I consider cropping almost like a secondary composition type. In photography, sometime the right moment is far much important than everything else.
If you spend too much time to get the perfect composition and miss a great moment, you will regret it.
When I’m taking photos, I always leave some margin in my composition so that I can do some cropping when I get back to studio. I do this no matter what I’m photographing, from landscape to travel.
Cropping should be the first step in your post processing workflow. This is because your eye can be easily misled.
When you adjust exposure, colour, contrast or anything else, you see your image as a whole picture. The unwanted areas will affect your adjustment.
Thanks to the increasing image size in today’s cameras, you can easily capture an image that is over 20 megapixels or even 40 megapixels large if you are using more advanced DSLR.
If you are not planning to make a super huge print or display your images on an 8K monitor or above, you have plenty of buffer when capturing in full size.
There are three points that I consider when cropping photography: size, rotation and perspective. I will show you how to do each of them in both Photoshop and Lightroom and some things you need to aware of.
When you start to crop a photo, the first things to go are unwanted areas in your image. This can make your composition tighter and more focused on the subject.
However, cropping will also reduce the resolution of you image. You need to be careful not to over crop your image so that you have enough pixels for your use.
To activate the crop tool in Photoshop, simply press C or click the crop tool icon in the tool bar.
Then you draw a rectangle box for your crop. You can adjust the crop box by dragging the corner or side.
If you want to fix the aspect ratio, you can enter it at the top.
Crop tool in Lightroom works almost the same as Photoshop. The hot key to activate crop tool is R or the crop tool icon. Aspect ratio can be adjusted here.
When you are shooting landscape, the horizon line is very important. If you misalign it, your photo may look strange and uncomfortable. An easy rotation of the image can fix the problem.
Sometimes, if you are shooting travel photos that have people in them, you can use creative compositions tricks like diagonal lines. In this situation, you may need to rotate your image more extensively. Saving more buffer for a post process crop is a smart choice.
To rotate your image in Photoshop, first you need to activate the crop tool. Then move your cursor over to the empty are. You should now see the arrow become a circular shape arrow.
You can then drag your mouse to rotate freely.
Second method is to use the ruler tool. To use the ruler, you need to tell Photoshop how to define the horizontal line.
You draw a line on your image and Photoshop will align the horizontal level to the line you draw. This tool is handy when you include the horizon in the composition.
Similarly, you can rotate images in Lightroom by dragging after you activate crop tool.
The ruler tool is available here after you activate crop tool.
If you are using a wide angle lens to shoot cityscape, you may encounter the following problem. Even if the horizon is straight, the vertical line of the building is not upright. This is because of the perspective distortion.
You can fix this by using a tilt-shift lens. But tilt-shift lenses are extremely expensive. Another way is to fix it in post process cropping.
To adjust the perspective, you need to use the free transform tool. First select the entire image with Ctrl+A. Then Ctrl+T will activate free transform tool.
You can see that it looks like the crop tool, but the corner become four small squares. To adjust the vertical perspective, you need to hold down the Ctrl key and drag the corner to left and right.
You can drag it up and down to adjust horizontal perspective.
Apart from Photoshop, there is no free transform tool in Lightroom. However, you can find the perspective correction under the transform panel. You can use the slider to adjust both horizontal and vertical perspective.
You can also use the auto upright function to let Lightroom do the job for you. This is only accurate when your image contains lots of vertical lines like cityscape images.
The third way is to use the manual align option. You first draw two lines that align with the vertical line in the images.
I recommend you draw one line on the left and one on the right. Then Lightroom will align the vertical perspective according to these two reference lines.
Cropping is not a fancy skill. However, you still need to be careful when you do a crop.
Rule of Thirds
Cropping is like giving you another chance to finalise your composition. You cannot forget the golden rule: rule of thirds.
Divide your image into 3 parts both horizontally and vertically. Then place your subject onto the intersection point. When you place the subject onto the intersection, your image becomes more visually pleasing.
When you trigger crop tools in both Photoshop or Lightroom, you can see the 4 lines appear by default. This can help you crop travel photos better without guessing.
Another way to use this rule is to place two subjects onto diagonal intersections. This is a more advanced composition skill.
For example, I put the observatory on the bottom left intersection and the sun on the top right intersection. This composition creates a perfectly balanced image. Both subjects pop out when you first see the image.
Here is more detail elaboration on the Rule of Thirds.
Be Aware of the Horizon
When shooting landscapes, the horizon plays an important role in your image. If your image has a tilted horizon, your audience will feel uncomfortable.
This rule can apply to any kind of photography. You need to pay special attention when shooting.
When you shoot with a wide-angle lens, the horizon line may become curved when it deviates from the centre. This is not a big problem to the viewer given that it is perfectly balanced from left to right.
However, when you shoot with this kind of lens, a small tilt can result in a huge tilt in the final image.
Be Aware of Vertical Lines
Taking advantage of living in one of the world’s busiest cities, Hong Kong, I shoot lots of cityscapes. In shooting cityscape, I find that the upright buildings are important for a balanced composition.
However, whenever you are shooting with a wide angle lens, the unique perspective of the lens will not allow you to shoot a perfectly upright image unless you are shooting at a perfectly horizontal level.
Using the post crop tools can help me fix this problem easily.
Even if you can use crop tools to create the perfect upright perspective, you still need to aware of one thing in shooting, and that is the horizon.
When you tilt away from the horizontal level when shooting too much, even the powerful crop tools cannot help you to fix the problem.
Crop Away Boring Stuff
Some photographers like to use wide angle lenses to include everything in the composition. This is a good composition when doing landscape photography.
But sometimes you may include some boring or unwanted stuff in your photos as well.
For example, I shot this photo with a wide-angle lens. As you can see, there are some people on the right and that is something I want to exclude from my final image.
Cropping that area away is the easiest way to remove it.
Here is another example. The sky is blue, which is nice for landscape photography, but there are no clouds. This makes the sky a bit boring, especially when including so much of it.
If that’s the case of your images too, you can try to crop away part of the sky, so you can have a tighter composition.
Most cameras give you 4:3 or 5:4 aspect ratio, while with some cameras you can choose to have 16:9 as well. I seldom change the aspect ratio when shooting. I always use the maximum allowable resolution. There are two reasons behind this.
First, when I change the aspect ratio, I actually ask the camera to crop the image for me. When the camera does the job for me, it is always a destructive move. In order words, if you shoot in 16:9, you cannot go back to 5:4 if you change your mind later.
The other reason is that I always want to have the most buffer and control over my photos. When you ask your camera to shoot in 16:9, it always crops away the upper part and lower part.
Although the sharpest part is the area close to the middle, sometimes I may have shooting error and want to use those areas.
You can also try free cropping without following any aspect ratio. Or you can try to use more extreme ratios like 21:9 or 1:1.
Cropping is an easy process when it comes to technique and it can help improve your photos. But capturing the best composition when you release your shutter is always better than doing a secondary composition in post.