Cropping for Balance and Satisfaction

Details, University of Texas - Austin, Texas

Details, University of Texas – Austin, Texas

Yesterday’s blog post about Chipotle and the fact that I don’t crop often (in post processing), got me thinking. It’s really silly not to crop, if you don’t like the way a photo is framed. I know there are people who insist that everything must be done correctly in camera, but why? Isn’t the objective to make the most compelling images possible? Why not post process or change the crop, if that improves the photograph. I’ll exclude photojournalism from this discussion, since that subspecialty has a different set of rules.

I’ve recently played with a new camera that shoots natively at a 2×3 aspect ratio, which differs from my generally preferred 3×4 ratio. After cropping yesterday’s photo to 3×4, I went though and did the same to a number of images. And, you know, I liked them a lot better. Also, while there are standard aspect ratios of 1×1, 2×3, 3×4 and 16×9, which are the most common today, there’s no reason to stick with a predetermined ratio. Cropping is a creative tool like image capture and post processing. Crop the way you want to, that works best for the photo.

This reminds me of master photographer Arnold Newman. When I went to his exhibit in Austin, I was pleasantly shocked by how vigorously he cropped to create his iconic portraits. Click here, to look at his famous portrait of Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky, pre and post crop. I think you would agree that his crops made the image.

Details, University of Texas - Austin, Texas

So here’s a photo I made at the University of Texas in Austin — just a detail I saw as I explored the campus. It’s in the default 2×3 aspect ratio. In comparison, the 3×4 crop, which I prefer, is at the top. Everything is identical except for the aspect ratio.

While I could have applied a custom, non-standard ratio, I opted simply to alter the 2×3 to 3×4. I went though several photos that I shot in and around the UT campus and applied these changes. I only changed the crop and their ratios. All other post processing remains the same.

I’ve realized that the 3×4 crops, which I display first, is the one that I like better. I do however realize that some of you may prefer the original crop. But part of this exercise is to learn and experiment. I wanted to show you what I’ve experienced as I went through this process.

Details, University of Texas - Austin, Texas
Details, University of Texas - Austin, Texas
Details, University of Texas - Austin, Texas
Details, University of Texas - Austin, Texas
Details, University of Texas - Austin, Texas
Details, University of Texas - Austin, Texas
Details, University of Texas - Austin, Texas
Details, University of Texas - Austin, Texas
Details, University of Texas - Austin, Texas
Details, University of Texas - Austin, Texas

There are certainly photos that I prefer in a 2×3 ratio. However, this little experiment has shown that small crop changes can greatly increase my satisfaction. And perhaps, years of seeing 3×4 from my Olympus has biased my judgement. However, it’s telling that the classic large and medium format ratios are closer to 3×4 than 2×3. Even when I was starting out, I always found 2×3 either too wide or too tall.

It was Oskar Barnack, the inventor of the Leica camera, who created this 2×3 format from existing 35mm cinema film. He merged two 18x24mm frames to create one 24x36mm frame. Ironically, the original cinema film had a 3×4 ratio, and was similar to the Academy Ratio used in film until it went wide-screen. The movie industry went wide-screen to differentiate itself from television which also had a 3×4 ratio.

Ultimately, there are many ratio standards and infinite ratios can be created. There no one correct aspect ratio, of course. Use the one that you like and keep in mind that it can vary by the image.


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4 thoughts on “Cropping for Balance and Satisfaction

  1. It’s interesting how our eyes like to see things in different aspect ratios. It’s subject dependent for me but for the areas where our interests overlap I tend to like wider. I sometimes shoot in 16×9 and did so more often than not for the better part of a year. In spite of growing up seeing everything in 4×3 on TV (I still watch lots of film noir movies in 4×3), it just doesn’t look right through my lens. I think it’s a weird obsessive-compulsive thing for me – it’s not square and it’s not enough of rectangle, it’s just kind of an in between thing. My brain prefers an extreme – go square or an exaggerated rectangle. The only time I shoot 4×3 is with my iPhone because I’m too lazy to take it out of its case and pop my anamorphic adapter on. Now, if I were shooting headshots I’d absolutely use 4×3 since 2×3 is too tall.

    How images are consumed these days plays a big part in my preference. I want people to be able to click my photos and fill the screen as much as possible (assuming landscape orientation – something lost these days on a lot of phone scrollers). The 2×3 or 16×9 ratios work better for that. I’m probably in a huge minority in how i prefer to consume images in the Instagram generation.

    1. Mike, you bring up a good point about the display aspect ratio. I know that I’ve started to shoot more in the landscape orientation ever since I started to post on the computer. That’s compared to when I used to shoot film and just print my pictures.

      I also notice more people starting to shoot in portrait orientation to optimally display on smartphones. So I get it about optimizing the pictures for display for both orientation and aspect ratio.

      I like the wide angle aspect ratio for movies, because it imitates the width of stage plays. Ideally, I like it so that I don’t see the edges of the frame and that I have to pan my head to see the entire film, just like plays.

      Also for dramatic landscapes, I can appreciate a wide angle ratio, but certainly more than 2×3. 16×9 can certainly add nice drama.

      1×1 can be compelling for its graphic simplicity and purity. I used to shoot that way for Instagram but rarely use it on this blog.

      But in terms of general photography, I like 3×4. I wonder if my mind got trained to that format because of repeated shooting, the same way one prefers a certain focal length.

  2. IMAX is 4/3. I don’t see any complaints there. I sometimes shoot 16:9 just to have that panorama style look. But I always shoot RAW with it so I have the original to go back to. Interesting, thought provoking post Andy.

    1. Thank you, Brett. Interesting about IMAX. And I found out that the IMAX film and IMAX digital ratios are different. Possibly because of technology limitations of digital and perhaps trying to be more compatible with mainstream movies.

      I wonder if the original movie producers and IMAX picked 4/3 based on aesthetics, available film sizes or other considerations.

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