Now that Jared Polin and Ken Rockwell and busy with their bromance, we can explore the question of cropping without causing an argument. I’ve watched loads of Polin’s YouTube channel over the years and it’s informed, entertaining advice for photographers at all levels.
But alongside his excellent advice to ‘Shoot RAW!’ (couldn’t agree more), Polin is also fond of saying: ‘Don’t crop!’ and I’ve never really understood why.
While there are lots of forms of photo manipulation I’m not a fan of, cropping isn’t one of them. It’s just one of many, many choices we can make in pursuit of a good shot.
When shooting film, for example, I choose to load my camera with colour or black and white film based on what I plan to be shooting that day. Deciding whether to render the world in colour or not seems like a far more significant manipulation of the final image than whether I shave a few millimetres off the edges.
With digital I have both more and fewer choices available to me. More, because I know that in the depths of my DSLR’s Menu there’s a setting for just about every situation, and fewer, because I know that if the conditions aren’t perfect, I can always play with it later in Lightroom.
(And if you’re against post-processing, just consider how much in-camera computing power there is deciding how the light ends up on your SD card in the first place. Next to that, cropping seems positively lo-fi.)
Our choices as photographers begin before we even see our subject.
Film or Digital?
The Nikon FE or the Canon AE-1?
35mm or nifty-fifty?
Black and white or colour?
Black and white.
Tri-X or FP4?
And I haven’t even left the house yet.
Shooting black and white with a pre-1980s SLR would seem fairly purist, but what constitutes ‘pure’ when I’ve made five consequential choices before I’ve even wound on to Frame 1?
If I want to take a black and white image with my DSLR, my only choice is to take the shot in colour and desaturated it when I get home. It’s something we all do frequently, but I ‘took’ a colour image, and ‘made’ a black and white one.
Taking or Making?
The distinction between ‘taking’ and ‘making’ a photograph is important for this post. Make can feel a little pretentious coming from some photographers (language is a wonderful way to elevate yourself above your interlocutor). But make does better define what a photographer is thinking about when she presses the button.
In the early days, there was a lot of debate about the role of the photographer in photography. In the 19th century, photographers weren’t considered much more than a necessary accessory required to carry the equipment around and, in pushing the button, allow the camera to make the picture. By the 20th century Stieglitz and the Pictorialists were trying to become an extension of the Pre-Raphealites, and Paul Strand and Man Ray were embracing Modernism, but most galleries and art critics couldn’t see the ‘craft’ involved. They still thought the camera did all the work.
In 1966 John Szarkowski defined the role of the photographer in terms of the choices made before releasing the shutter. In The Photographer’s Eye he identified 5 things the photographer has to choose when making an exposure:
the thing itself, the subject of the photo;
the detail, what surrounds the subject;
the limits of the frame, whether to include this lamppost or leave out that tree;
the time, shutter speed;
and the vantage point, if I step a metre to the left, the subject obscures that ugly dustbin.
Once all that is done (and it might be done very quickly), then the photographer can press the button. Half a century later it’s still a pretty comprehensive list, despite the dizzying array of new gear available to us. Our remote lighting set-up still comes under ‘time’, and our vastly improved zoom lenses are still part of ‘the limits of the frame’.
Choice Number 6?
But if Szarkowski were writing today, would he include a sixth choice based on digital post-processing? Would he be lowering his highlights and boosting his shadows like the rest of us?
Darkroom trickery has existed since Talbot got his formula right, and Polin himself talks about dodging and burning clients’ prints when he was a darkroom assistant. How is dodging and burning ok, but cropping isn’t? Even the slightest change to an image is a change to what the camera ‘saw’, and even the choice of leaving a white border around the image on the print changes how the colours ‘pop’, and therefore how the image ‘appears’ to the viewer.
To be honest I’m not entirely sure what Polin means when he says: ‘Don’t crop’, but he has on occasion said: 'crop in-camera' which makes more sense. Robert Capa’s famous statement: ‘If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” defines photography as active, physical; that for all the advanced gear you’re holding in front of your face, there’s no substitute for using your whole body to position the camera to get the shot.
I have no problem with placing a few constraints on your art, it often forces us to be better artists, but if I’m ducking and weaving like a rugby player, and I have to make Szarkowski’s 5 choices in a split second, only to find out there’s a steaming dog shit in the bottom right hand corner of the image, why not take the digital scissors to it?
If you wanted to know why I don't knock off a couple of pieces a day like some artists, this is why...
They take bloody ages! (If you look closely at the table there's actually signs of erosion...)
Growing up I had the standard adolescent fascination with the 'Romantic' ideal of the artist; the drug-addled genius of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Byron swimming the Hellespont, the drunken Jim Morrison stumbling his way to greatness.
Fortunately, we grow up, but I wish I'd read ‘Daily Rituals - How Artists Work’ by Mason Currey when I was in my teens. It looks into the daily routines of artists such as Matisse, Miro, Picasso and Warhol, and other creative minds from a wide variety of disciplines including Nabokov, Le Corbusier, Gertrude Stein, Maya Angelou, Truman Capote, Einstein, Georgia O’Keeffe, HL Mencken, and Federico Fellini.
A few of them fit the archetype of the tortured artiste, living fast and dying at 27, but the vast majority of the 150+ famous names featured treated their work as a 9 to 5 ‘job’.
Nabakov would breakfast at 8am, work until lunch at 1pm, then work again from 1.30 to 6pm. Georgia O’Keeffe liked to wake up “when the dawn comes”, and would work through the day. Matisse would work from 9am to noon, then siesta, then from 2pm to the evening. Joan Miro was up at 6 and in the studio by seven.
There are exceptions; Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, given his subject matter, could often be found sketching in the cabarets and brothels of nighttime Paris. Picasso went to bed late and got up late, as did Pollock.
But the takeaway from the book is that whether our favourite artists, writers and other creatives got up at 5am or 5pm, they were disciplined in their approach to their work. As Barbara Hepworth believed: ‘Art is Labour’.
If I'd have known that when I was a kid, I might have spent less time dreaming about what kind of artist I wanted to be, and more time actually making art.