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Improving Our Images through Effective Cropping

Published: 22/07/2019

Manny, of St. Louis, MO, asks:

“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.

Tony Colangelo is a residential and commercial photographer, as well as a photography coach, based in Victoria, BC, Canada. He is a long-time contributor to PFRE and is the creator of The Art & Science of Great Composition tutorial series.

5 comments on “Improving Our Images through Effective Cropping”

  1. The most powerful thing you can do with cropping is to plan on cropping in the field by shooting a little wider, and cropping only "down" from the top corners for interiors. Only zooming in on your lens for example, you would lose from the top and bottom of the frame equally. Cropping from the top down will allow you to keep your camera high enough and level, and also eliminate ceiling.

  2. Number one, are you sure your local MLS "requires" a 4:3 crop? 3:2 is the standard aspect ratio for still images from the camera. Number 2, is the "MLS" the most important avenue for your clients?

    Most MLS's in my area do not allow the public to search and browse their listings. It's only available to members. The only way a non-member can see anything is if their agent creates a curated gallery of properties for them and provides a login. Where your images really need to look good is on consumer facing websites such as Trulia, Zillow and Realtor. Buyer's agents searching the MLS for their clients are going to look at images as a reference to make sure that the particular house meets the requirements of their client but aren't going to appreciate quality images as much. It true that the buyer's agent will likely put that listing in the gallery for their client so the images need to look good enough. In my area the MLS displays a lower resolution than T,Z and R and also steps on the quality with poor quality image processing software. I suspect that nearly 100% of home shoppers are going to be proactive in searching for a home based on what my customers tell me. They get provided lists of homes the buyers want to visit or find out more information about the neighborhood.

    If you want to move to making photos for designers, you need to work with them to know where each project is going, portfolio, website, magazine, etc so you know what you have to deliver. It's a big job to shoot something that will match every situation. Magazines may want right and/or left negative space to place titles and text. A cover shot may need to be composed to match their layout. Other photos may have to be square or an odd ratio. If your client wants images to meet every layout, that's lots of compositional variation on a subject and a bigger production. Charge for it. Chances are that they'll make up their mind about what images they want once they've gone through your estimate and need to pare it down so build that estimate to show those options clearly.

    I've thought of doing the research but haven't yet into how to set up composing lines in tethering software. Chances are that if you are shooting a design job, you will be tethered to a laptop or tablet(s). If you can overlay gridlines for different aspect ratios, that can help you compose for them. You may also be able to create custom templates for a particular magazine's requirements. If you know the first page of the article is right of the fold, you can mark out where you need to have the "meat" of your image. If you need to provide an image for a cover, you can scan an example in and do some instant composites on site to look at how a certain composition might work. All magazines have a style guide and will post it on their business web site or will give you a link if you call them.

    I don't often like having a "blank page" type of assignment. It can be much easier to work to a set of requirements to help guide my work. For my personal projects, I like to give myself an assignment. If I happen to turn around and see a great shot I won't ignore it, but at least I have a starting point and some sort of goal.

  3. Great advice for anyone who hasn't had formal training in composition (in art school, etc). That said, it can become very challenging to honor all the rules mentioned at the same time (rule of thirds, etc) when creating a composition in this manner... either onsite or post. You've mentioned elsewhere that the most important aspect is that you continue to call attention (visually) to the most important elements in the composition. That (imo) becomes the trump card.

  4. I used to crop quite often if I spotted a better composition in post, but as my compositional sense has improved I usually only crop something that was planned while shooting. I guess what I'm saying is that if you concentrate on improving the composition side of things then cropping will come naturally and will be part of your plan while shooting. I feel like I've said the same thing twice!

  5. I think Tony is right in suggesting that you compose correctly on site, however if given the choice between doing a “fake tilt” or cropping down from the corners a’ la Pece then I would rather crop (or save a couple of grand for a TS lens). Normally I will compose correctly then level the camera and shoot too wide knowing that I will crop later. For real estate you will have plenty of pixels to work with.
    Now, tell me if this is true. Zooming is just a form of optical cropping. Will the distortion that you are left with match what is left after cropping down a wider shot? That's how it seems on my equipment anyway.
    If you need a high quality finished product for large prints then by all means do a fake tilt (or get that TS lens). I like the versatility in shooting wide since I rarely deliver anything over 3000 pixels on the long side anyway.

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