Wednesday, May 11, 2016

On Cropping

This is a thing that pops up from time to time. I'm pretty sure that if you search this blog you'll find me talking about it, possibly saying contradictory things. The argument, when it's stated coherently, goes something like this:

If you find yourself cropping after the shot is made, in the sense of trying to find a way to crop the picture so that it works properly, then you have failed. This is because you did not get a functioning picture to start with, when it was possible to change certain elements (your position, the timing) to make the picture as much as it could be. If you happen to find a crop, now, that functions, it is extremely unlikely that the picture is all that it could have been. Had you seen the best crop in the moment, you would likely also have seen that a slight movement to the left, and exposing a beat earlier, would also have improved the thing.

This is a fine argument. I have made it myself.

It contains a planted axiom, to wit: every picture you make should be as good as possible in and of itself. This is the "single iconic image" fallacy.

The single iconic image is dead, it's an irrelevancy. Almost no serious photography is presented in this way any more. Everything is a series, a porfolio, a book, a sequence, a collection of related pictures. There are exceptions, of course, but they're rare, and often as not they're simply a single picture removed from its context because 20 Important Pictures sells more easily and for a larger gross amount than an Important Collection of 20 pictures.

Given that, we now have a situation in which exploration after the fact is a vital part of the process.

On the one hand, you probably need to (eventually) have some sort of coherent idea when shooting, otherwise your pictures are just a jumbled mass of unrelated crap. Which you still might be able to dig something out of, to be fair, but it's probably harder, and it's not likely to be as good as if you'd shot with an idea in hand.

On the other hand, in the detail of work of building sequences and collections, you will almost certainly find that the original crops were frequently wrong. Frames which anchor the idea, or set a theme, might be perfect as-is. Frames that provide the harmony, that connect one motive to the next, frames that echo a theme, these will probably need to be reworked.

This same applies to all aspects of the picture that can be reworked in post. Indeed, it would often be advantageous to reshoot the thing entirely, but this may not be possible. When not possible, a re-crop, a rework of tonality, a different dodging scheme can come in to help a picture pull its weight in the context it finds itself.

In a way, these two statements are the same:

Re-cropping in post is bad, it indicates a failure to have a clear idea of the frame when you shot it. Dodging, burning, tonal adjustments and so on, however, are OK when used to clarify the original idea. The clear idea allowed you to properly place the elements in the frame as it shot, post processing should merely clarify, refine, expand upon, and emphasize the important aspects of the idea(s) you started with.

Trying to find an idea in a mass of pictures indicates a failure to have a clear idea of the work when you shot it. Cropping, tonal adjustments, and so on to individual pictures in post is OK when used to clarify the original idea. The clear idea allowed you to correctly shoot material to support it, post-processing of individual frames as well as arranging those frames should merely clarify, refine, expand upon, and emphasize the important aspects of the idea(s) you started with.

The first applies to what I maintain is a nearly dead form, and the second applies to what I claim is the universal form of modern serious photography.

However, let me remark that the single iconic image lives on, at least for me, in those anchor frames, the pictures that set the themes and ideas. It is the other pictures that must be bent to fit.

I think. Not sure. But it sounds good to me at the moment.


  1. "Trying to find an idea in a mass of pictures indicates a failure to have a clear idea of the work when you shot it."
    An idea - that sounds like a concept, something that is expressed by means of words. Pictures, on the other hand, convey so much more. My projects (explorations of places) are driven by the desire to express a certain aesthetic; if you asked me, what it is, I probably wouldn't be able to explain it. From the mass of pictures taken, I try to edit down a set which conveys the aesthetic expression best (or better, which makes it appear in the first place). This, in turn, acts as feedback for further work on the project.
    I hope that this doesn't sound like arty bollocks. I just wanted to explain that at least for my work, a clear idea isn't possible. It's more like an iterative meandering which hopefully converges to a finished work.

    1. That is pretty much exactly how I work. The idea need not be expressible in words, although generally I think one ought to be able to talk 'around' the idea some.

      And no idea survives contact with the enemy. It's going to evolve continuously until you simply declare it done and press Print (or wherever it is you do at the end).

      It's having some sort of goal that I think matters. The contemporary habit of simply wandering about looking for 'good pictures' is what I oppose. It can be fun, entertaining, and so on, but it's not likely to produce anything of weight.

  2. Why is the single iconic picture dead? I don't understand that.
    (If you already have a post discussing that, I would appreciate a pointer).

    1. Sure, how does this post work for you?

    2. Thank you for the link. I am not really convinced by the article, however. There are still iconic images made: the World Trade Center hit, the tanks at Tienamen square come to mind. In a different style: Steve Jobs portrait, Steve Mc Curry Afghan girl. I am sure one can find others.
      Maybe it just takes time for an image to be recognized as "iconic", and that would expect why the majority of them are rather old.

    3. You're welcome!

      Let me point out that the iconic images you cite were made in 1984, 1989, 2001. With the exception of the Jobs portrait (You mean, I dare say, the 2006 portrait by Watson?) these are all from another era.

      Interestingly, the Tiananmen Square tanks picture, by which I assume you mean the man in the white shirt standing off the tanks, is not a single iconic image at all. There are many variants of that picture floating around out there, and we tend to conflate them all. The event was iconic, and we all have a mental image of the man in the white shirt, but there's no single photograph that is the icon here. While those pictures substantially predate the modern era, the density of cameras on the scene provided a sort of preview of the modern world in which everything is photographed, over and over, no single picture is the distilled essence that everyone recalls.

    4. I think that "Anonymous" is right that these pictures are iconic, but I don't think that this contradicts the point made in the blog post. The difference is that the cited pictures are more on the journalistic/documentarian side. They document events which changed the direction of global politics, and thus are of general interest to us all. The blog post, however, deals with art photography (at least I understood it this way).

    5. Perhaps I am splitting hairs but I think there's an important difference between a photo of an iconic event and an iconic photo.

      There's some sort of overlap, I guess? The Jobs photo does seem to be iconic in some meaningful way, but it gathers much of its weight from its subject.

    6. Yes, that is what I meant: The pictures mentioned by "Anonymous" are iconic because they show something significant to us, not because of their artistic quality. Your blog post most likely dealt with iconic pictures which are outstanding because of their aesthetic quality, even if the photographed subject is mundane (e.g. "Moonrise over Hernandez"). This is an entirely different kind of animal. So both of you are right, but you don't talk about the same IMHO.

      The overlap would be e.g. the work of W. Eugene Smith, where interesting stories are delivered in an aesthetically compelling way.

  3. now u have me visiting mr. tiens blog to :D Why would u cripple ur self by not cropping? i understand why he don't crop the first picture in his crop or not post. but the second one as he states is the best example not to crop, i would crop away(delete) none of the frames appeal to me.

    If the center frame did excite, i would crop the red haired lady out in a flash.

    what i really dont understand is the hole narrow minded approach to photography. That crop or not post is for me a fine example why u should crop if it makes sense.

    I kinda like ur ping pong with mr. Tien. it makes u reflect ;)

  4. I can’t agree with you about cropping in post (and you seem to waver, anyway). What you’re saying reminds me of the hair-shirtery of analogue photographers who bemoan the unearned ability of the digital mob to ape their noble processes with the click of a mouse. “Get it right and get it right in camera! Then you’re a real photographer!” And yet, as we know from published contact sheets with crops penned onto them, even famous analogue photographers made their final crop choices post hoc.

    Then there’s the question of the camera format itself. My Canon offers me a view of the world bound by its 3:2 viewfinder, but I’m not compelled to take photographs with those proportions in mind. In fact, the photographer usually knows that the photo as taken may be contain extraneous junk (even if it’s just empty space). You crop mentally, no? Or, as you suggest, consider and reconsider the crop with the benefit of hindsight and shifting purpose. The great luxury of working in post is having time to think.

    As for your claim that the ‘narrative’ is all, I am not sure if that isn’t just the current obsession of photoliterati, editors and curators, and will pass, like most things (including ‘found photographs’). I think ‘narrative’ can be a feeble excuse for the slinging together of a lot of tosh. See Jörg Colberg’s piece on ‘aboutness’:

    As for being able to talk about what and why one is photographing, this ex-academic finds relief in not having to justify or explain everything I do. The workings of the unconscious mind are very hard to fathom and we should celebrate that fact. Talking about one’s photos is always a form of post-hoc rationalisation in any case, and although I’ll happily do so, I am always concerned that by discussing my work I am in some way changing it.

    As for me, I believe in trying to create a body of work where there is a discernible consistency in subject matter and technique, and where individual photos can stand on their own. I don’t want to moralise or politicise and I am not interested in ‘issues’. Not in photography, in any case. Art for art’s sake, that’s me!

  5. Some of you are missing the essence of the anti-cropping argument. I do not hew to it, but it is a coherent argument, I promise.

    If you believe in composition, the placement of objects in the frame, then the only way to accomplish the correct placement of objects in the frame is to have the frame first, no?

    You can't move the objects around in post (well, you can, but then you're a painter, not a photographer). Therefore it is extremely unlikely that objects which you placed in one frame, or in no frame, will magically be perfectly placed in some new post hoc frame.

    You might hit it every now and then, sure. It's just not likely. More likely, you will improve a failure but not enough.

    On the one hand it is a "get it right in camera" argument, but it's a pretty strong variant. Your job as a photographer is, arguably, to place objects in a frame. So best you have a frame.

    Painters rarely smear paint on canvas willy-nilly, and the chop out the best bit, after all.

    Anyways. That's the argument. A good part of what I wrote above is a counter-argument.

  6. What is the substance of the 'frame' you refer to? A mental construct? A previsualisation (sic)? Does 'frame' = 'crop'?

    I'm not sure paintings are a useful analogy, given that painters don't click their images into being and may make endless preparatory sketches. The creative processes are very different, are they not?

    1. The frame can be purely mental, yes. I know of no argument that makes sense for insisting that the only frame which you can use is the physical edge of the film. That argument is made, frequently, of course, but I cannot make any sense of it, and it appears to me a rationalization of imagined virtuosity.

      I frequently compose for square inside a whatever viewfinder. For example.

      Painting is quite different, but I think that with digital and chimping there are some interesting analogies. None are relevant here, my remark above is a throwaway.

  7. i understand the strive to frame right in camera and the different looks off af 24mm compared to a 200mm. both for sharpening ur skills n learning to see the frame. but other than that i still think its an argument that restricts ur artistic expression. like having 3 dimensions available n argue why u should only use 2 of them.

  8. and i get that its not ur argument ;) u do take the same argument and place it in a new context though as u make a new box to restrict ur self. ur group off picture approach is for me just a new way to restrict ur self. IMHO

  9. A very interesting conversation. In terms of Iconic Photographs, a large community of underwater photographers recently asked the question what are the 10 most iconic underwater photographs and most folks couldn't name even 3. As for cropping there are crop Nazis in the UW world, no photo that gets cropped should ever be shown; me personally I crop all the time.

    1. Huh. That's very interesting! I know nothing, of course, but my conception of it is that getting a decent picture of whatever it is, at all, is kind of the end game. Shows what I know!

      As for uw icons all I can come up with is the prow of the Titanic. And does that even count?