Cropping for composition at the time of capture.

Boulders At Sunrise, Marginal Way.


The 2:3 Curse.

Most digital cameras capture images in a 2:3 ratio. Quite often though that ratio of height to width isn’t going to work to give you the best representation of the scene you’re trying to photograph. That’s why cropping is such a great tool.

For me the crop is an invaluable creative tool for achieving the optimal composition. After I’ve uploaded my files to the computer, I’ll regularly play with various crops to see if there is one that really works well. And like most, my cropping is done after the fact, in the computer, when I see the possibility of a stronger composition than the one the original capture provided.

Too Much “Stuff.”

Lately though I’ve been cropping in my head before I ever press the shutter. With a little vision, or pre-vision, I’ve started looking for the best composition within a scene. Better than the one the camera is going to capture, no matter how I frame the shot.

Sometimes, when I’m composing a photograph there is just too much extra “stuff” in the frame, and due to the available shooting position, or the subject itself, I’m unable to eliminate the extra “stuff” at the time of capture. And as a result the photographs aren’t as strong as they could be. Here is where the mental cropping comes into play.

Take these two photos of Glen Ellis Falls in northern New Hampshire.

Actually it’s the same photo twice.

The one on the left is the entire scene as my camera saw it, the one on the right is the final image I envisioned, having mentally cropped it before I pressed the shutter.

For me the one on the right is a much stronger image due to the exclusion of most of the darker cliff on the right, as well as some of the stream on the lower right. Also, since this is a rather tall and narrow waterfall, the tall and narrow crop emphasizes its height as well as my low POV and the great texture in the foreground ice.

Glen Ellis Falls - Winter BeautyGlen Ellis Falls - Winter Beauty



















Not Enough “Stuff.”

There are also times when there isn’t enough “stuff.”

Have you ever gone out for a sunrise hoping for just the right amount of clouds in the sky to reflect the glow from the rising sun?

Only to find once you arrive that the clouds aren’t where you wanted them to be.

Pretty inconsiderate of them, right?

Well rather that walk away thinking you’re not going to get the photo you wanted, this is a great time to mentally crop out that lack of “stuff.”

Here are two versions of a photograph I made along Marginal Way in Ogunquit, Maine.

In the original image the clouds were too far off shore towards the horizon, leaving too much empty sky near the top of the frame.

Smooth Grey Boulders At Sunrise, Marginal Way.

I wasn’t entirely happy with the way the above photo was going to turn out, but since I knew I was going to be cropping out most of that empty sky for the final image, I pressed the shutter and moved on.

Here is the final image.

(I also decided on B&W for the final image, but that’s a story for another time)

Boulders At Sunrise, Marginal Way.


In the end, you still have to crop the photo in the computer, but think of how much post processing time you’ll save knowing exactly how you’re going to crop before you’ve even uploaded the photos to your computer.

16 thoughts on “Crop In Your Head First.

  1. Wow, how interesting to actually see this great difference. I’ll try to crop mentally from now on. 🙂
    Enjoy your weekend, Jeff!
    Love, Dina

    1. Thanks Dina. If your camera has Live-view it really helps. By looking at what’s on the LCD you can think about what you might and might not want in the frame.

      Sometimes it obvious as soon as you arrive at the scene though. With the image from the Maine coast, I knew as soon as I set up that I was going to crop out all of the extra open sky. It’s not always that obvious or easy, but sometimes it is.

  2. Lovely images, Jeff. … I now realize that your post email alerts, like most others, are going directly to my junk folder on the computer. Grrrr …. How to fix? … Glad to have figured that out though, so I can now enjoy more of your beautiful photography. Be well, Dorothy 🙂

    1. That’s strange, especially if you’ve been getting my notifications in the past. I’m wondering if you can possibly click or right click on the address and if there’s some way to tell you mail I’m not junk 😉

  3. Jeff I have only been interested in photography for three years. Your web site is wonderful and has provided lots of information and tips to expand the boundries of photography. Extremely happy to have the opportunity to benefit from your knowledge and the knowledge of your compatrioates.

    Thank you,

    1. Thanks Cindy. I doubt I’m the first to think of this, but once it occurred to me I had to share it. I’ve been faced many times with a scene that just wasn’t going to work the way I had hoped, due mostly to uncooperative clouds. Once it occurred to me, “hey dummy, you don’t have to use everything the camera captures,” it was truly a “Eureka!” moment.

  4. I try to crop and do all the composition when I take the photo, but sometimes there’s details that you don’t notice while shooting and other times you have to be so quick that there’s not always enough time to “get the perfect shot” (especially when doing street photography – it’s fleeting by nature).

    1. So true on all counts. And as I mentioned, sometimes no matter how careful you are with your composition at the time of capture, your camera, with its 2:3 ratio, just isn’t going to give you the result you want.

  5. Nice article. Couple of thoughts to underline and drive home a few points.

    #1 Distraction or clutter – You refer to this as “too much extra “stuff” in the frame. I find this the hardest issue for most Word Press photo challenge folks to manage. Solution? Know that “it” is always there! Make it a habit to move your eye around the view finder to find any clutter. All good? Now press the shutter button. Lastly, if you have post processing software, learn to use it, especially the “clone stamp.”

    #2 Shoot more than 1 or 2 shots. Can’t emphasis this enough. It’s not unusually for me to take 50 or more shots (Different angles, f/stops, exposures, etc.) of my main subject. Start with wide shots and move in, even full frame, which allows one to have numerous cropping choices.

    Thanks for a great article on how one can improve shot making.

    1. Good points Rick. One of the reasons I use live view so much when composing my images is so I can kind of step back and really look at the frame. Especially useful on cameras where the viewfinder doesn’t include 100% of what the camera is seeing.

      I move around a lot too. The obvious composition is not always the best one. Even more so if it’s a “done to death” location.

Comments and thoughtful critiques are always welcome.

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