henri cartier-bresson gare crop

Will cropping make a better photo?

For example, take one of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous photos:

08_henri-cartier-bresson gare saint lazare jump 1932
(c) Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos / FRANCE. Paris. Place de l’Europe. Gare Saint Lazare. 1932.

He cropped the photo, because apparently he was photographing it through a hole in a wall:

“There was a plank fence around some repairs behind the Gare Saint Lazare train station. I happened to be peeking through a gap in the fence with my camera at the moment the man jumped. The space between the planks was not entirely wide enough for my lens, which is the reason why the picture is cut off on the left.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Regardless, he cropped:

I think the crop did improve his photos.

Another pretty radical crop from Elliot Erwitt:

contact sheet elliott erwitt dog

But should we crop all our photos?

“If you start cutting or cropping a good photograph, it means death to the geometrically correct interplay of proportions. Besides, it very rarely happens that a photograph which was feebly composed can be saved by reconstruction of its composition under the darkroom’s enlarger; the integrity of vision is no longer there.”-  Henri Cartier-Bresson

I think generally not. Cropping makes you a lazier photographer (at least it did for me). By learning not to crop, I hustle harder on the streets. I try to perfect my compositions while I’m shooting, rather than improving my compositions at home.

Walker Evans on Cropping

Walker Evans talks about his opinion on cropping:

Alfred Stieglitz wouldn’t cut off a quarter-inch off a frame. I would cut any inches off my frames in order to get a better picture.” – Walker Evans

Robert Frank on Cropping

trollybanner robert frank contact sheet film

Robert Frank is probably one of the most famous photographers from history. Little do many photographers know; many of Robert Frank’s great photos were heavily cropped.

One thing that Frank also did which was radical at the time was to crop his images. Sometimes radically, and at other times less radically:

By spring 1957, Frank had cut down his one thousand work prints to approximately one hundred and made new prints, which he more carefully considered the cropping. Sometimes he used the full negative, as in Trolley- New Orleans, but more often he presented only a portion of it.”

“Looking In” shares some of the figures Frank eliminated through his cropping:

“[Frank] eliminated a distracting figure on the far right in City Fathers – Hoboken, New Jersey; emphasized the cross like forms behind the conventioneer, in Political Rally – Chicago, and the evangelist in Jehovah’s Witness- Los Angeles, tightened the relationship between the campaign posters and the bumper pool table in Luncheonette – Butte, Montana; and focused more closely on the lonely young woman in Elevator – Miami Beach and on the scheming politicians in Convention hall – Chicago.

A crop of his photograph of the political rally. You can see how he cropped it on the contact sheet with the red grease pencil.
Initial shot of City Fathers – Hoboken, New Jersey. Pre-crop
City Fathers – Hoboken, New Jersey after the crop. Note how the figure in the far right has been cropped out.
Frank’s famous “Elevator girl” shot. Pre-crop
Frank’s “Elevator girl” shot after the crop. Note how it is cropped tighter to emphasize the expression on the girl’s face
Frank’s famous “Rodeo” shot- precrop. Note the blue pencil marks on the sides where Frank planned on the crop.
Frank’s “Rodeo” shot after the crop. Note how his crop got rid of the distracting figures on the left and right side of the frame.

Some of Frank’s crops were radical:

“He even extracted two vertical prints, Hotel Lobby – Miami and Movie Premiere – Hollywood from horizontal negatives.”

One of his famous photos from a ball, originally a horizontal photograph. Cropped into a vertical photograph.

Touching upon sequencing again in the book and creating a maquette (a dummy book):

“Working quickly and intuitively, with no preconceived ideas about the subject of each chapter, he sequenced the book, once again laying the photographs out on tables and the floor and pinning them to the walls. As he worked, he established only one rule: if two selected photographs came from the same contact sheet, one would follow the other in the sequence. And finally he made a maquette, 8 3/8 by 9 1/2 inches, with photostats of ninety two of the selected images.”

Takeaway point: Although personally I am not a huge fan of cropping, you can see that Robert Frank cropped many of his photos – some of them quite radically (turning horizontal shots into vertical shots). Therefore if you want to make a photograph more powerful, have more focus onto a single subject, and get rid of distractions, crop your shots.

Learn more: Composition >