Normally we crop to eliminate distractions: getting rid of dark areas at the bottom, bright areas at the top, intrusions from the side and other in-image elements that deemphasize our primary subject. Sometimes it isn’t about subject-its about setting. Cropping out distractions can help with ambiguity of place.
Case in point, this capture of a red-headed woodpecker at Big Woods State Park near Nerstrand, MN. I had been trying to capture this bird for two seasons but it had eluded me. I had a client lined up for an image of this bird but needed a more natural looking setting. The obvious roof-line, door and sign give the bird a decidedly unnatural setting. What can a crop do for us?
Cropping in tightly gives a certain ambiguity to the bird’s surrounding. Many of the tell-tales that reveal the bird is near to a building have been eliminated by the tight crop. The prominent position of the subject and its relative size-to-frame have pushed the background back as well. It is becoming that image my client wants. Breakup that remaining line behind the bird and we are ready for sale!
I guess it comes down to sense of place. The more place you eliminate through your crop, the less you sense its being there.
Rikk Flohr © 2012
Do extreme aspect ratios diminish or even negate important compositional rules like the Rule of Thirds?
I was working with 5:1 panoramic crops thinking about an upcoming article on retouching. My goal was a banner-like crop that showed just the eyes. Without even thinking, I put the eyes on the lower rule of thirds (pictured below).
I thought, “Hmm, that looks a little odd. True I got great brow space but the eyes are cramped against the bottom of the frame. It almost looks like she is peeking over the bottom border. It didn’t work for me.
My next step was to put the eyes on the upper rule of third. I lost the brows completely. I also gained enough of a nose to look awkward. Clearly, with this crop, and this subject, rule of thirds was failing me. The crop of choice was the opening image where they eyes are dead center in the frame vertically.
For the article I ultimately tweaked the crop to satisfy a little Rule of Space for the eyebrows. It is still a centered crop but the eyes aren’t coming over the bottom edge as badly as in the lower rule crop.
I guess the point is compositional rules are great guides until they don’t work. Then you just have to with your gut. Never leave something on a rule of anything just because it is a rule.
Let’s repeat that: Never leave something on a rule of anything just because it is a rule.
Rikk Flohr © 2011
The subject is the same but the story is different.
Firstly, apologies gentle readers. I have been traveling. I have been remiss. A wedding, the Presentation Summit and the desert Southwest of the United States has occupied all my attention for the month of September. The result? Many miles of driving, tons of image captures and time for thought. “About what?” You ask.
Cropping, of course.
Take a gander at these two captures of Elk on the south rim at Grand Canyon National Park. I thought it might be interesting to talk about the similarities in the subject first. Both photos show two bull elk sparring with horns interlocked. In fact, the same two elk appear in both pictures and the images were captured less than 9 minutes apart! In between the scenery changed from glade to forest and bright early-morning sun to subdued wooded shade.
The uncropped version of the portrait crop above shows you the actual scene. I cropped vertically for a couple of reasons. There were distractions to remove as well as animals cropped at the joint (the ‘waist’ of the right-hand elk). What dominated the crop was the subjects’ intensity in their eye-to-eye gaze and interlocked horns and my desire to bring that out.
Removing large sections of the right and left hand portions of the image really makes the eyes pop. The are looking right at each other with horns locked. These animals are engaged in combat. This image is the face of their struggle and the wiliness of their strategies to anthropomorphize a bit. All in all a much more compelling image cropped that highlights their complex and delicate behavior.
The panoramic landscape crop shows us a different struggle. The faces are downward and the motion is inward against the other elk.
Looking at the crop I chose, you can see that I eliminated everything that didn’t push the two elk toward each other. The motion, the strength, if you will, is lateral. To emphasize this the crop needs to match the direction of motion and strength. Next you make certain that you fill the frame making the animals seem as powerful as possible. I offset the elk just a bit so I could make the elk on the right ahead in the contest. Crop a little more off the right and the left elk is winning.
Two different stories.
Think about the relationship that is already there and enhance it with your choice of a portrait or landscape crop. They really help you tell different stories.
I wonder what the portrait image would look like as a vertical pano…
Rikk Flohr © 2011
One of my favorite authors is Patrick McManus, the outdoor humorist. His writings and philosophies have had a profound influence on my life. What does good ol’ Pat have to do with today’s article? He wrote about a topic once where he was having psychological issues with visions of nude animals in an age when everything was tagged and radio-collared. Pat longed to see animals nude again, as they were meant to be. Grab a copy of A Fine and Pleasant Misery and check out “I’ll never forget old 5789-A”.
Back to today’s topic. Today’s image is an example of what happens in the wild. Animals have genitalia. Do you include them in the in-camera framing, crop them latter, or don’t worry about it?
Case in point: This portrait of a Central American Spider Monkey taken on my last tour of Costa Rica. I have cropped this image for a number of issues, including:
- Removing the branch above the monkey’s head
- Placing the monkey’s face at the upper left power point of the Rule of thirds
- Carefully placing the branch so that it intersects the lower right picture edge
- Used crop rotation to give the image a more lazy, lackadaisical feel
- Used Filling the Frame to make the portrait more personal
Oh, and I cropped out what some might refer to to as the ‘naughty bits’. Refer to the original, uncropped image below.
The genitalia on the monkey has been cropped in favor of composition here, and to a lesser extent delicate sensibilities. Fortunately we live in an age where accurate portrayals of wild animals are no longer taboo. Unfortunately there is still a sophomoric tendency to giggle at the private parts-regardless of species. Adolescent behavior aside, why crop off the ‘naughty bits’?
There are a few reasons:
- I didn’t get the entire animal in the shot anyway. It was too close for my lens so I knew I was dealing with a partial beast. There is little harm at this point in going in tighter.
- The genitalia are a bright (obvious) spot in a dark, uninteresting area of the image. They draw the eye from the monkey’s face. For the sake of composition and story, they are a distraction from the story I am telling. They have to go.
- The strongest composition demanded the lower part of the frame be sacrificed.
I am not so much a prude that I would have lopped off the ‘naughty bits’ without good reason. Had the composition for the strongest iteration of the image demanded it, they would have been left intact. I might have subdued them in another fashion to make their appearance less of a distraction but that is outside the domain of the cropping.
Whether you decide to leave in the ‘naughty bits’ or not in a photo is up to you. Just make sure it is a compositional decision.
Rikk Flohr © 2011
A closer crop can change our perceptions about what is really going on in a picture and lead us to a new emotional connection.
First of all, apologies readers. A recent trip to Costa Rica and a lack of internet interrupted my usual flow of articles. I am back and connected. It is time to rectify that lack!
Above is an uncropped image from the latest Costa Rica tour. It is a photo of a female Mantled Howler Monkey feeding in the dry forest near the Nicaraguan border. The image is framed pretty well in-camera and not a bad composition overall. However, there is more to this story of an adult monkey feeding. Cropping closer can give us a different perspective.
I cropped this image as I would for any of my general aesthetics. The goal was to make the subject larger in frame, clean up some edges and compose the image slightly more strongly. Something else is starting to emerge that wasn’t immediately evident in the original image.
Though I saw it at the time and exposed for it carefully you may not realize that this Howler Monkey is carrying a baby. A tighter crop suddenly brings the baby to our awareness. The mom is maintained in her natural behavior but now the baby is starting to exhibit behavior for us as well.
Moving in tighter and going vertical makes the baby monkey much more obvious in frame. Now, we can clearly see both the mom and the baby are feeding. This has become a story about an intimate relationship between mother and child.
Apply a little crop rotation and moving in tighter and things change slightly. The baby’s mouth is clearly latched on the mother’s nipple. His eyes are closed in slumber or mere contentment. The mother’s eyes are now revealed to be watching warily the photographer or, by extension, the image’s viewer. Are we now intruding on an intimate moment?
These revelations of our perception of the moment were not evident in the initial crops. By coming in tightly and filling our frame with the story, we can drive emotional response from those who view our images. We can go from “cool monkey shot” to “she isn’t very happy you are disturbing her baby’s breakfast”. That is a good place to go. We have engaged our viewers by cropping tightly and driving them to the unperceived story. An emotional connection to the image becomes inevitable.
Look closely at your pictures and see what monkey business might be going on.
Rikk Flohr © 2011