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.