click Any Image for a Larger View

I'm a cat person through and through. I like cats. I "get" cats. And I'm absolutely enthralled with big cats. So when my girlfriend and I planned a trip to the San Diego Zoo, I made sure to stop by all the big cat exhibits.

Now I don't consider myself a wildlife photographer. I don't know why I'm not that attracted to photographing animals, but one thing that does light my fire is black and white wildlife photography. I mean just look at the stunning work of Nick Brandt (check out Artsy's Nick Brandt Page) or Andy Biggs. And oh man would I love to photograph wildlife with my medium format camera and a 110mm lens wide open to f/2.8 on some B&W film. Hey, a guy can dream...

I'm certainly not on the same level as Nick Brandt or Andy Biggs - they are masters of their craft - but I thought I'd do some casual black and white wildlife photography at the San Diego Zoo to try my hand at it.

I brought my 35mm camera and a single roll of Ilford Delta 400 film. I didn't take a single shot almost the entire day. Fences, mesh screens, dirty glass, and ugly, ugly light all gave me good reason to leave the camera in my backpack. But we eventually made our way to the African Rocks exhibit where we watched a gorgeous jaguar named Nindiri eat her lunch.

This cat was just stunning. Her smooth coat dotted with jet black spots, I concluded, is the most beautiful of any animal I'd ever seen. And lucky for me, her favorite eating spot was right up near the glass in a dark enclosure with soft light pouring in from the side. Beautiful animal + beautiful light = Nick's breaking out the camera for the first time all day. And unlike many of the other animals we saw, Nindiri was kind enough to face the camera.

It was a very tough shooting situation. It was ultra dim lighting that was repeatedly blocked by other patrons. And never mind their annoying red AF assist beams and on-camera flash killing the light I was trying to capture.

My ISO 400 film didn't give me a shutter speed nearly fast enough. It came out to something like 1/4 of a second, and I had no tripod. So decided to push my film 1 stop to ISO 800. For those of you unfamiliar, pushing film is a process wherein you use the film at an ISO rating higher than what the canister says, then just develop it like it's a higher ISO film. The result is a higher working ISO which allows for faster shutter speeds. The trade-off is that it results in more pronounced grain and exaggerated contrast.

Higher ISO, lower image quality. That old story...

But I was willing to make that tradeoff because the high grain can actually look kind of cool, and this was really my only option to get the shutter speed faster. So with my film pushed to ISO 800, my shutter speed increased all the way to 1/8. Still really damn slow. I had to just do my best with this slow shutter. I turned on image stabilizer, squatted down low, braced myself against a pillar and the glass, held my breath, and waited for moments when Nindiri was relatively still.

Many of the photos came out blurry from her movement, but I'm happy to say that no picture was ruined from camera shake. That's what you call a steady hand...

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Oh, and I got a couple pictures of the meerkats on our way out:

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Meerkats at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Meerkats at the San Diego Zoo

Landscape Photography: Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park at SunsetJoshua Tree National Park at Sunset
Fuji Velvia 50 Film
Click Image for Larger View

I recently posted a blog entry about my day trip to Joshua Tree National Park during a storm (view the photos and on-location video here). I took lots of black and white photos on that day because the foggy and cloudy weather just looked phenomenal in monochrome.

My plan was to shoot black and white right up until the sunset, then switch over to color film to capture the rich colors of what I figured would be a very colorful sunset. And, as I hoped, the sunset ended up being a brilliant display of orange, red, and yellow.

Unfortunately, though, I spent too long working on a black and white composition just minutes before the sun dropped. I thought I had more time than I did and, before I knew it, the sun was in prime position but I was still working on my black and white composition. So I scrambled over to my pre-determined "sunset position," loaded up a roll of color film in record time, metered the scene, then started shooting. I was working like mad. I hate being rushed, but I really couldn't let these sunset colors go.

When I'm hurrying, I tend to make mistakes out of frustration for the ticking clock. And by the end of this roll, I was convinced that I botched the whole thing. I was scrambling and my technique was sloppy. Surely none of the shots would come out right.

So when I got home from the trip, I focused my efforts on the rolls of B&W film, anticipating that those would hold the quality shots. And much to my pleasure, the black and whites came out great. In fact, that one B&W composition I was working on just minutes before sunset - the one that made me rush so terribly as the sun dropped - that turned out to be my favorite composition from the whole trip. So, pleased with my work, I silently thanked the universe for the botched roll of color film in exchange for 3 rolls of great B&W film.

There the roll of color film sat on my desk, waiting to be developed. But sure that the photos were terrible, I didn't take it to the lab for developing until a few days later.

Upon finally receiving the film, I was pleased once again. The shots didn't come out perfect and they didn't capture the peak color, but they weren't half bad. So I thought I'd share with you the best shot from the single roll of color film I exposed that day in Joshua Tree National Park (at top).

There's room for improvement on this photo. I could have done things a little better, but that's what happens when you rush. That'll teach me to try and get 2 different compositions during the same sunset on my slowest camera.