Learn From the Masters: Lesson #4 Don’t Crop


“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

Another common mistake a lot of photographers make is that they over-crop their shots. They are “crop-a-holics,” in which you crop every single photograph you take.

I am also a recovering “crop-a-holic.” When I shot on the streets, I would be sloppy. I disregarded framing, as I told myself, “Eh, if I don’t get the shot right, I can always crop it later.”

However when I learned this lesson from Henri Cartier-Bresson (the master street photographer on composition), I decided to give it a try. At first, it was difficult not to crop my shots. But when I gave myself the “creative constraint” of not cropping, it forced me to improve my framing in-camera.

Over the course of a year, I discovered that my framing and composition got much better. I worked harder to get the shots right in-camera, and this caused my photography to improve drastically.

Now I am not saying that you should never crop your photographs. There are a lot of master street photographers who heavily cropped their photographs (Robert Frank did some radical cropping for his seminal book: “The Americans,” even turning some landscape shots into portrait shots with cropping). Also the irony is that one of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s most famous photos (guy jumping over a puddle) is cropped.


Cartier-Bresson’s explanation for cropping the shot:

“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.”

If you are trying to improve your composition and intuitive sense of framing: give yourself the assignment of going an entire year without cropping. I can guarantee you that a year later, your photography will improve dramatically. And if in the future you do decide to start cropping again, always do it in moderation. Very rarely does a poorly-framed photo look better when cropped.

A practical tip for framing better without cropping? Look at the edges of the frame while you’re shooting. Avoid suffering from “tunnel-vision” (only looking in the center of the frame).

At the end of the day, cropping is no evil. I would say crop in moderation, and if you’re going to crop, try to keep the aspect ratio consistent. 

16 thoughts on “Learn From the Masters: Lesson #4 Don’t Crop”

  1. Well, it’s not quite right to say that cropping per se destroys geometries… It can actually SAVE them if it repositions the subject in the right balance within the frame. Still, I hardly ever crop because yes, indeed cropping makes for lazy shooting, and lazy shooting makes for bad work and worse results…

      1. Of course it does. And again, framing in-camera must be the default approach. But again, one should not be a taleban, inlexible. If some cropping/rotating can enhance the geometry of the composition, go for it. What I do not suggest, and I agree with you, is to shoot randomly with later croping in mind, nor mixing and matching image formats…

  2. I have to disagree to some extent, better to get the shot, than to miss it because you were too busy getting the shot level. you just have to shoot more, then you will instinctively see the shot easier.
    I do crop slightly if needed, but it’s likely to be slightly straightening a shot, rather than anything major.

  3. It’s certainly a valid learning tool, just a few more things to round the picture:

    Harold Evans in Pictures on a page calls it a fallacy, a debris from the times when photography was trying to establish itself as art (even if Cartier-Bresson himself couldn’t decide…but he had other reasons to avoid cropping).

    After that it became the mantra of photojournalists who were feeling that sometimes too creative cropping serving either a story point or layout requirements were misrepresenting their photography or reality so it understandably became a no-no in certain circles.

    Second: Cartier-Bresson was heavily relying on using a grid for organising his elements. This grid, the angles, proportions and divisions are dependent on the aspect ratio. Once the aspect ratio is changed, a lot of relationships are not so relevant anymore, sometimes weakening the picture. But then you look at the Gare St.Lazare jumping man and you can see exactly how it was put back on the same grid, even though it’s heavily cropped. I don’t see many people composing using the same grid in today’s street photography (especially with wider lenses), so it’s much less of an issue for them.

    Third: many times the subject matter doesn’t really work with the 3:2 format. Eugene Smith says that (paraphrasing) the world just doesn’t line up with 3:2. He was a keen cropper, also a photojournalist – was he a lesser artist than Cartier-Bresson?

    Fourth: in (portrait and still life) painting often the final painted area of the canvas (and then white outside) is achieved by adding extra space around the bounding box of the subject. This breathing space can be just as important as the subject itself, often suggesting a more airy atmosphere but can also be used as a tool for example in a portrait to make the subject more miserable. Why not keep this as a tool?

    It’s still a good lesson though.

  4. “Avoid suffering from “tunnel-vision” (only looking in the center of the frame).”

    I wouldn’t call it ‘tunnel-vision’ – I tend to think of it as a kind of ‘target-shooting’ mentality: inexperienced photographers tend to think in terms of *aiming* their camera at a subject, rather than *framing* it. This is why I think face detection is actually a great feature for beginner photographers, if it means no AF box in the middle of the viewfinder – it works around the ‘viewfinder as aiming device’ issue.

  5. In unposed rapid street photography why should I let the camera or lens decide what should be in the picture, I’m simply removing what wasn’t part of my subject.

  6. I agree to avoid of crop, even if I like to consider two kinds of cropping: first, it’s a heavily crop that build a different shoot and I think that kind of cropping must be avoided or considered only to improve our vision because the photo will be built in the computer and not in the camera and it’s a consequence of a new considerations; second, it’s a good crop, it means that you are cropping just a bit to fix minimal problem (small angle fix, small thinks on the corner, and so on). I perfectly agree to avoid a tunnel vision and use all the frame from center to border but sometimes there are limits that could not avoided. In my opinion the second type of cropping it’s not so destructive. In any case one year without cropping it’s an interesting assignment.

  7. Yet another rule applied to an art form. Really?

    I just watched a pretty good video over at B&H about composition. The photographer blasted the “Rule of Thirds” and re-labeled it the “Tool of Thirds”. All of these types of discussions should be labeled “TOOLS” and not rules. There are times and places for everything, but calling something an absolute “rule” in art is ludicrous. Of course there are instances when an image can be saved or enhanced if it was judiciously cropped. And yes, there are instances where shooting from the hip will yield a great candid shot – why not? Enough with the rules. Start calling them tools.

  8. As an idea to discipline the self and be more aware of what is happening in the frame it is a good point. However, all photographs are cropped, bar none. As soon as we impose the frame, the most significant element of a photograph, on a frameless world we begin cropping, picking up parts that fit out mental image of what to show. Depending on the format of the capture device, this “crop” changes from 2×3, to 4×5, to 6×6, to 8×10, and so on.

    I suggested an exercise to make one more aware of the frame and cropping. It actually involves forced cropping. If you care to take a look, here is the link:

    Becoming more aware of your frame by way of forced cropping can be a very beneficial skill, try it.

  9. Pingback: 35mm Camera Scanning | shot on film

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