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What Size and Shape do you want your Image to be?

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Lake Minnewanka, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

Lake Minnewanka, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

In wisdom gathered over time I have found that every experience is a form of exploration.

Ansel Adams

Cropping – this is a topic that comes up in some of the forums I visit, where individuals post their images for C&C – Comments and Critiques (or is that Criticism).  One of the comments that is often made by a reviewer is about cropping the image in a different fashion – …maybe you could crop out the big tree on the left side or crop a bit more off the top and this will reduce the amount of sky in the image, etc.  You get the idea.  Cropping is one of those things that everyone agrees is a good thing, but I often find that no one wants to admit to actually doing it.

One of the first things that you have to think about when cropping is a quantity called the aspect ratio.  This describes the proportional relationship between the width and height of an image when the width is larger than the height – a standard landscape type of image as compared to a portrait mode image.  For example, an 8 x 10 print has an aspect ratio of 5 to 4, that’s right, even though it is often referred to as an 8×10, the aspect ratio is still 5 to 4 and is written 5:4.  The numbers do not represent the actual measurements as a 4×5 print and 8 x 10 print and a 16x 20 print, all have the same aspect ratio.  A square print, regardless of the length of the sides, has an aspect ratio of 1:1.  The term is also used in other areas as well.  The aspect ratio of a monitor or a television is often noted as 16:9 or 16:10; however, today I want to talk about prints and the size of images that might be posted on the web.

How do I know what my aspect ratio is?

The initial aspect ratio of an image straight out of the camera depends on the shape of the sensor.  For full frame sensors and, obviously, 35mm film, the aspect ratio is 3:2.  It is also the same for APS C size sensors.  Four/thirds cameras have an aspect ratio of 4:3.  All these ratios are slightly variable from one manufacturer to another, but when rounded off, they are all similar.  The implication is that if you print the image straight out of the camera, then for full-frames (FF) and C-size, you will be limited to prints about 4×6, 6×9, etc.  The 4” by 6” picture has long been a standard of the consumer printing industry.  This means that if you want an 8×10 print, then you are going to have to crop your image using a 5:4 aspect ratio and, if you haven’t already figured this out, this means that you will lose a small part of your image to the crop function in your software.  How much, depends on how your final image looks.  Similarly, if you go for a 5×7 print, you will lose some of the original image to the crop.

When do I crop my image?

Assuming that you are going to crop your image, It really doesn’t matter at what stage of your work flow that you do it.  Personally, I always do it as one of the first one or two operations in my work flow.  As I use Lightroom, I also correct any tilt in the horizon at the same time – assuming there is a horizon in the image.  If you prefer to leave it to the end, then by all means do so.  It is entirely up to you.

If you do crop your image, then I would advise you to do it in a non-destructive way.  If you crop destructively, then you can never recover the original image.  Why should you worry about this?  For example, assume that you ordinarily crop your images to a final aspect ratio of 5:4, which is what I often do.  This gives you the option of 4×5, 8×10, prints etc.  Suppose that a client or a relative comes along and asks for a 5×7 print – what do you do?  If you cropped non-destructively, then you can simply return to the original and recrop it to give you the closest image you can get to the original 4×5 crop,- you should explain to the “requestor” that the images will not be exactly the same because of the differing aspect ratio – and then provide the print requested.  If you have cropped in a destructive fashion, then this option is not available to you and you may be stuck trying to explain why it only comes in the one size.  If your software does not allow you to crop non-destructively, then I would suggest that you make a copy of the original and keep it hidden away for just such occasions.

Why would I want to crop my image in the first place?

If you simply keep your images on your computer, or load them up for display on a web page, then you may not want to crop your images.  Should you want to print your images either for your own enjoyment or to sell to the public, then you will want to matte and frame them.  You can either buy off the shelf mattes and frames or you can pay to have them made professionally.  The former is less expensive and serves the purpose for home display.    The off the shelf material is invariably sized for standard images like 4×6, 5×7, 8×10, etc.  Furthermore, a lot of photo albums are sized to handle 4×6 or 5×7 prints.

You may also want to crop your image to get rid of that “odd” feature that crept in from the side or the top of your image.  Remember, most cameras do not show 100 percent of your final image in the viewfinder – you didn’t know that – well its true – this is just something that the manufacturers do not readily advertise.  Some of the “high-end” professional models show 100 percent – what you see IS what you get, but most consumer models often show about 95 percent of what you get in their viewfinder.  If you do want to show off some of your images in your home or office, then it is a lot easier and cheaper to do this if you put them in mattes and frames that you can buy on-line or in a crafts store.  You are then limited to standard sizes such as 5×7, 8×10, 14×10, etc.  Thus you have to crop your image to fit.  You can always print the image at its original size and then trim it to fit, but this always seems a bit radical to me – why not print it at the size you are going to frame it and be done with it.

How do I crop my images?

In reality, you can crop your images just about any way you want to and any size that you want to.  When I crop an image, I almost always try and crop using the rule of thirds.  If you are unaware of this guideline, then you can find out about it here – Rule of Thirds or by searching for it on the web using any search engine.  I would point out though that if you are going to crop using the rule of thirds, then try and use it in the original composition of your image in the camera as I do.  This can make the cropping a little less painful, because if you do crop for the rule of thirds, then you may lose more pixels than you want to.  Remember, losing pixels spreads the remaining pixels over a wider area and, unless you are shooting with a high mega-pixel camera, will probably result in a loss in the sharpness in the final image.

Image cropped with a 5:4 aspect ratio.

Image cropped with a 5:4 aspect ratio.

Image cropped with a 3:2 ratio.

Image cropped with a 3:2 ratio.

Image cropped with a 1:1 aspect ratio.

Image cropped with a 1:1 aspect ratio.

The other aspect of cropping comes when you want to use the rule of thirds, but you also want to get rid of an element of the image along one of it edges.  You may find that you are cropping 30 percent, or more, of the original image to get the final product.  You can minimize this problem, most of the time, by watching the edges of your images during in camera composition.

If you are cropping an image to a fixed aspect ratio, remember that if you crop a little off the top, or bottom, to give you your final image, then you may also be cropping a little off the sides as well.  This reminds me of going for a haircut – the barber almost always asks me how I want it cut and I say a little off the sides, forgetting that the will also take a little off the top as well and if you know me, you know I cannot afford too much off the top.

So, the next time you are going to crop your image, try different crops and see if there is one that you like better than the other.  Who knows, maybe you will discover a whole new way to present your images to your viewers.

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