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Penn[sylvania] on the picket line-- 1917.

[Detail] Penn[sylvania] on the picket line-- 1917

Composing and Cropping Photographs

Photographs provide a visual record of events, people, and places. However, decisions made by the photographer affect that record . First, the photographer decides what to photograph and how to compose the picture. Composing the picture means deciding how the photograph will look, a decision that is actually many smaller decisions taken together.

One decision affecting composition is where the director is located when taking the picture: close to the subject, to the right, to the left, on the ground, from above, etc. The photographer also decides where in the picture to place the subject. Many photographers believe a photo is more interesting if the subject is not in the center of the picture. Instead, they imagine a tic-tac-toe grid placed over the image and try to place the subject at one of the points where lines intersect. This is called the Rule of Thirds. According to this rule, if there is a horizon in the picture,whether an actual horizon where land meets sky or an artificial horizon created by a strong horizontal line such as a road, it should be located closer to one of the horizontal lines of the grid than to the center of the picture.

Another aspect of composing the photo is framing, deciding what details should be included in the photograph. Framing includes deciding how much background or foreground to show in the photograph and determining how close to get to the subject. Another aspect of framing is deciding whether to make the shot horizontal or vertical (landscape or portrait).

When a photograph appears in a publication, the editor may crop the photograph. That means the editor may decide to change the framing by cutting out some portions of the photograph. The editor may cut out part of the foreground because there isn’t room for the entire picture, to make it more visually pleasing. The editor may cut out something to keep the viewer’s focus on other elements of the picture. Composition and cropping can both have powerful effects on the meaning a viewer takes from a photograph.

As an example, look at the photograph below.

  • What do you notice about the composition and framing of this picture?
  • What is the subject of the picture and where is it placed?
  • Is there a horizon? Where is it placed?
  • Why do you think the photographer chose to include the other two photographers in the frame of this picture? How might the meaning of the image be changed if the photographers were not shown?

Next, look at the picture below. The notes provided with the picture say that a cropped version of the photo appeared in The Suffragist in June 1916. Read the “Notes” on the photograph provided in the collection so that you have all the background available.

  • Does this photograph follow the Rule of Thirds? Explain your answer.
  • Do you see any problems with the framing of this picture? Why might the picture be framed in this way? (Remember that photographic technology did not allow zooming at the time these pictures were taken.)
  • Imagine that you were the editor of The Suffragist. How would you crop the photo? Would your reasons for cropping be aesthetic (having to do with the visual appeal of the image) or substantive (having to do with the message conveyed by the photo)? Explain your answer.

Note the two horizontal white lines on the photo, as well as the vertical line on the right side of the picture. Try cropping the picture along those lines, either in hard copy or by saving the picture and opening it in a graphics program. Evaluate the effectiveness of this cropping, especially in terms of composition.

Browse the collection. Find one photograph that you think is composed especially well. Print out the picture and annotate the features of the composition that you think are done skillfully. Also print out a photograph that you think is composed poorly. Annotate the features of the composition that you think could be improved.