DevelopLightroom Tips

What the crop? Part 1: Visual tension

Cropping is a big part of editing… of course you are trying to get everything right in the camera, but often in the heat of the moment the framing might be a bit off… or your vision of what you are trying to say with the image changes and the way you crop the picture can give you a completely different feel. The great thing about Lightroom is that the crop is never baked in and you can create and maybe even print virtual copies of the same image cropped different ways to help you decide which way tells the story you want the best.

But there are a few things to be aware of when cropping and in this first part I want to talk about visual tension or the space around and intersecting with the edge of the frame and how important it is.

Let’s start with a simple portrait… you can see the tape marks on the floor and so you can either try to clone them or crop them out. What should guide your decision?


original crop out of the camera

The room between the object of focus and the edge of the frame is very important… crop too close to the object and you create visual tension. What that means is that our brains don’t like that near contact and we actually spend mental energy trying to imagine more space between the object and the frame and our minds think over and over again as if stuck on a loop “I wish there was just a little more space!” That is not what you want your viewer to be focused on, but if you crop too close it will happen… guaranteed.


cropping too close to the feet creates tension and too much space at the top leaves it feeling unbalanced


It is even worse when the head feels cramped by too close a crop at the top

So you will have to become aware of how much space you are leaving for your subject in relation to the frame… too much and it feels tight… too loose and it looks unfinished. However if you start to grasp how interaction with the frame can help clarify or confuse, you can start to use your cropping in the same way a writer uses grammar to help craft the story.


top and bottom have decent spacing, and honestly I think I cropped the bottom of this screen shot too close… still a little tension

Just a warning… once you start paying more attention to how you crop it opens a whole new can of worms. Do you crop vertical? Landscape? More room on the left? etc… We will address some of that in Part 2. 😀




  1. Lance 16 April, 2015 at 18:16 Reply

    I start by cropping the say ration i shoot (unless my brain screens “no square fool”) then i check that it has the visual effect i want. sometimes cropping “wrong” helps get the effect you want (which then makes it the right crop. Like all things in photography, know the “rules” but know when the need to be broken. It helps to know how the brain reacts to different crops relative to the content of the image. Also how it is to be use makes a difference. If you put an image on instagram do you crop it or pad it? this depends on why you are putting it there, i have often not liked either option. I have had people go “you should have cropped it this way” then realise that their reason is because my cropping got the effect i wanted, and it made the feel uncomfortable etc.

  2. Geoff 15 April, 2015 at 17:52 Reply

    Hi Pete, I can’t believe you crop totally randomly with no concern for aspect ratio. Aspect ratio is not only for prints. It is a well established system of ratios, and we are totally used to looking at photos that fit these ratios. There are so many established ratios it is hard to understand why you can’t crop and still maintain one of them; 1:1, 2:3, 3:4, 16:9 and on and on… I think it is very strange that a Kelby website would promote this sort of approach. One of the first things I notice when I see an image for the first time (the reason I clicked on the link and read this blog in fact was because I saw the image and thought, no, he hasn’t…) is if an image has been cropped out of a standard aspect ratio and it never looks good. We are just so used to seeing images with these ratios that it’s best practice to stick to them. Your example shot of the girl is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. it looks ridiculous so long and thin. It would have been easy to recompose and maintain aspect ratio and use Content Aware fill to add a new background. Maintaining aspect ratios doesn’t mean you can’t crop, but totally ignoring aspect ratios is in of itself a cropping decision and generally is NOT an improvement to the image in my opinion.

    • Pete Collins 16 April, 2015 at 11:16 Reply

      Geoff, I have two minds in response… one is that you are totally correct. I crop according to how I feel the image needs to be cropped and then worry about the ratio later if it needs to be worked into a specific size or I find it too distracting… but only in light of where it is going to be displayed and for what purpose. I never proclaimed this is the best way or the only way… only a tip in the way I do it. There is a danger in proclaiming absolutes and making a blanket statements about how things should be done. If you had said… “I don’t agree with the way you cropped that particular image.” That would have been a more constructive statement because it is direct and about a specific instance that we can debate… And you know what? I agree with you completely, that crop was bad and it created visual tension. Sometimes I mess up and get in a hurry and focus on one part of what I am trying to show you guys and forget to check all my edges, etc… even when teaching about cropping it is easy to get tunnel vision and not follow my own ideas. But, when you make overarching comments about the wrongness of teaching folks to crop in a way that differs from your ideals and questioning the validity of what I am trying to share freely with you, you are discounting other peoples viewpoints. Here is one thing that I would love for us all to grasp… We as a people tend to gravitate towards rules and ideals that scratch our personal itch and by default cause other rules/ideals to be lessened in our eyes. Rules/ratios and standards are great and they help us to communicate in a widely acceptable way… but they are not the masters of the image… the master is “What are you trying to say?” the rules etc… are servants to the intent. Intent should always proceed content. What if I wanted to create visual tension and cause the viewer to feel weird looking at my image… a strange crop may be the very tool I use create this… would that be wrong? I will break one set of rules in order to allow the most important rules to win the day… communicating and connecting with my audience. What is the goal of our imagery? To show our mastery of rules and technique or to communicate our hearts and have meaningful interaction with our viewers? Here is an example: What if someone says that the only proper poetry is Shakespearean iambic pentameter.That would imply that all beautiful Haiku’s and any unstructured poetry are not valid or at least less worthy. Some of the best poets are horrible at following the rules, but proper punctuation and grammar never made me weep or try to be a better man. Give me a passionate artist that can’t punctuate worth a damn but reaches my soul over an editor any day. I am a teacher… not a perfect man by any means… my job is to try to help folks understand the principals that will allow them to create what is in their hearts. I never claimed to have all the answers, and that is what keeps me hungry and wanting to learn and share on this journey. Did you disagree with my specific examples? That is quite valid… we can talk about what is the “right” crop on those all day long, and the more folks we brought into the discussion, the more opinions we would get, but to discount my process as not valid because you have deemed one set of rules higher than others is placing yourself as the ultimate arbiter of what is right. That is a pretty precarious position.

  3. Pete Rolly Bala 12 April, 2015 at 13:55 Reply

    That’s a beautiful one as a photographer having this kind of creativity.but what are the importance of cropping in graphics?

    • Pete Collins 16 April, 2015 at 10:05 Reply

      Understanding how the eye/mind perceive composition is just as important in graphics. The spacing of typography and the location of design elements can make or break an image… knowing what causes visual tension and how reshaping or cropping an image can help avoid some of those issues is key.

  4. lyle 8 April, 2015 at 14:15 Reply

    “R” – the “R” key takes you to the crop mode, and out of it.
    “H” – displays/hides the ratio boundaries
    “O” – cycles through various composition overlays…

    When you’re resizing the boundary of your crop – if you hold the ALT key while sliding one of the edges (or corner…), the crop will shrink or grow around the centerpoint of the region. If you don’t – it will slide the centerpoint in the direction you’re moving the edge. You may have spent a lot of effort nailing down the dead center, you don’t have to give it up !

    Cute kid btw. 🙂

  5. Bill Bentley 8 April, 2015 at 11:25 Reply

    Hi Pete. When you’re cropping do you normally have the “maintain aspect ratio” box checked? I’m starting to print a bit more these days and I’m concerned about ending up with a bunch of odd sized prints that won’t fit easily accessible pre-made mats/frames (i.e. 11×14, 12×18, 16×20).

    On a side note, I wonder why 10×15 isn’t a more popular print size. For 2:3 aspect ratio shooters, it makes cropping to fit a standard 16×20 mat/frame much easier than the traditional 11×14 ratio.

    • Pete Collins 8 April, 2015 at 15:32 Reply

      I generally do not set my ratio… I would rather focus on getting the right crop/composition and then have a bit of white border if I needed a specific size for a frame… but then again if I was going to be doing a specific project or a collage I would lock the ratio. It really depends on my needs, and most of the time I need to focus on composition than size. Hope that helps

      • B 9 April, 2015 at 11:28 Reply

        That does makes sense Pete, and it’s what a lot of the photographers in our club tend to do. Most seem to make custom mats for each photograph. I want to be able to switch pictures in and out of my exhibition frames without cutting a new mat each time. The cost starts to add up after a while. Like you said, it depends on what you’re doing with each project I guess. More and more these days I’m trying to get the composition right in camera to help with this issue though.

    • Stephen Cupp 22 April, 2015 at 18:36 Reply

      It would be best for you to get a mat cutter and custom mat your prints. The mat cutters aren’t that expensive and it gives you total control. Don’t let other people control your canvas.

  6. Matt S 8 April, 2015 at 09:07 Reply

    Good start to a subject that is important to most without realizing it and is rarely understood.

    BTW: next topic to consider, when taking picture of children, consider shooting from a lower position e.g. on your knees or butt.

  7. Dennis Zito 8 April, 2015 at 06:55 Reply

    Hey Pete,

    Good info! Looking forward to Part II! This was very timely, as I cropped an image yesterday and knew something didn’t look/feel right about it. I hadn’t left enough space at the bottom!! Off to make the change!



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