I’m all for getting a photograph correct in the camera but I don’t subscribe to the idea that what comes out of the camera is necessarily some golden image by default. That’s a long and convoluted argument that I won’t run down in this post, but suffice it to say that between in-camera variables, processing and printing the old masters of photography did more than a little aesthetic tinkering to produce their masterpieces.
To believe anything other than that is a self-deluded fallacy. A myth. The simple fact is a photographer has the power to define images through context, manipulation, selection and omission. Do they include the man or exclude him? Should they dodge or burn certain areas to lead the eye? Should they crop?
One of the best examples of a reason to crop occurs when shooting 135 (35mm) film. In this case, the photographer may desire to create a standard 8 inch by 10 inch print for no other reason than because it has been an historically popular aesthetic. The underlying rationale is that the 135 negative could be considered too wide for some people’s idea of a pleasant print, while the 8 inch by 10 inch print (much like the 645 format where negatives are 6 centimetres by 4.5 centimetres) has a more amenable dimension. Of course, this is entirely a subjective choice of the photographer who creates the print.
However, an even stronger reason to crop 135 images down to an 8 inch by 10 inch print is that the squatter dimension can offer the photographer creative wiggle room. This can allow the photographer to push a critical element to the side adding tension or to re-organise elements into a desired image. The photographer can shoot an image that contains all of the elements desired for the final print but can also remain free of the constraint that would otherwise mean the (figurative) elephant remains in the frame.
An example of this rationale behind an 8 inch by 10 inch crop comes from the previous image of a bird on the pavement.
As you can see, the two images are very similar but definitely not the same. And as subjective as that difference is there can be no greater power in photography than having the freedom to choose how to present ideas, what to include or exclude, the choice of story and representation of the image’s context. There is no hard and fast rule that says we can’t crop or manipulate images.
I’ve met a few purists who indefatigably argue the opposite. And I appreciate their views. I do. I just think it’s based on some collective naivety about the nature of individual expression with the available equipment and resources. That camera in my hand is just a tool… and one I wield with the kludge of a sock full of sand.
I’m not advocating that people should start cropping to print a certain dimension. Just to consider the option. The crop is no more and no less another tool in a photographer’s well equipped arsenal.