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Thursday, February 08, 2007

To Crop Or Not

It is very popular to claim that a photographer should crop his or hers images in the viewfinder as the photo is taken - but I think it's safe to say that we have all applied cropping in post-processing, be it a digital or a wet darkroom, at one point or the other. Sometimes because of more mundane reasons such as the photo being a bit tilted and needed some cropping after straightening it up but sometimes also due to the fact that the way we see the image changes when we view it on paper/screen.
But where do you draw the line? Does excessive cropping in post-processing in any way diminish the value of the image? Is there a difference in cropping out unwanted elements vs cloning them out of the image? Both can have the power to remove unwanted elements that was there when the photo was taken. Is there a line and if so where is it and who draws is?

The above thoughts were triggered after having posted a photo on asking for cropping suggestions - not because I thought it was a particularly good photo in need of rescuing but rather because I find it interesting to learn what others may see in an image.

See below for the original photo - and some of the versions that people submitted:

The original uncropped version

Version 1 - by Rob F

Version 2 - by Thomas Risberg

Version 3 - by Maciek Eyman

Version 4 - by Keith Novak

Version 5 - by Charles Mason

Versions 1-3 shows the scene through alternative cropping excluding elements and changing the image format.

Version 4 takes it one step further by tilting the entire image creating a whole new perspective.

Version 5 goes even further - now with cropping as well as cloning out the distracting street scene in the lower right hand corner.

Are some versions more acceptable than others - and if so why and who decides that?

a) Is the image accurately represented?
This would be a concern mostly in editorials or historical representation of scenes and events.
Reuters just a few weeks ago came out with some updated ethical guidelines pertaining to post-processing activities: Reuters on 'the use of photoshop'

Reading through the guidelines and the comments that followed it's clear that even though Reuters considers cropping to be acceptable there are a number of voices that claims that cropping is just as much a deletion of elements in a photo that cloning it out is.
I'll leave that discussion to the professionals but take it down as 'cropping is OK in editorial work'.

b) Does cropping in post-processing lessen the 'value' of the image?
This is the perspective that I am personally more interested in.
Let's say you see a photograph you really like and one of the reasons is that you are really impressed by how the photographer was able to capture a certain scene.
You later find out that the image you saw was about 20% of the original photo as it had been heavily cropped in order to eliminate some distracting elements. Do you still like the photo? Are you less impressed by the photographer's abilities?

This comes down to how much importance you place on the process of getting a photo vs how much the final image is worth to you. Personally I must admit that part of why I like certain photos is because I know the steps the photographer must have gone through and admire the skills that are evident in the image (positioning and timing when taking the photo, wet darkroom skills, full-frame contact printing, etc). But in the example above does it matter of the person cropped it down to 20% in post processing or if he did it at the original scene by using a different lens? Does it matter if the photographer sees the final image in-camera or on-screen? This is one area where there are no guidelines as in the case of editorial photography. You simply have to make up your own mind about what is important to you.

One popular school of thought is that it's only the final image that matters.
If the photographer did the crop in the viewfinder or in photoshop doesn't matter as it's still the same person's vision that comes through in the image.

In the end I think it comes down to if you yourself is happy with the image you create - regardless of what post processing steps you took. You crop. I crop. Heck, Ansel Adams cropped.

My personal take is that I do consider cropping to significantly altering an image to the extent that I am always never as 'proud' or 'happy' with an image that I reached by cropping as I can be if I did it all through the viewfinder.
Part of this is because of wanting to push and challenge yourself (as well as a semi-luddite's view on photography) - and also appreciating that in others.

I'd be interested in hearing other people's thoughts on this.
Does cropping 'lessen' the value of the final image in your eyes (regardless if it's your photo or not)?
Is there a value in the process - or is it just the final image that matters?


Blogger akikana said...

I side with you on the pureness factor of a straight uncropped shot. But I'm not classing cropping in the same bucket as healing brushes and cloning out in the manipulation stakes.

With everything you have to make the best of the tools provided and if you are open and honest about means of capture and post production steps then no harm no foul. I have cropped and I have cloned. I don't feel proud about it but at least the result makes up for it.

There is a whole mysticism surrounding HC-B his apparent lack of cropping. But his famous jumping man is self-admitedly a cropped shot. I have also seen his 'shiny glassed' doorman in a number of different crops though these most likely at the behest of the printer rather than Henri.

On the other extreme Brassai was often not happy if he couldn't extract at least a couple of different shots from one frame through judicious cropping.

So to answer your question: cropping does not lessen the value of the final image if its use is freely divulged.

February 12, 2007 7:51 PM  
Blogger Michiel said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

March 24, 2007 2:06 PM  
Blogger Michiel said...

[cannot edit, so I deleted the first comment and reposted]

While I have no elaborate thoughts on the subject, I have to say I enjoy version "1" (diagonal between scooter and window) the most.

And since it is better (in my opinion) than the original, I think it would be silly to _not_ crop if it were my photograph and I wanted to hang it on my wall.

March 24, 2007 2:08 PM  
Blogger lynn said...

i'm a bit of a purist: i generally only crop out that which i did not perceive when i pressed the shutter. and i only clone away fuzzy creatures clinging to my negatives. here, i like the original best. of the rest, i am most partial to version 3; there is an excellent tension to the composition.

April 01, 2007 8:12 AM  

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