I have been thinking lately about how the crop of a photograph impacts the overall viewer experience and enjoyment of the photograph. There are some standard crop sizes, 8 x 10, 4 x 6, 11 x 17 just to mention a few. I guess with the advent of digital photography and the inkject print as an acceptable end product, you could even count 8.5 x 11 as a standard crop size. These sizes come from either the available sizes of printing paper, or the aspect ratio of the media you are using in your photography. While I don't think there is a right or wrong answer that fits every photograph in every situation, I do feel that there are some important factors for the photographer to consider when deciding whether to go with a standard crop or go off the reservation with a unique ratio.
So, why do we crop our photos. I think the main reasons to crop a photograph is to eliminate some unwanted element in the photograph, or to position our subject in a different place in the photograph and to get the photograph to fit the media. Let's explore these.
Some of the oldest mantras in photography are, "Fill the frame" and, "If your photos aren't good enough, then you aren't close enough". Photographers continue to say these things because, for one, they are true, and most photographers don't follow them. Amateur photographers tend to get tunnel vision and can only see the intended subject through their viewfinders. We will take a photo of a beautiful flower, placing it right in the middle of the frame, never noticing the "No Tresspassing" sign in the upper left hand corner. We get mesmerized by its beauty. There are times when a two headed elephant could walk in the background, and we would never notice. We get the print back, or review the shot on our computer, see the sign and sigh. What to do to save this shot. Simple, crop it out.
Another photographic subject is overall composition. One of the first things photographers learn when moving from the snapshot arena to the photograph world is "The rule of thirds". Basically, the rule of thirds is this. Take an imaginary viewfinder and draw two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines in the rectangle. The composition of the photograph will be stronger if the subject is placed where the lines cross as opposed to dead center. As simple as this sounds, it rarely happens. Most of us put the subject right is the center of the frame. I mean, why would the camera makers put the best focus point in the center of the frame if that's not where the subject is supposed to go? Again, we take our photos, review them on the screen, smack our forehead with our hand and say to ourselves, "Why does my photo look so lifeless, so static?" So, how do I move Fido from the center of my shot to on of the "Rule of Thirds" cross-hairs. Simple, crop the photo to move the subject.
The third reason to crop a photograph is to get it to fit the intended print size. Most digital sensors and 35 mm film have a 4 X 6 aspect ratio. So, if we want our prints to fit on the standard 4 x 6 print that you can get at any drug store or Walmart, nothing needs to be done. Simply take your memory card out of the camera and tell the technician to print the photos. Everything in the file (or on the negative) will be printed. No problems! But what if you get one of these prints back and think, "This would look great as a framed 8 x 10 print." Now there are problems. If you go to these same print places and ask for an 8 x 10 enlargement, the technician will simply center the print and crop some off the top and the bottom and print away. This is not a problem if you centered your subject, as it will stay centered. What if you practiced good composition and put your subject in the lower third of your shot? If you crop some off the top and bottom of the frame, your subject is now almost in the corner of the shot, not in the lower third.
One solution to this problem is to crop the photo yourself. You can use your photo editting software to pre crop the shot to the desired ratio. This way you get exactly what you want. With the advent of the Internet, you can even upload your cropped shot to online printers and get your shots within a week. Ain't life grand? What happens, though, when you want everything that is in the shot on the print?
When your shot is perfect as is, the only way to solve your problem is go with a non standard crop / print size. In the 4 x 6 aspect ratio example, an enlargement would be 8 x 12, or if you wanted it to fit on an 8 x 10 piece of paper, you could print at 6.67 x 10. For those of you that have visited an art store lately, you are probably ahead of me on my next point. Try and find an 8 x 12 or a 6.67 x 10 mat for your favorite frame. 8 x 12 is difficult, if not impossible to find. All is not lost though.
If you are printing for personal use only, print on whatever size you want, as all you have to do is go to the art store and get a custom mat cut for your shot. Sure, it costs more than a standard "off the rack" mat, but to get the shot the way you want it, who cares? Problems arise for the professional though.
I use a service called Zenfolio to host my photos. Zenfolio uses MPix amongst others to fill customer orders. MPix has a wide variety of sizes to choose from, but, if you want a unique size / ratio, you have to shrink the photo to fit on a standard piece of paper. So, like the above example, to get my 8 x 12 print to fix, I would have to print it as a 6.67 x 10 print. The other option that MPix gives you is to choose to crop the shot to fit on a standard piece of paper. This is not an issue, but what if a wedding client wants an 8 x 10 of the wedding party, but to get it to fit they have to crop off one of the bridesmaids and groomsmen. Not a great solution.
So, what is one to do? I don't think there is a "one size" fits all answer. If you are printing one shot, whether it is for a photo album or for a fine art print, make a crop that gives you the best shot / composition, then, if framing, get the photograph a custom mat and frame. For the professional using an online order fulfillment company, crop the shots to standard print sizes. If you have to provide multiple crops for the same shot, do it. There is nothing worse than having an upset customer because he or she decided to let the order company crop your shot.