I am a radical cropper. To me, every image is fair game for a crop-even if you did get it right in camera. There is always a different image hidden inside another. Early on, I learned that if I cropped in certain steps, I ended up with enough pixels for the final stage of cropping:the composition. But, I am getting ahead of myself.
Any operation which causes you to lose pixels from your image is a crop by default. In our bitmap world of today, we are stuck with a rectangle as the end result of any image save operation. No matter how much we distort and twist our image, saving it as a bitmap file will make it a rectangle again. Our choice is to leave all that dead space or to trim to the maximum allowable borders. This is why straighten is important.
Straighten is my first step in cropping and the step I recommend to others. Perhaps your image doesn’t need straightening. Maybe you are better at holding a camera level in the heat of the moment than I?
For Review: Straighten means, where possible, to make horizontal items horizontal and vertical items vertical
I highly recommend the use of a leveling device during capture to mitigate the need for straightening. There are many devices to aid you. Personally, I prefer the hot-shoe level made by Manfrotto. It allows for two-axis leveling and is convenient. You may have a smart phone app that can come to your aid here as well. Bottom line: if you don’t get it level at time of capture, you will have to straighten your image later. While I recommend it, I realize that using a level is not always practical
Our surfer with the world straightened.
As you can see from our straightened surfer that setting the world to rights has neatly shaved off some our image. By straightening the image we have created triangular areas all around the image bounds that will be sliced off when our image is squared in the saving process. Straightening-any straightening-means cropping or leaving dead areas. Some programs give you a choice but most carve away the non-square portions.
Why is this important?
As I said before, I like to crop-sometimes radically. Here the ocean and my equipment’s reach prevented the fill-the-frame kind of shot I wanted. I knew in advance I would be cropping.
The Crop I Want
This is the crop I was after. The top of the wave is at the lower rule of thirds line and the surfer is on the right hand rule of thirds line. I can’t really do too much about horizon placement so I am living with the thin strip of blue at the top. I chose the left and right edges of the image to give the wave form. I chose the foreground to show just enough wave in front of the board’s surge to contain it. Here I straightened before I cropped. What would happen if I tried the same crop placement and then decided to straighten the image?
Crop first – Straighten later?
I tried to crop with the same strategies as in the image above. Everything seemed to come out pretty close. Now we need to fix that tilted horizon… What will happen then?
We cut it too close!
As you can see, the crop first strategy requires that you leave yourself plenty of room else you run out when you straighten. The board surge we sought to contain with a border of blue-green ocean is lost off the lower edge and the knuckles of our intrepid surfer are now scrapping the image border. The thin blue line of sky is even more distracting as a narrow line than as a wider band. Those four triangles that get shaved off when we straighten are now hurting our composition. A composition we a painstakingly created by cropping.
When you straighten before you compose via the crop you ensure that you will have the maximum available pixels. When you crop first and straighten later, you may find that you have too few.
Remember: Straighten! This is the first stage of crop.
Rikk Flohr © 2010