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Some thoughts on cropping…

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Rock and Light VII

Late last year, there was a rather protracted exchange on a photography forum regarding sensor/film aspect ratio and cropping. A couple of photographers were quite adamant in defending the point of view that the aspect ratio of the camera is sacrosanct and that all photographs should conform to the sensor proportions and not be cropped. So, if you have a 2:3 sensor (most APS and all full-frame sensors) then all your photographs must be printed or presented at 2:3 (e.g. 12″x18″ prints or 1200x800pixels on screen) and never be cropped. Perhaps most confounding was that they also felt that if one was to crop anything from the photograph, it would be regarded as a “failure” to properly compose in the first place. Needless to say, not everyone agreed.

Now, I understand completely where they were coming from – image quality is maximized when the whole sensor/film frame is utlised. What was surprising to me, however, was the vehemence expressed in the posts in support of the no-cropping point of view.

Baraka and his extended family

Being a small-sensor user, I know first-hand the importance of making best use of the sensor to maintain image quality. What’s the sense of cropping on-screen or in the darkroom if all I needed to do in the first place was move closer to my subject? This “fill-the-frame” concept has been around for almost as long as photography and became particularly important with the adoption of the Leica Standard in 1932. Small-frame 35mm film now had to compete with medium and large-format cameras which were the standards of the day and had much larger film surfaces which meant much higher image quality. To maximize the quality from a 35mm frame, the photographer had to make maximum use of it without cropping. This notion developed a near cult-following with photojournalists and street photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson leading the way. To prove they did not crop, they went as far as filing away the edges of negative carriers to allow the edges of the film to show in the prints.

Basically, supporters of this notion have carried forward Henri Cartier-Bresson’s (and others’) technique by making it their own. One can’t quibble with personal choice of style. However, is it right to impose that style on other photographers as “the only way”? Shouldn’t photographers be free to make their own decisions about style without having one imposed on them? And, while 20/20 hindsight is wonderful, to call cropping evidence of a failure to compose properly in the first place seems misplaced to the point of verbal bullying.

Precise composition in the field is essential. It’s part of the art of seeing. However, does the world fit nicely and neatly into a 2×3 rectangle? Or a 6×7 rectangle? How about 6×6 or 4×5 or 4:3? It can, if one forces the issue, but should photographers be tied to a rectangle with proportions determined by engineers and camera manufacturers?

Approaching Front, Winter

I have a sensor that is 4036 x 3024 pixels in dimensions: a 4:3 ratio. However, I recognize that some compositions “work” better as a square, a 1:1 ratio. Other scenes benefit from being closer to a 16:9 ratio or even 2:1, letterbox style. I’m not going to ignore a scene I visualise as a square format just because I’m carrying a rectangle! I shoot it with my rectangular sensor and crop to what I originally saw: a square. However, when doing so, I maintain image quality by carefully composing to make best use of the width of the sensor. For most of the images I choose to crop, I do so because that’s the way I saw it in the field. I made the exposure knowing that the scene before me doesn’t fit the format I’m using.

I suppose I could force each and every composition into the 4:3 rectangle of my camera, but, to me, that seems wrong. My goal as a photographer is to “reveal the art inherent in nature” not to force nature into the proportions of a pre-determined rectangle. While making that forced composition is, in itself, an excellent exercise in seeing, it shouldn’t dictate every photograph one makes.

From my perspective, the bottom line is this: if one is pursuing photography as a visual art, a creative outlet for self-expression, then one should not be constrained either by the legacy of previous photographers or by the technical absolutes imposed by sensor or film proportions. Art, in itself, is a vehicle for free-thinking, not a recipe book for re-creating what others are already doing or have done. “Rules” such as, “compose for the aspect ratio of the viewfinder” and “never crop” (or, for that matter, the “rule of thirds”) were created to guide us, in particular those who are developing their talents and style; they are not meant to be absolutes.

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