The Power of Cropping

A 2.35:1 image panned and scanned to 1.33:1. N...

A 2.35:1 image panned and scanned to 1.33:1. Nearly half of the original image has been cropped. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was in school we were still developing film and making prints with an enlarger. Those were wonderful days and I learned a lot about the art of photography that has been beneficial in the digital age. Not so much that I would suggest others go back and learn film before venturing into digital photography, but there are times when those around me have a hard time grasping concepts that were made apparent in the days of dark rooms and strong smelling chemicals.

One of the things I find a lot of new photographers struggle with is cropping. They seem to think there is something sacred about the format their images were created in and are resistant to making any changes. In one of my first photography classes, the teacher picked up a couple of cropping ‘L’s’, two L shaped pieces of cardboard that you could place on top of a print and move around to show various crops. He would go through image after image showing how each could have been improved with a bit of cropping.

The astonishing thing was not simply that they improved but how dramatically they improved. Often someone would put up a print that looked plain and unexciting and the teacher would show how with a quick crop the image would suddenly jump to life. Soon we all had our own cropping ‘L’s’ and we were using them on all of our images before we turned them in. However, there was still an important lesson to be learned.

After using the ‘L’s’ for a while, I noticed that when I was taking pictures I would mentally use them in the viewfinder of my camera to see how I would crop the image when I got it back to the lab. It occurred to me that rather then waiting until then it was possible to crop right in the camera, to move around until most of the superfluous stuff had been eliminated. After all, this is one of the keys to great photography, to rid the image of everything that isn’t absolutely essential. Yet I never would have learned this lesson if I hadn’t first had the practice with hands-on cropping.

These days, cropping is quite easily done with your image manipulation software, so I suggest using this tool a lot until you really master the art of removing the unnecessary. There is real power in cropping, but it is a skill that takes some practice. Try cropping in various ways until you find one that really works. Do worry that a crop won’t fit the average frame, you aren’t really trying to make average images, are you? Instead, look for the drama and power that can be created with a bit of cropping.

One of the challenges will happen when you find that there are two very different ways to crop an image, both equally compelling in spite of being very different. What remains will be a question of the feeling or message each image provokes. You will have reached a high level of your artistic development when you can answer these questions intelligently.

So, whatever you do, ignore the fact that your sensor makes perfect 4:3 or 16:9 images. That isn’t nearly as important as creating beautiful, compelling images that evoke emotions from your viewers. How much better to create a wide panorama out of a landscape shot if that is what the image calls for. It’s a simple tool, but you will be amazed at the results if you learn to use it effectively.


5 things you can do to improve your pictures


For most of us, we are mesmerized with our new cameras and the amazing pictures they take… for a while. Then, as we compare them to the works of others, we find that they are somehow lacking and we struggle to find the magic that makes an image truly great. Professionals have talent, great equipment and years of experience on their side, so you are not likely to equal their work without the same, but you can improve your images dramatically and give them a run for their money if you will do the following:





perspectives, not truth

perspectives, not truth (Photo credit: alexdecarvalho)

Change your position. 99.99% of all amateur photos are taken at eye level, which means that if you will simply choose a slightly different angle from which to take your shot you can add a great deal of interest to your images. Try shooting from ground level, from the top of a ladder or any other perch you can find. John Moran, a professional photographer and a favorite in the Central Florida area, wanted to get an image of rowers sculling across a local lake. To get the shot he wanted, he mounted a ladder onto the launch that followed the rowers. It was a risky place to stand, but the shot he got was well worth the effort.







English: Frame from public domain trailer for ...




Frame your image with meaningful props. You would be amazed at how much a simple image can be improved with something as simple as a branch that hangs down from above or equipment or almost anything that gives some perspective, and some clues as to the environment in which you are shooting. I had a friend in college who figured out a way to place a soda can on the front of his lens so he was shooting through the pop-top hole. It made for some interesting shots.
















Seal Photobomb




Pay attention to your backgrounds. Few things will improve your images more than careful attention to what is behind your subject. As a photographer, you are responsible for everything that makes its way into your image, yet many people concentrate so much on the their subject that they lose sight of the rest of the image. (For some humorous examples of this, look up “photobomb” into your favorite search engine.) Train yourself to look in all four corners of the frame before snapping the shutter and look for a shooting angle that will allow you to have a simplified background. The improvement will be well worth the effort.









Orange lily close up cropped, with ant



Don’t be afraid to cut. Not everything you shoot will fit neatly into your camera’s frame, so as a result you will have unneeded space at the top, bottom or sides. Use your favorite photo software to clip these parts off. When I was in college we would use two cardboard “L’s” laid across our images to experiment with different crops. It was amazing to see how a rather mediocre image could be transformed into something impressive with some judicious cropping, yet many people resist the urge to clip. Don’t be that way; experiment with different crops and see if you don’t find one you like better than the original.






film night | self portrait

Take lots of pictures. It used to be that by the time you bought a roll of film and developed it, you had a substantial investment in your images, but modern cameras allow us to shot hundreds of images for a relatively small investment. This is a great advantage for beginners and pros alike because it allows us the luxury of trying many different things to get the best image possible. Consider this an investment in your art because those who work hard to improve their images by doing lots of experimentation are the ones whose skills advance the fastest.




And there you have it, 5 things you can begin right now to improve your images and they won’t cost you a dime. So, before you invest a big wad of money in a new lens, flash or meter, give these a try and see how far they will get you. They truly have the potential to improve your dramatically while you wait for that new lens to come in.




Photographic Composition: Understanding the Golden Mean

Improving your photographic composition skills can be a long and arduous task, yet there is one technique, developed thousands of years ago that can be put into effect in a matter of minutes, that can give you a dramatic improvement in the artistic value of your work almost instantly.


What is the Golden Mean?


The ancient Greeks were clever people who were extremely adept at seeing the relationships between different things.

The golden ratio (phi) represented as a line d...

For instance, they are the ones who discovered the relationship between different sides of a triangle and thus developed the Pythagorean Theorem. They also found the relationship between a circle’s radius and its circumference (π.) In the arts they noticed a similar relationship between great works of art and a particular mathematical formula: (a+b::a≈a::b) This formula actually derives at number, or more accurately, an approximation: 1.61803… or phi (φ)


Over the thousands of years since the Greeks developed this theory, there has been a great deal of evidence to support it. What does this mean to you as a photographer? It means that there are certain areas within the frame where your subject is likely to draw the most attention. Photographers commonly call this the “Rule of Thirds” but it has its roots in ancient Greek mathematics.


 How do I use the Golden Ratio?


Take a blank piece of paper and imagine it is one of your photographs. Draw two vertical lines dividing the page into three equal parts. The draw two more lines horizontally dividing the page into that direction. When you take pictures, the objects that fall along these lines tend to be the most interesting. Objects that are placed along the intersection of two lines tend to be even more interesting. Therefore, if you want to draw attention to an object in your frame, you would be wise to try to place interesting features in your images along these lines and intersections.


Rule of 3*3 composition : Art photography

Rule of 3*3 composition : Art photography (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You can confirm this for yourself but looking at some of your favorite images. Do you see how the best images nearly always take advantage of this strategy? Research has shown that a vast majority of the world’s great works of art employ this tool. However, that doesn’t mean you should become a slave to this system and never place important items elsewhere. There are times to avoid these lines, but that will take time and experience to master.


Why does the golden ratio work so well for photographers?


One of the important things about using the golden ratio, or rule of thirds, is that it forces you to move things out of the center of the frame. Every beginner places things in the middle of the frame, it is our natural tendency. Also, in most cases, an item in the middle creates no dynamic tension or visual movement. Moving, say a person, to one of the thirds means you have to find ways to relate them to other things in their surroundings, thereby creating interest.


Animated image demonstrating the rule of thirds

Animated image demonstrating the rule of thirds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, before you buy another piece of expensive equipment, try mastering this simple and very effective technique. You will be surprised at how simple it is to do and how effective it is in improving your images. It won’t get you into the Louvre, but it will get you on your way to some stunning images.









Vermeer: The first Photographer?


Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch painter about the same time as Rembrandt. He is not as well known as Rembrandt but he has been getting a lot of press lately because of a painting called “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” In 1999 Tracy Chevalier wrote a book by the same title in which she speculates on the girl, the painting, the motives of the painter the reasons why the girl may have had such an enigmatic expression. (The painting is sometimes referred to as the “Mona Lisa of the North.”)

The book sold over two million copies and was later made into a movie and a play, both by the same name. However, for all its speculation it barely mentions a few very pertinent facts about paintings in seventeenth century Holland. Unlike modern photography, painters had a difficult time capturing fleeting expressions. Poses often had to be held in place for hours, days, even weeks at a time. But like modern photographers, Vermeer was among the first to used a camera. Oh, it was nothing like a modern camera. Film was still more than two hundred years away, but it was a box with a lens and a ground glass that allowed you to see the see the image you are trying to paint.

“How does that help?” you may be asking yourself, and that’s a good question. I suspect Vermeer was asking a similar question, “Will this new device help me paint better?” The short answer is yes…a little. The one undeniable thing a camera helps an artist do is turn a three dimensional scene into a two dimensional one. This may seem like a subtle distinction, but it can be profound. Most people who do both painting and photography can spot a painting that was done from a photograph. I can explain what they see exactly, but see it they do.

In Vermeer’s case, I suspect he was a good enough painter that he didn’t really need the device. However, I applaud his efforts in experimenting with a Camera Obscura to see if there was something to be learned. Cross Training in the arts can be every bit as beneficial as cross training in fitness. The new perspective can open whole new possibilities for struggling creatives.

Take Dorothy Golz, for instance. She has taken the whole idea of studying classic paintings one step further by putting famous faces on modern bodies. Check out her version of “Girl with the Pearl Earring”:

“Der Perlenohrring”
Dorothee Golz, 2009

Great Idea, huh? Wish you had thought of it? Spend some time with the Old Masters and you may come up with your own idea. Check out Dorothee’s other images for starters. There is much to be gained from some time with those who have gone before. You won’t be disappointed. I promise.


Starry, starry night

There are a lot of things to be gained from copying famous works of art, especially for the artist. However, there are times when recreating a work is done simply to astound the audience. Such is the case with Alex H. Parker, a researcher with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He was able to assemble hundreds of images from the Hubble Space Telescope in order to make a pretty decent approximation of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.


(Click on the image below to be taken to the original where you can zoom in to see the original Hubble Telescope images.)


An old song with a new twist

According to some art historians this is the finest painting ever. It was painted by Diego Valezquez in Spain in 1656. Why would they make such I claim? I’ll try to answer that in the following paragraphs, but first, I want to ask another question.

What would happen if you were to try to duplicate an old painting master work with your camera? What would it look like? Would you try to duplicate the original effect as closely as possible? Or would you try to give the old song a new twist? This is exactly the question asked by the Remake Project. The project, sponsored by Adobe, offered £10,000 to the winner. The assignment was to remake an old masterpiece using a camera and, ostensibly, Photoshop. The results are interesting for several reasons.

First, there is a great deal to be learned from the Old Masters. These images have stood the test of time for a number of reasons so examining, even mimicking them, could provide some important insights. As a matter of fact, painters do this all the time, copying each others work to develop new skills and perspectives. I applaud the effort and am intrigued by the results.

However, it also seems apparent from the results that the students who took these images were concentrating on duplicating the what they saw without closely examining why the image was so important. (See for yourself here.) Let’s take a look at one of the images to illustrate the point.

The painting “Las Meninas“(above) is a portrait of the Royal Family of Spain where Valezquez served as a court painter. In it you see the child, Infanta Margarita, displaying her new dress, her ladies-in-waiting (meninas), the family dog (in a dignified pose), a couple of court midgets, and the chamberlain in the doorway. King Philip IV loved this painting and had it hung in his personal quarters where he could see it every day. Clearly the artist has done his job well of depicting  a private moment in the life of the royal family. And while this may have been King Philip IV’s favorite painting, it’s not what makes it such I standout piece.

If you look a bit closer you will see that Valezquez has also painted himself into this image. As a matter of fact, it would be appropriate to call this a self portrait. Notice that to the far left, standing taller than anyone else in the room is the artist himself. Has he painted himself as being a bit above the king and queen reflected in the mirror beside him? It appears he has. What’s more, look at the easel and canvas he is painting on. Is it not the biggest thing in the room? Does it not appear that Valezquez is saying that he sees himself and his work as being more important than what is going on around him? I seems he has.

What’s more, you will notice that the painter wears the red cross of royalty on his chest.This has huge significance. In Valezquez time painting was a trade like blacksmith or baker. Valezquez got his job in the palace because he had a university degree, and he was really good with a brush.  His dream was to one day rise above the level of skilled laborer to be equal with the royals but the prospects weren’t good. Eventually King Philip decided Valezquez should get the promotion and the royal cross that went with it, but that was three years after this painting was completed. When he got the promotion, Valezquez asked to have the painting back so he could paint the cross on his chest.

If you understand all these things you begin to appreciate that there is a lot more going on in this image than most people see. There’s more, but we will get to that in a minute. Right now I want to talk about a photograph that tries to duplicate the feel of this image.

This is how Natalie Pereira’s saw this image.

In many ways she has faithfully reproduced the essentials of the painting. We see the courtiers, the dog, even the royal midget. And sure enough, there is the artist standing somewhat above them all. But I can’t help but wonder, if Ms. Pereira had understood the story behind the painting, the artists view of his own importance and subsequent promotion, would she have photographed this a different way?





One thing we do know is that Salvador Dali understood the true meaning of this painting. Of course, Dali was a fellow Spainard as well as painter, though his purposes were very different. Like many other artists, he paid homage to the great Valesquez in his own unique way. He titled his painting “Valezquez Painting the Infanta Margarita with the Lights and Shadows of His Own Glory.” Dali demonstrates that as a fellow painter, he knows exactly what Valezquez has done. He has painted a portrait that seems to feature a little girl of royal lineage, but has really painted a tribute to himself. The great irony is that he slipped it past his employers and eventually got what he desired most.

Now let’s not disparage Ms. Pereira. She was a student at the time and she did a superlative job with her image. The question here is whether or not a better understanding of why a painting has been so successful for hundreds of years might give us more clues that we can put to good use in our own work? I think you already know my answer to that question.



Valezquez’ painting holds one more surprise for us; one you may have already noticed. Everyone in the painting appears to be  somewhat surprised. They have stopped what they are doing in order to look in the direction of the viewer. Ostensibly, the king and queen, reflected in the mirror, have just entered the room and everyone has stopped to  acknowledge them. This quality of everyone looking in our direction gives the painting a bit of a cheeky quality. All of the people, from the chamberlain in the doorway to the painter at work and the child on display, all seem to be looking directly at you and me. From across the ages Valezquez has turned the tables on us. He and the courtiers of King Philip’s reign are looking at us, wondering who it is that is looking at them. All these years we have been staring at them and now Valezquez has turned the table. The characters are looking at us. Do they have a question for us? Do we have an answer? This is truly one of those images that has the power to be a little different every time you look at. If you want to be a great artist, whether with a brush or a camera, this is one of the things you need to aspire to.


Elements of Design

 The Elements of Design

If you look up the term “Elements of Design” you are likely to find several different descriptions, but the essentials come down to this: Line, Shape, Value, Texture, Size, Space and Color. Of those elements, color is the only one that is not necessary, which is why we have line drawings and black and white photography. All of the other elements are essential in every artistic work, though they are not always featured.

We will talk about these elements in more detail in future posts, but I need to answer a question you may be asking yourself first: Why should I care? I mean, will knowing the ‘elements of design’ make me a better photographer. And the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

Let me explain. As I have already stated, all of these elements except color are required for a good composition. However, they are not all equally on display in every composition. Very often we can improve our compositions by emphasizing one or more of the elements.

Alexander Calder understood the importance of shapes. As a matter of fact, he was so drawn to them that he spent his entire artistic career building mobiles where he could show them off. His work was original and powerful enough to garner his work a place in many of the world’s most prestigious museums. Here is an example:

With a few simple lines, and some unique shapes, Calder has created a powerful composition. Do the other elements, like texture and space still play a role? Certainly, but they take a back seat to shapes in his work. (I should add that the fact that this is a mobile means he has been able to add movement as another element we would not normally associate with our compositions unless we were shooting video.)

Let’s look at another example from a different artist. In this case the artist is Jasper Johns and this is an iconic image he created back in 1955.

OK, you say, I’ve seen things like this before. So why is this hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it’s just a flag. That’s true, but I would ask you to look a bit closer to see something you may have missed, the thing that excited the curator when he first saw it.

Johns used tissue paper and paste to building up layers of texture that contribute very subtly to the effect of this piece. It is hard to see from just a photograph (though the detail shot certainly helps) but standing in front of the image, the layers of texture are very apparent and the effect is powerful. With a very simple design that everyone knows, the American flag, Johns has communicated that the flag is more than a two dimensional decoration; it is a symbol with layer upon layer of meaning, much as his composition is layered with texture. In other words, a surprisingly simple design turns out to possess a for more powerful meaning through the masterful use of just one design element: texture.

Very often we are wise to ask ourselves if our compositions will improve if we emphasize one element or another. There will be times when it is not wise to feature one element over others, but then there are times, as in Philip Halsman’s portrait of Salvador Dali, that emphasizing an element, like line, can add tremendously to the power of the composition.

And isn’t that what we are looking for? Honestly, all of our photographs are compositions, some more successful than others. What we are looking for are compositions with meaning and power and the elements of design are among the best tools in our toolbox to make that happen.


Spend some time with each of the design elements. Choose just one element, like texture, and spend some time making sure you emphasize that one element in all your images. Spending time with each of these elements will add to your photographic arsenal without costing you a dime. In time you will be able to take several images of the same subject, each emphasizing a different element of the design. That is the beginning of mastery.

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