08 August 2015

Camera Trap Photo Tricks 102

Cropping, one of the biggest enigmas of photography.

Cropping can have a huge effect on your photographs. It can either make or break a photograph. I have to admit that I'm definitely not an expert at cropping or framing pictures. Still, I don't let that prevent me from at least trying to find a good crop for the photos I upload to this blog.

Form my (limited) experience the following concepts come to mind when I think about cropping a camera trap photo:
  • What aspect ration will work best?
  • Will landscape or portrait work best?
  • What should be the focus point of the image?
  • How large do I want the animal to be in the final crop?
  • How should I crop the photo to "tell a story"?
  • What are the limiting factor? (For example resolution, border, obstructions, etc.)
There is a lot of information readily available that deals with cropping and framing in general, and I don't want to repeat it here. I would rather try to illustrate some of the common issues I encounter when cropping camera trap photos.

There is a bit of a love hate relationship between cropping and camera trapping. On the one hand you have very little control over the final image, especially where the animal will be in the photograph, as a result the initial (original) crop is usually rather bad. On the other hand you can use cropping to try and alleviate this problem by making a smaller but better crop of the original image.

However in some situations no amount of cropping can save the image...

[Original] Steenbok (Steenbok - Raphicerus campestris) at Koeberg Nature Reserve

Sometimes a little cropping can still make a meaningful improvement. For example, even thought the full animal isn't in the crop you might still be able to do the background scenery more justice with a good crop.

With some photographs the animal is simply too far away. In these situations cropping can be a very useful tool to bring the photograph to life.

[Original] Caracal (Rooikat - Caracal caracal) at Koeberg Nature Reserve

This slightly closer landscape crop still contains the essence of the original image

I think this much closer landscape crop starts to lose the essence of the original image

Sometimes it is worth playing around with the cropping orientation (landscape vs portrait) or even a square crop.

Square crops usually don't look very good, but can be practical, especially for small images

An important aspect of cropping is "telling a story". A good crop can really help to tell the story of the photograph. This is why the portrait crop (below) is my favourite. It tells the story of this Caracal walking across the expansive barren white dunes at Koeberg Nature Reserve.

My favourite crop, striking a balance between the animal, environment and atmosphere/story

Another size related issue is that the animal itself can be just too small.

[Original] Four-Striped Grass Mouse (Streepmuis - Rhabdomys pumilio) at Tygerberg Nature Reserve

An extremely close crop of the mouse

The image above illustrates another big problem frequently encountered while cropping: pixelation. When the crop becomes too small the pixels become more and more noticeable.

Or the reverse, the animal is just too big or close to the camera. In these situations there isn't much you can do to improve the image.

[Original] Bushpig (Bosvark - Potamochoerus larvatus) at Woody Cape section of Addo Elephant National Park

Another useful feature of cropping is that it can help when you need to rotate a photograph.

[Original] Blue Duiker (Blouduiker - Philantomba monticola) at Woody Cape

The rotated and cropped image

Cropping is often used to place the subject in the center of the image and can get rid of unnecessary, non-essential or undesirable parts of the image.

[Original] Black-Backed Jackal (Rooijakkals - Canis mesomelas) at Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve

Not perfect, but a potentially better crop

The photograph above illustrates another aspect of cropping very well, a too tight crop. The image would have been a lot beter if there was more space in front of the Jackal. When possible try to leave the animal enough space to interact with it's environment. This is closely related to "telling a story".

Instead of always centering on the animal's face, it might be better to allow some space to "follow the animal's gaze".

[Original] Grey/Common Duiker (Duiker - Sylvicapra grimmia) at Koeberg Nature Reserve

Not all crops are better, and I actually think the original (above) looks better than the crop below.

This crop didn't come out very well

Sometimes one is lucky and the original photograph "contains" a good crop. For example, the image below can be cropped to a more pleasing aspect ration and the focal point can be moved slightly to the Jackal's face, leaving enough space ahead of the animal to get the feeling of movement.

[Original] Black-Backed Jackal at Suikerbosrand

I feel that the final crop tells the story better than the original

Cropping is a vast area and I've only managed to scratch the surface of it, nonetheless I hope you will look with new eyes at the world of cropping.

[Original] Common Duiker at Koeberg Nature Reserve
"Oh oh, I'm being framed!"


  1. A Fascinating post Henry. As a wildlife painter I feel that I have a slight advantage over many photographers because I know a little about composition from a painter's perspective. For example the rule of thirds which simply means to place your desired focal point at either one third, or two thirds into the frame, never the center.
    One suggestion for an interesting crop with the Caracal; In the origianl photo the large bush on the right hand side is the dominant feature and the horizon line is ideally positioned near the top of the photo. You should not ignore a strong compositional opportunity using those two elements.
    Crop the photo so that the Caracal is near the lower left hand corner of the photo with the entire large bush taking up most of the composition. Try it and see how it looks.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion John. The idea never even crossed my mind. I played around with the crop you suggested and you are right, it works very well. Another great example just how many things can be done with cropping!