Tag Archives: image

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.

Levels: Getting that professional “Pop” from your photographs

One of the questions I here most frequently is “How can I give my images that professional ‘pop?'” The truth is, pros have a whole bag of tricks for setting themselves apart from the pack and, like your auto mechanic, they use different techniques for different situations. However, there are some things that are common to most images, like getting the exposure and focus right, cropping and sharpening. I hear about these things all the time in this forum, but rarely hear about one of my favorite tools; “Levels” and that’s unfortunate, because I would estimate that fully 90% of the images I see posted here would benefit from a Levels adjustment. No, it won’t make you a pro, but it will be a big step in the right direction. Here, very briefly, is how I was taught to do it:

(Note; I am going to describe this process using Photoshop, but I assure you, both Elements and GIMP work the same way with only very minor variations.)

Before Levels Adjustment
Image showing a phtograph and histogram before a levls adjustment

First, make a copy of your image. You’re going to want to have the original just in case, though I don’t think you will need it. Click on Image/ Adjustments/Levels or Crtl ‘L’ in PS to pull up the levels adjustment tool. Here you will find a graph that looks a lot like a histogram and for good reason: it is a histogram. All of the values, light to dark, are represented in this graph. Beneath the graph you will see three sliders, one black, one white and one gray. These represent the white value, the black value and the ‘gamma’ or overall lightness of your image. Don’t touch these yet.

You should also see three eyedroppers with the same shades in them; white gray, black. These are wonderful little tools that allow you to assign values to your image. Click on the white eyedropper and move it over to the lightest part of your image. If you have clouds, try to find the whitest part of the whitest cloud. Move the eyedropper to that spot and click. You may notice a change in your image. Great, but don’t worry if you don’t. Next, do the same with the with the black eyedropper. Did you see a change? Keep going.

The gray is a bit tougher. You do not have to find middle gray, but you do need to find a neutral gray. I usually look for something I know to be white, but is gray in the image because it is in shade. The bottom side of a cloud works great or the wrinkles in a white shirt; just click on that area. This is usually the gray dropper where you see the biggest color shift, and for a reason: You have just corrected the white balance in your image, and, if you have done it right, removed any color cast. But that’s not all. Look at your histogram. It may look a bit funky with white gaps and tall black lines, but you have spread the tonality across the gamut of the graph. If your values were mostly in the lower register, you will not see that they are spread throughout, thus taking full advantage of the tonality available. This is also as accurate as this image can be given the exposure when it was taken.

After Levels Adjustment
Same photograph showing a histogram that covers the entire spread.

Now, one last adjustment before you close the levels menu. Take the little gray slider in the middle of the graph and slide it up and down a bit. You will notice the image getting lighter and darker. Find the spot where things really ‘pop.’

There you go. In most cases you will find you have a remarkably improved image. Click off the layer you just made and look at the before image. Look better? I’ll bet it does. However, that does not mean you have to stay here, take this in whatever direction you choose, just know that you are starting with a very accurate image.

Finally, don’t stop with this quick and dirty method for settings ‘Levels’; there is much more to be learned, and gained. I highly recommend you check out this site where Scott Kelby goes into more details on this method along with his remarkable trick for finding middle gray. Plus, if you scan up on the site you will learn the method for setting the white, black and gray points in the image just like the pros do.

Final image:

Note: See lots more information on this subject in the Resources section at Levels.

Note: This tutorial was originally posted on the web forum Digital-Photography-School.com. You may visit the site and see the original here. Please join us there if you love photography and want to improve your craft.

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