How often have you stood in front of a scene thinking, “I know there is a photo in there somewhere, but I just can’t work out exactly where?
Many scenes are elaborate, presenting multiple framing options and working out the optimum composition can be frustratingly difficult, I’m sure all photographers have struggled with this at some time, often we are just spoilt for choice.
A few of months back I took a “one on one client” to some of my favourite local spots to explore some compositional options and practice a few technical concepts. As usual, I used my iPhone to demonstrate the finer compositional points, I find it excellent for the task because the screen eats your average camera alive and it’s just so easy to pinch in and out on the image and move around the frame when explaining compositional aspects.
As is usual these days, I shot the sample frames in RAW/DNG, just in case I wanted to do something with them later on.
Back in the office, looking at one of the samples it struck me that maybe it could be a handy vehicle for demonstrating the idea that “within an image, there may be several other images just bursting to escape from the greater frame and wander off by themselves”, and so we come to this post.
The resolution of modern cameras and even smartphones are now so good you can crop mercilessly and still get a perfectly usable image, especially if you shoot RAW and are prepared to do a little tweaking with the RAW converter and Photoshop.
Now to be clear, I’m not suggesting that you should get all lazy and slack and work this way all the time, but maybe this post will inspire you to look at some of your past work with a new eye. You may also decide to use the post-shot crop as an option for those times when you “just can’t quite sort the composition out” in the field.
First a few tech bits on the sample image. The “full image” is a small panorama, I needed a little extra width in the frame and due to physical constraints couldn’t move back any further.
It was shot on an iPhone 10 using DNG in ProCamera.
Settings? ISO 20, 1/800 sec, 28mm at f1.8, Uni WB.
Editing? Processed in Iridient Developer using a custom profile then outputted at around 25 mp then stitched and edited in Photoshop to give a final file of just a whisker under 30mp. (Like I said a very small panorama)
Crops were then taken from the 30mp image and downsized for the web to give what you see here.
Just in case your wondering. No, the 30mp files don’t look quite as detailed as you’d expect from a regular camera with a native resolution of 30mp, but it’s probably much closer than you expect it to be. The iPhone 10 has an excellent lens with even edge to edge performance so if you optimally exposure in RAW/DNG the resulting images up-rez very well.
Anyhow, let’s get to the pics. This set is by no means the limit of possible crops, I found several other options as well, but I had to stop at some point to keep this article mildly manageable.
All of these, bar the last frame are just crops of the full image, I haven’t done any cloning or selective edits to the cropped frames, but ideally, for real use, I would.
Frame 1 at the top of the page is the complete panorama image. It’s taken at Pejar Dam, about 20 km from Goulburn NSW, we’re currently in a drought, the colours are an accurate representation of the then current winter tones.
I’m pretty happy with the composition but the burnt dead tree on the left of the frame concerns me, it's a tad ugly. I’ve three options here, accept it as the reality of the scene, clone it out, or find another cropping. In truth that burnt dead tree is typical of the Aussie bush and part of the story, photographers have choices; there are no hard and fast rules unless the image is for documentary/reportage use.
Frame 2 (above) is a heavy crop; it represents about 35% of the original frame; still, it came out at around 3000 by 2800 px so plenty big enough for an A4 or even an A3 taking viewing distance into account. This crop emphasises walk-through depth due to the implied leading line over the top of the rocks, it’s a much simpler composition than the full image and is much easier to read, I quite like it.
Frame 3 (above) is probably the crop I least like, but it demonstrates a point. I do like the robust vertical approach, but the partial tree on the left annoys, it’d be better if it were either not there, or if more of it was included. Two problems: cropping off the tree on the right of the trunk would leave an enormous amount of unsupported foliage in place within the sky and alternatively keeping more of the tree would also introduce some of the annoying dead tree to the left of it.
So here’s the dilemma, in both cases the issues can be easily corrected by cloning, but it comes down to whether you think that’s an acceptable approach. I’ve no issue with cloning, so long the pics not being passed off as the real, unadulterated thing.
The takeaway point, you can often create nice images via crops out of larger frames when combined with a little cloning, provided the whole original image provides suitable content which can be placed seamlessly into the cloned areas. In this case, it’s straightforward to remove the remnant foliage should I crop the tree out since there’s an enormous area of cloudy sky available which can be blended into that area. Likewise keeping more of the tree would not be a problem as the dead tree to the left would hardly be a challenge to remove via cloning.
On to frame 4 (above) . This image is similar to frame 2 but moved further to the left to exclude the rock with the tree growing out of the top; it also places a bit more space around the rock formations on the left of the frame.
I quite like this version, the foreground rock now dominates the frame, and the receding sizes of the other rocks give a strong sense of depth. Additionally, we have an implied receding line that runs from the top of the foreground rock across the top of the rocks behind and ending at the tree to the left of the frame, which all combined strengthens the 3D feel.
Additionally, there’s a subtle interplay between the large rock at the top of the frame and large foreground rock, they balance each other and prompt the eye to oscillate between them, again increasing the sense of 3D.
Ideally, I’d clone out the foliage on the upper left of the frame and probably the bit of dead stick between the two foreground rocks, to tidy things up, even the most clone adverse photographers should have no issues with those minor changes.
Frame 5 was an unexpected option; I didn’t see it when I shot the pic. I love the feel, and it makes me want to go walkies between the rocks and venture in behind the main rock to take a little peek at that dead tree. The partial foreground rock adds depth, and a sense of perspective plus I like the little bit of dark sky on the top right of the frame which helps to..well…frame the image.
Again there are cloning adjustments that could be applied to tidy the image up, nothing big mind, but I’d probably remove that rock on the edge of the upper left of the frame, or I could crop in a little more on the left. Ideally, I would darken the bottom left corner of the frame to balance the upper right and emphasise the composition. Generally, I reckon this cropping has legs, hence I created another version of it, frame 8 to demo these very points.
Frame 6 (above) is a bit of an oddity, but I think it shows potential. First, it contains a lot more information than the other crops so needs to be presented as a larger-scale image to avoid appearing a bit confused. I’ve seen plenty of Australian Landscape paintings with similar approaches presented in large scale; they provide the impression that you are looking through a window into the great outdoors.
Allowing more space in the vertical to include the top of the rock on the right side would be nice, but creates a problem with random foliage from the lower levels of the Eucalypt tree, again, easily resolved if you’re not clone adverse. Additionally, I could include a little more at the bottom of the frame to provide a bit more negative space around the foreground rock.
On to frame 7 (above) , all I’ve done here is crop off the right 25% of the image. I feel the dead tree/Eucalyptus combo work far better in this instance. There’s a delicate balance between the rocks on the right and the trees and the sky to foreground ratio is good. Overall it’s quite a satisfying version, and with some tonal tweaking and minor cloning to tidy up some ugly temporal bits, like the dead twigs on the tree that could fall off any day, it'd make a lovely subtle print.
I was surprised that I didn’t see this version when I shot the pic, I think the rock formations to the right of the full original image dominated my initial perception of the scene, blindsiding me.
Finally, frame 8 is a re-cropped and modified version of frame 5 to show how a little cloning and selective editing can be applied to improve the result, bearing in mind the image represents around just 20% of the original photo the result is rather satisfying.
So here are 15 tips you can we take away from all this.
An image may have several alternative compositions available that aren’t obvious at the time of capture.
Most modern cameras easily have enough resolution to allow for major cropping yet still produce images that look fine, especially for web/online use, but as an example, just 6mp enlarges to a great A4 or maybe even A3 if the editing is good enough.
Even smartphones, when shot in RAW/DNG, have a significant degree of crop-ability, remember this sample is an iPhone RAW image which started out natively as a slightly stitched 14mp image.
Shooting your regular camera in RAW and using appropriate processing methods significantly improves your image crop-ability, if you’re going to heavily crop, interpolate the image upwards in the RAW converter.
You could shoot with a wide-angle lens to allow for a greater array of crop options in post, but I’d advise the use an excellent lens with solid resolution across the entire image area, it's probably also a good idea to keep very steady or use a tripod.
Despite what you may think, ultra wide lenses are not ideal tools for post-shot cropping, once you get away from the central portion of the frame, distortion can make the cropped frame look a little odd, and that can be hard or impossible to sort out. I find a 24mm equivalent or longer lens works fine.
Some folk may have objections to the shoot then crop approach, feeling “you should get it right when you shoot it”, Ok that's cool. But hey, what’s the difference if you found the perfect composition when shooting or in post-shoot, it’s still your work and your decision. In any case, not everyone is blessed with a wide array of lenses to cover all framing possibilities.
If you’re prepared to accept cloning as an option, you’ll significantly expand your cropping options.
Differing crops require different fine tunings; these might include dodging, burning, depth of field simulation, colour tweaking and more, generally to save time you do all these things post-crop.
If you use an application like Photoshop to edit the pics, you can also explore the options of non-constrained image re-sizing and content aware resizing to further improve the final results obtained from your crops.
Some of the crops can produce very unexpected but positive results, so don’t hold back on trying everything out, even crops that might initially seem silly could pay off.
In many cases tiny changes to the crop can make very significant changes to the overall composition, it may be a good idea to revisit the pics with fresh eyes in a day or two.
Don’t get hung up on producing images that fit a particular aspect ratio, if you’re going to print the image you can always use a custom matt or frame.
Don’t get too hung up on shallow depth of field looks when shooting, you can likely get whatever look you want via DOF simulation in post-crop editing, remember, you can always blur details but you cannot put details in that were not rendered at the time of capture.
When shooting, make sure that your image has full tonal range rendering across the entire frame, small areas of clipped colour/detail are perhaps acceptable in the full image, but they’ll likely prove jarring in a heavily cropped version.
Finally, just to remind you, I’m not suggesting you take a relaxed approach to your framing and composition, post-cropping is just another tool in the shed. In the end, isn’t it great to know we have compositional options?
Just to finish I have included a monochrome shot below taken on the same site.
Happy shooting and happy cropping.