I see it all the time – lens jockeys hacking off pixels and tossing them out like they were last week’s kitty litter. It pains me to witness such rampant cropping with so little regard for the consequences – especially since I know how potentially devastating it is to a photo.
What really makes me cringe is watching people accept a distant subject’s diminutive size in the viewfinder when I know they can attach a longer lens, teleconverter (TC), or even (safely) get a bit closer. Instead, they settle for the tiny critter they see through the eyepiece and attack it with the crop tool once they get it home. After all, why get a high-resolution camera if not for cropping? Right?
In fact, one sickening circumstance that repeats itself with frightening regularity is watching someone show off a recently captured subject that was obviously too far away. Invariably, they’ll present the image on the back of the camera for all to see.
Of course, when I examine the little inset that shows the crop, I frequently notice I’m studying the image at full magnification – the actual subject only takes up an area the size of an AF point. Folks, the only place that ever looks good is on the camera’s LCD screen – it’s a recipe for disappointment back home on the computer.
I know, maybe you think it isn’t as horrific as the picture I’m painting, but I can’t tell you the number of times I’ll find myself side by side with someone using the same gear, only I have a TC attached while theirs is snugly tucked away in their camera bag. Sadly, I’ve found that a teleconverter in a camera bag is about as useful as a politician at a construction site. When I ask why they aren’t using the TC, the answer is always the same, “Oh, I’ll just crop back home, it’s fine.”
Well, it’s not fine if you understand the ramifications.
The problem, in my opinion, is that cropping has gone from something we turn to as a desperate last resort to something we do as a matter of course. It’s crept in like a plague upon our imagery and I think it’s time to expose the toll it exacts on your files. In fact, it always strikes me as funny the way people will obsess about the “best” lenses and gear but then casually toss out all the benefits of those careful purchases with hard use of the cropping tool.
One question that I get all the time is, “Hey Steve, how can I make my images look more like yours?”
First, that’s usually greeted with a blush and thank you on my end, but the truth is one of the main ingredients is filling the frame properly. See that baby iguana below? Guess how much I cropped…Yup, not one bit! (D850, F/5.6, ISO 4500)
I see so many images where people complain about noise levels, absence of detail, inadequate sharpness, or lack of subject isolation. Most of the time these photos all have one thing in common – they were subjected to a heavy crop.
So, Never Crop?
Although the first few paragraphs may hint otherwise, I’m not saying you should completely abandon cropping either. I hack pixels all the time, usually nothing that would qualify as a “deep cut,” but my crop tool certainly doesn’t gather much dust either.
When I crop, it tends to happen in small amounts and with an understanding of the consequences. When I’m out in the field and know the resulting image will see the crop tool, I’ll take steps then and there to ensure the best results. Still, there are times I refuse to take the shot because I know the subject is simply too far away, despite the chorus of shutters firing around me.
Although the image below was cropped, it was not a heavy crop (about 1.3X crop) – plus I followed the advice I’m about to give you to get the best possible results. (D5, F/4, 1/800th for hand-holding, ISO 3200 – which is like ISO 1600 on everything else.)
Additionally, I have no problem with cropping for improved image proportions. Often an 8×10, 16×9 or even 1×1 crop prove a better fit for a given photo than the traditional 2×3 ratio. However, that exception only applies if you’re hacking off just two sides of the photo to create the new proportions. When three or four sides are getting lopped off, then you’re potentially getting into trouble, depending on the depth of your cut.
For example, in the image below I didn’t think the top and bottom were adding much to the story, so I decided to crop with a 16×9 ratio. However, I only knocked off the top and bottom, the rest of the image is intact (D5, 300PF, 1/320th, F/9 ISO 3600).
Another time I tend to rely on cropping is when I need a little extra elbow room in the viewfinder for action subjects.
For instance, when I’m pounding off shots of flying birds, I’ll often favor a slightly looser crop to avoid clipped wingtips and tail feathers. However, that doesn’t mean the bird is a tiny spec in the viewfinder either (I see people take this too far all the time). I try to strike a balance between the framing I want and keeping the entire bird (or mammal) in the viewfinder.
Just so there’s no misinterpretation, below is an example of how I “shoot loose” with my feathered friends as well as the crop I’d likely use afterward (D5, 600mm F4, 1/3200th, ISO 110, F/4).
What happens when you crop too much? Let’s take a look at the following five consequences. After each bullet point, I’ll include some advice for what you can do to minimize the impact of that factor when you’re in the field. These recommendations already assume you have done everything in your power to get (safely and legally) closer, and are using your longest available lens with TC. Always do everything in your power to get more of the subject in the viewfinder.
Also, this isn’t about FX vs. DX vs. M4/3rds – the consequences we are discussing below will have a similar relative impact with any size sensor. The discussion below is meant to serve as a guide to how cropping an image can affect the final output as compared to filling the frame with any given format.
1. Loss of detail
Loss of detail is the most obvious problem of course. The fewer pixels you have on your subject, the less detail you’re able to capture – you can’t beat the physics of it.
In this case, I think a picture is truly worth a thousand words, so let’s take a look at an example. Below we have a pair of toucan shots (same guy). These were both captured with the same camera (D5), lens (600mm), ISO (2800), F/stop (F/4), and both from a tripod. The only variation is a slight difference in shutter speed (1/400th vs 1/640th). Both are, in my opinion, as sharp as the combo can produce and neither saw any cropping at this stage. Processed with the Lightroom defaults (yes I know they could stand some work, but I wanted to keep things even).
OK, so what happens if you want a 3/4 view shot (like the one on the right), but you’re only able to get close enough for the photo on the left? Well, you’d have to crop – probably something like what you see below. (Keep in mind I’d actually retain a lot more of this image since I like the framing of the branches, but for the sake of the example, we’ll pretend we’re attempting to come close to duplicating the framing we have with the image on the right.) In this case, that crop took the image from 20.8MP down to 3.7MP (2384×1589). I know it seems extreme, but I see people crop like on a regular basis!
Pretty obvious we simply don’t have the same level of detail in the image of the smaller toucan! The truth is, there just aren’t enough pixels there to record the detail at the same level as the closer shot. Of course, what matters is output, so in the sample below I adjusted the image dimensions so the eyes from each shot are the same size. This first comparison is the result of downsampling the closer image (left) so the eye was the same size as it is in the farther shot (right).
Note that, despite the downsampling, we still have far more detail in the closer shot (check out the area around the eye especially). Not only that, but notice how the closer shot (left) now seems to have less noise? The reason is simple – when we downsampled the image to fit the smaller dimensions, we also reduced the “size” of the noise too!
What happens if you enlarge the farther image so the eye is the same size as the closer version? Take a look, but keep a barf bag handy.
Once again, there simply aren’t enough pixels to pull of that trick compared to the closer image. And yes, this will hold true even on higher resolution cameras. Although the farther image would have more detail in this scenario if captured with something like a D850, the closer shots would ALSO have more detail than what you see from the D5.
The upshot is that you ALWAYS get more detail when you fill the frame vs. cropping on the same camera.
By the way, notice what happened to the noise level on the farther image when we enlarged it? Yeah, we’ll talk about that during the next bullet point.
Minimize The Impact
There’s not a ton you can do here, short of switching to a higher pixel density camera. The more pixels you can put on your toucans, the better the resulting detail. When faced with scenarios like this and shooting a D5, I’d often switch to my D500 since it puts the same 20 or so MP in a much smaller space (the DX sensor). Nowadays, if my D5 comes up short, I switch to the D850 for the same reason. (However, I’m still always better off filling the frame on the D850 than cropping it.)
Decreasing ISO can also help – and we’ll take a look at that next.
2. Increased Noise Problems
Here’s a downside of cropping that comes as a surprise to many photographers – the more you crop, the worse the noise becomes for any given output. We actually had a glimpse of how that works with the previous example.
Sure, at the pixel level a cropped and uncropped version of the image exhibit equal amounts of noise. Of course, we don’t display our images at the pixel level, we output them to a specific size, either in print or digital form. This means that the fewer pixels you have, the larger those pixels must be for any given output. -Since noise is “mixed in” with the pixels, this results in more obvious noise levels.
For this bullet point, I have some test shots to share that’ll make this more obvious than a forehead pimple on prom night. Here’s the test target, taken from various distances. The first one (left) is the full frame shot, the next is further back and, if cropped to DX, would look just like the first one. The last one seems a little extreme, but the reason it’s here is because I routinely see people crop images where the subject is that size or even smaller. I want to show you what happens when you crop heavily like that compared to filling the frame. These are all with the D850, ISO 3200, F/8, 1/800th second.
Now, let’s take a look at the little gray patch, each adjusted so it fits into a 300 x 300 space (equal output).
First, we have the full frame shot, looks pretty good and needed some considerable downsizing to get the gray patch to fit in a 300 x 300 space.
Next is the one from a bit further back – again, if cropped to match the framing of the first image, this would be a “DX cropped” version. This too required downsampling to fit in the 300 x 300 space, but not as much as the uncropped version. As you can see, for the same output size, it looks good but not as good as the first shot.
By the way, I have zero problem with cropping to DX on the D850 when needed. I don’t like to do it on the D5, but the D850 holds up well.
Finally, we have the more distant shot. In this case, I had to artificially increase the size to get to the same 300 x 300 output. As you can see, it’s a disaster.
This brings me to an interesting side note. I believe one of the reasons I hear so many complaints about noise is due to the prevalence of heavy cropping. As you can see, digging deeper and deeper with the crop tool takes a tremendous toll on your image quality.
OK, I know some may argue that it’s not fair to upsize the cropped shot to compare it to the others. As a counterpoint, consider that in the real world we may have to up-rez heavily cropped files to produce prints of adequate size. However, to keep things equitable, let’s go ahead and compare the noise levels between the distant shot (without any up-sampling) and the other two closer images.
Below, from left to right, we have the full frame patch, then the “DX” equivalent patch, and finally the patch from the distant shot at normal size – no up or down-sampling (it was only 178 pixels across).
The FX and DX equivalent patches look really good since they were downsized significantly, but the far right patch enjoyed no such output benefit and looks, well, lousy. In fact, it looks so bad that I’ll forgive you for thinking maybe I was trying to pull something here.
The thing is, at the pixel level, the noise all looks like the image on the right – even on the full frame shot. In fact, take a look for yourself with the example below. I grabbed a 178 x 178 pixel slice out of the center of the full frame patch and put it next to our distant shot – note the same noise level. The reason we benefit from the full frame shot (or lighter crops) is that the noise isn’t as “large” in our final output as the crop shot. This means the final image appears cleaner.
In addition, the farther back you are from your subject, the smaller the fine detail becomes in the image (as we saw with the toucans). When the relative size of the detail gets too small, it’s overwhelmed and obscured by noise (it can help to think about it as the “size” of the noise relative to the “size” of the detail). We’ll take a closer look at that in the next section.
Bottom line? No matter how you cut it, the heavier you crop, the worse your noise looks for a given output size – print or web.
Minimize The Impact
The solution here is just what you think – employ less ISO when you anticipate a date with the crop tool. One of the first things I do when I’m in a situation that’s going to require a heavy crop is to decrease the ISO as much as I can. I open the lens as much as possible and drop to the lowest shutter speed that will still allow me to maintain acceptable sharpness.
3. Loss of shadow detail
The other sneaky side effect to cropping is like a twin sister to the last bullet point. As we know, for a given output, the noise in our image looks worse the more we crop. Consequently, that also means our ability to recover shadow detail diminishes the tighter we crop.
The reason for this is simple – useable shadows have discernible detail. When you fill the frame, you put more pixels in your shadow areas. The more pixels you have in a given area, the smaller those pixels are relative to the detail in the photo. Since the noise is mixed in with the pixels we want, it’s grainy appearance is relatively “smaller” in relation to those details as well.
Shadow areas are particularly difficult, especially at higher ISOs, since as you pull the shadows, you see a corresponding increase in noise. For example, if you shoot a photo at ISO 1600 and have to pull the shadows by two stops, those shadow areas will appear as if they were shot at ISO 6400! This makes it easy for the noise to interfere with fine detail – especially in a heavily cropped image where detail in the normally exposed areas is already on the verge of being overcome by noise.
This is another instance where I think a photo is really the best way to tell the story. For the images below, I shot a Nikon D850 at 1/400th, F/8 and ISO 1600. I deliberately underexposed the box (my main subject) by two stops to simulate a scenario where you have a subject in shadow and need to pull those shadows up during post-processing. The only difference between the photos is the distance. (Approximate crop shown on the right.)
Now, with the shadows pulled up.
OK, I realize you may look at those two images and conclude I’m taking this a little too far. After all, the box is pretty small in the shot requiring a crop. However, I see people shoot when their subjects are of that size or smaller ALL THE TIME. It’s called “subject fixation” and people often don’t fully realize at the time of capture just how tiny that subject is. However, I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all photographed birds, squirrels, or little critters that were that size or smaller in the frame. You know, something like this:
The trouble is, the heavy crop a shot like that requires exacts a heavy toll on shadow recovery.
First, let’s examine a couple of 100% crops, both 500 x 500 pixels. While the noise level is the same, note the difference in text detail and how, in the tighter crop, the noise is competing with the detail at a much higher level than the frame-filling image. You don’t need Nostradamus in your family tree to predict what’ll happen when we compare output in the next step.
Next, let’s look at this from a comparable output standpoint. Let’s say we wanted to print a 12 x 8 of the image, cropping the farther picture so it matched the closer, properly framed photo. We’ll just go 200 PPI on this one, since that’s all the cropped image can tolerate. Cool?
OK, now let’s examine a small section of each to see what it would look like if we were studying the resulting print. We’ll start with the heavy crop and then check out the frame filler.
Pretty dramatic, right? Although these were both captured at ISO 1600, the properly framed image looks like it has a multiple-stop advantage over the cropped shot in the (pulled) shadow areas. This output advantage would apply regardless of the size or output (print or web).
Bottom line – when it comes to pulling shadows, there’s just no substitute for filling the frame.
Minimize The Impact
The answer here is the same as the last bullet point. When you’re facing a heavy crop, keep your ISO as low as you can to still successfully pull off a shot – especially if you’ll need to pull the shadows.
Let’s see this in action.
When I captured the image requiring a crop at ISO 1600, I also shot one at ISO 100. Here’s that same 12 x 8 output exercise from above, but this time using that ISO 100 shot.
Although it still can’t compete with the full frame ISO 1600 shot for detail, it does show roughly equivalent noise performance. Of course, we had to drop four stops to do it!
4. Loss of subject isolation
Another side effect that’s often not considered by croppers is the loss of subject isolation that you can experience.
After all, as you move back, Depth of Field increases and with it we also see more detail in the out-of-focus areas in the background. This, in turn, causes those areas to appear “busier” in the final image and competes with our subject (i.e. less subject isolation). To demonstrate this, I took out a stuffed kitty and perched him on top of a light stand (no, I didn’t shove the light stand anywhere inappropriate).
This first image was shot at 400mm with my 180-400mm and not cropped at all. (Yes, I did finally purchase a 180-400.)
Now, let’s say that you didn’t have a 400mm lens handy and 180mm was the longest focal length in the bag. So, from the same position, this is what you’d get. You’d have to crop the red square to get the same framing as our 400mm shot.
When you crop, this is the result.
While it’s certainly not terrible, it’s not nearly as “clean” as the background from the 400mm shot at the same distance. As such, the subject doesn’t seem quite as isolated as in the 400mm photo – i.e. it doesn’t have the same “3D” look.
Minimize The Impact
What you can do here really depends on the environment. If at all possible, try to utilize an angle that keeps as much distance as possible between your subject and the background. The closer the background is to your subject, the less subject isolation you’ll appear to have. If you can situate yourself at an angle that puts a more distant background into play, you can often retain a degree of subject isolation in the process.
Here’s a cropped 180mm shot (like what we had above) but with the background about 2X as far away.
As you can see, it’s a bit better and almost as good as what we had with our original 400mm shot. However, I was dealing with a stuffed cat on a stick – real animals are frequently more difficult to manipulate. 🙂
5. Too Much Distance
In addition to all of the above, there are other considerations as well, especially for the long glass shooters that frequent this blog.
If your subject is so far away that it requires a massive crop to pull off a shot, then you’re also putting a lot of “atmosphere” between you and the target. This makes problems like heat diffraction far worse than with closer critters. Couple that with increased output noise and fewer pixels on your subject and you’ll be lucky if you can differentiate it from a smudge on the glass.
Here’s an example of what happens with a distant subject when heat diffraction gets involved.
Minimize The Impact
The biggest “atmospheric” problem is typically caused by heat distortion or “heat haze”. I have a video all about it here if you want more info.
The upshot is that your best bet in this scenario is, if you can, move to a location where you’re shooting over a shady rather than a sunny area. When the sun hits the ground, it warms the surface, stirs up the air, and you end up with less than ideal conditions for a distance shot. By keeping as much shady ground as possible between you and the target, you’ll keep the problem to a minimum. Obviously, this isn’t always possible, but short of changing the laws of physics or moving in closer, there’s not much else you can do.
For this image, the sun had been behind the clouds for a bit with only a touch of brightness breaking through. This meant no heat diffraction and a much sharper image.
So, how much cropping is too much?
This is tough to answer because everyone has different levels of quality they deem “acceptable.” Some people are perfectly happy with the results of a heavy crop while others would relegate that same image to the trash bin without a moment’s hesitation. Plus, there are times you simply want proof you saw something extraordinary and a heavily cropped image is your only choice. So, I’ll share my guidelines and how I think about it below, you can take it from there. 🙂
The best bet is to get the image in the field within spitting distance of how you want the final framing to appear. For my wildlife work, my very general rule of thumb is that I want the animal itself taking up a minimum of 1/3rd of the frame – preferably 2/3rds.
Of course, this also depends on the amount of background and surroundings I want in the final image as well. I often want to show some of the subject’s environment and not just a tight shot of the overall critter.
To decide just how much of a scene should be included with the subject is actually pretty easy – simply ask yourself if the additional elements of the scene are contributing to the story you want to tell with your photo. If they are, keep them, if the story is the same (or worse) without them, then banish them from the viewfinder.
For the image below, the elk’s environment is almost as important to the success of the shot as he is. This image never saw the crop tool.
Ideally, try to keep cropping down to less than 25% of the overall image back home on the computer (certainly try to keep at least 50% of the image). I realize that’s not always possible, but if you anticipate 80% or more of your pixels will end up on the virtual cutting floor, you know you have a problem.
What can you do when you simply can’t fill the frame adequately?
My strategy is to turn to longer lenses, high-quality TCs, or try to get closer. None of those work? Find a new subject. Seriously.
The thing is, sometimes there just isn’t a shot. When you’re trying to photograph a red-tail hawk at 200 yards with a 300mm lens, you’re setting yourself up for some self-inflicted photographic torture. Yup, it sucks, but that’s the game.
The thing is, eventually you get to the point as a photographer that you no longer want to wade through hundreds or thousands of images that are simply not up to par. I see it all the time in the field – the more seasoned the shooter, the more likely they are to walk away from a distant, no-win scenario.
On the other hand, if you think you can capture a useable image, remember the potential pitfalls and leverage the techniques mentioned above to give yourself the best possible chance of a keeper when you get back home.
(By the way, I’ve had questions about using a TC vs cropping – see this article for why a TC is usually better.)
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