Why cropping is the last thing you should do

One image, five different crop ratios. How do you know which one you’re going to need, not just now, but way in the future?

Cropping a photo is usually seen as a creative choice, but in the real world it’s not always quite that simple. Very often, you need to produce an image to fit a specific display size or aspect ratio, and it’s comparatively rare to be able to choose that yourself unless you publish your own website or frame your own pictures.

Creative cropping

Most cropping advice is all about composition, visual effect and artistic appeal. That’s fine, but it can produce images with proportions that are difficult to deal with when you want to share your pictures with the outside world. Your favourite landscape shot may look best with a 16:9 widescreen crop ratio, but that’s not much help if later on you want to print it as a borderless A3 print – this has a much squarer aspect ratio that would mean slicing off the sides of your picture.

A panoramic image is one instance where the ‘creative crop’ takes precedence. Most of the time, though, we need to be more practical and keep our crop options open.

There are many situations where the ideal ‘creative’ crop ratio has to take second place to the practicalities of how and where the picture is going to be displayed.

Fitting photos to frames

When you want to hang a picture on a wall it is possible to get frames made specially or to cut your own bevelled mat to create a frame within a frame, but this can be an expensive or time consuming process, as frame making and mat-cutting are quite skilled jobs (though satisfying in their own way).

It’s a lot easier to fit a photo to a frame than it is to fit a frame to a photo. Photo by Bhaumik Kaji on Unsplash

So it’s generally more convenient to get a ready-made frame and matte and then print a photo to fit those proportions. It does mean you have to choose the image crop for practical rather than artistic reasons, but often that’s not too bad a compromise.

Supplying photos to publications

If you’re lucky enough to get your pictures in print, the crop ratio will usually be chosen by the designer and the editor, not by you. So although they might do their best to accommodate your chosen crop, it’s more than likely they’ll need some leeway to make the image fit the page layout.

It’s fair enough to crop out redundant details at the edge of the frame before submitting photos for publication, but extreme ‘creative’ crops won’t always work. Even if you’ve chosen a creative crop for hanging on a wall for exhibition, you may need to supply a different crop to a publisher.

Sharing on social medial

Social media platforms brings its own problems, especially Instagram. You’re no longer confined to a simple square crop, but these still look best in an Instagram feed, so you might need yet another crop ratio when you publish your favourite images here.

Images on Instagram look better square, so it’s always good to keep your cropping options open.

Online galleries

Like it or not, the square crop ratio has become a favourite for gallery thumbnail displays, so you might want to think about how a squared-off version of your image is going to look in these situations.

Many websites and design themes will impose fixed aspect ratios on thumbnails and ‘featured’ images too, so here is yet another crop ratio to take into account.

Don’t crop until you need to

So given all the different aspect ratios you may need for different printing and publishing platforms it makes sense to delay cropping your photos until you’re producing an image for sharing – and you may need to create several different versions with different crops for different needs.

This makes non-destructive photo-editing software all the more attractive, since any cropping you apply can be undone and redone at any time in the future. You can create as many virtual copies as you like with different crop ratios, or just re-crop the original image to the size you need, when you need it.

Nice retro border effect. Unfortunately it’s applied to a 3:2 ratio crop, so it’s no use to me on Instagram or a 16:9 screen. This is where non-destructive photo-editors earn their keep!

This applies to frames too

Frame and border effects can really enhance the look of an image, especially when you’re going for an ‘analog’ feel but if you apply one using ‘destructive’ tools such as the Nik Collection plug-ins, you’re stuck with it – specifically, you’re stuck with the crop ratio you chose when you added the frame.

Non-destructive editors are even more useful here, and in Alien Skin Exposure X4 and ON1 Photo RAW 2019 you can add border and frame effects which can be reversed and/or re-applied when the crop ratio is changed.

Non-destructive editors have their own drawbacks, such as not being able to view your changes outside of the software that created them without exporting new files, but when it comes to outputting different ‘crops’ of your photos for different platforms, they save a lot of time and effort and keep your options open.

So by all means apply some basic and necessary cropping to straighten your images and cut out any junk at the edges, but save your ‘creative cropping’ until you know how you’re going to use them.