“I’ve been shooting real estate for a couple of years and I’m getting curious about shooting for interior designers. I like the idea of working with a creative, including not being tied into the 4x3 aspect ratio that’s required by my local MLS. Is there any resource out there that can help with learning how to do better crops?”
Manny, there are a couple of points that I’d like to make. First, yes, you are correct that it can be frustrating to be tied down to a set aspect ratio within MLS; one that is set for landscape (horizontal) orientation. Recently, PFRE posted an article by Pierre Galant, in which he made the case for images that are in vertical orientation. Before we get into some suggestions on how to improve cropping, though, I want to point out that, even when working with designers, architects, and builders, you must still keep in mind that you don’t have free reign to crop everything the way you want.
Indeed, many such build professionals will require certain aspect ratios, as well. For instance, many will want to highlight a certain project in a magazine advertisement. Often, the publisher will want to see some “negative space” in one of the shots so as to allow for the placement of text. I was told by a designer, shortly after transitioning from real estate photography to this type of client, that publishers often prefer 4x5 and 1x1 aspect ratios. Build professionals are also interested in submitting photos from their project(s) to their region’s annual builders’ association awards. In my area, the jurors in these competitions will often require at least one image cropped to 4x5 or 7x10 to be used for promotional reasons on the building association’s website. I'd imagine this scenario holds true in regional building associations elsewhere, as well.
With all that said, Manny's question remains... how does one improve their real estate images via cropping? I would suggest that a starting point would be to first improve your composition skills. If your composition is off (i.e., a sofa is placed dead-middle of the shot and the back of that sofa is eating up 50% of the image), then there’s going to be very little you can do, via cropping, to improve the photo. Being familiar with various composition types like rule-of-thirds, leading lines, one-points, etc., will allow you to make better decisions about what to keep in the shot and what to crop away.
One of the best ways to improve your cropping is to ask yourself this question: “Does the ¼-inch or ½-inch at each edge of the frame truly add any value to the shot, as a whole? If it doesn't then you can crop that amount away. Then, ask yourself the same question again. Another way of asking this question is: “Does the viewer need to see as much of that fridge door on the right edge of the shot for them to know that a fridge is there?” Or “Do they need to see as much of the ceiling at the top of the shot?” Ideally, you would be asking these types of questions on-site, at your shoot. If not, then these are helpful questions to ask when cropping, too.
Manny, the final suggestion I’d like make is to familiarize yourself with the various crop overlay tools available in Photoshop and Lightroom. Yes, more often than not, using the standard rule-of-thirds grid that shows up when you open the crop tool in those editing programs will be immensely helpful. However, there are other overlays that can also help you put the finishing touches on your crop and I’d strongly encourage you to cycle through them and see if one of those overlays "fits your eye" better when you're making a final decision on cropping.
One last note, please understand that I'm NOT advocating shooting the scene ultra-wide and then cropping in post. I think this breeds bad habits and cuts into our creativity as photographers (e.g., we're likely to be inclined to give less thought to camera angle). Indeed, shooting UFWA brings more and more wide-angle distortion into play (especially in tight quarters), and once the photo is taken, that distortion is locked in and is not something that's easily cropped away.
Anyway, I look forward to hearing the community’s thoughts on this topic.