Monday, January 10, 2011

The Aesthetics of Cropping

Cropping is about information. How much information is needed to say what needs to be said?

It’s about recognizing redundancy, and mercilessly removing it. More of a good thing doesn’t make it better.

Cropping is like removing words that aren’t needed from an overwritten sentence to get the point across.

To crop effectively, the photographer needs to know the answer to a fundamental question: What is this image about? Without an answer to that question, it’s hard to know what to cut. At the same time, one frequently gets closer to understanding what the image is about by successive approximations, corrections, and fixes.
The following picture is about a single leaf on a frozen pool of water.

I used the “rule of thirds” to help me place the leaf at the most dynamic location, off-center where the energy is. I rendered in sepia in post-capture processing, but the composition is how I shot it. I liked it enough when I printed the proof to go right to a larger image. But as I sat with the enlarged picture, I didn’t feel quite complete. If it were a sentence, I would have said it was too wordy. It needed some editing. Here’s the final cut.

The crop gives more weight to the solitary leaf, increasing its visual mass, without diminishing the statement that ice is what the leaf is resting on. In the uncropped version, the leaf is overwhelmed by the background of ice. After cropping, the leaf’s voice can be heard. To use another metaphor, it’s like diminishing the horns and increasing the strings in an orchestra. The decision is about balance, harmony, and statement.

The next image is one I rediscovered after it sat for more than a year in my archive. I had successfully worked on a different image captured at the same location and returned to download that image to submit it to a juried show. When I was looking at the thumbnails for my prizewinner, this other image jumped out at me. It seemed to shout, “I’ve been waiting for you. Where have you been!”

The advantage of looking quickly at a screen full of thumbnail images is that form and color dominate. Details are too small to make much of a difference. It’s the global composition that stood out. The color of the green plants nicely contrasted against the grey background. It had potential. Here’s a rendition in approximately that same size as the thumbnail.

And here’s a bigger version of it after I made some adjustments and tweeks.

I was fairly pleased with the image, but after sitting with it for a while I felt that the taller plant on the far right was unnecessary.  It's about three masses: the large open space in grey, the larger green vegetative area from the left to the center, and the smaller vegetative area on the right. So I cropped just to the left of the taller plant on the right.

This change gave the image greater balance and clarity.

But what if I cropped one more time, changing the orientation from landscape to portrait, and concentrating only on the main vegetative mass? The result is this.

 I think I over reached. Something is lost with the last iteration. It’s not a bad image, but it’s not what I intended. I wanted to express open expansiveness on a foggy river’s shore. This last image is too confining. Back to the second version as the keeper.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery said in Wind, Sand and Stars, “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add but when there is nothing left to take away.”

This is what cropping is about.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I loved this article on cropping. It is a bit of a mystery why one thing works and another does not, but I agreed with the assessment all of your crops... even when you over-reached.

There must be some psychological basis for this shared among humans. This is part of the puzzle of the mind.