Today I want to introduce you to a powerful yet underused technique: close cropping. It is a technique that can be used in a variety of different ways to create an intense connection between the viewer and subject or to create something more abstract. Here, we will dig a little deeper and examine how close cropping can help improve the photos you take.
What does close cropping mean?
We’re used to seeing “conventional” photographs where the subject is neither too small nor too large for the frame. The unthinking photographer does this automatically. Alternatively, cropping in tight is a composition technique that sticks two fingers up at convention and allows us to get much closer to our subject, filling more (or all) of the frame with our subject. It can be thought of as the opposite of negative space, which is a useful technique that relies on the inclusion of large areas that are plain or lightly textured. In contrast, close cropping means filling, or nearly filling, the frame with our subject.
Why, when and how should I use close cropping?
Close cropping offers many benefits. It’s not suitable in all cases, and we’ll examine why later, but when used well it can be an excellent addition to your compositional tool kit. Let’s look at some of the more obvious advantages of close cropping.
1. Get More Subject Detail
It goes without saying that the closer you are to your subject, the more detail will be revealed or captured. Subjects containing fine detail or texture lend themselves really well to close cropping.
The photograph of the printer’s block tray below shows how cropping in tightly allows us to fill the frame with detail without having to show the tray in its setting on an uninteresting wall. Shooting this from farther back would have given the subject context, but at the expense of the detail revealed in each of the tray’s compartments.
In the example below, the car manufacturer’s badge has been photographed from close quarters, revealing a lot of frosty detail that would have been lost had the whole vehicle been included in the shot.
In the example below, the peeling red paint on a door that was subjected to short bursts of extreme heat caught the photographer’s eye. The door and its setting weren’t particularly interesting, but the repetitive-yet-chaotic flaking was. This offered a great opportunity for drawing attention to the character and detail of the door’s damaged surface: the red color, light and shade, sheen of the paper, thin paint, curl of the flaking paint, sharpness where the paint flakes join, etc.
2. Draw Attention To A Specific Region Or Area Of Your Subject
You don’t need to include your subject in its entirety; you can choose to include just your subject’s best bits or just enough of the subject to keep it recognizable while drawing attention to one of its facets. The patina you often see on copper or brass door handles or door knockers can be really interesting by itself. You don’t need to include the entire door handle; just include enough of it to draw attention to the visible effects of its aging.
The plant in the next example wasn’t particularly interesting, but the raindrops clinging to its leaves were. Cropping in tightly has allowed us to fill the frame with the green of the plant, creating a relatively distraction-free background for the raindrops, which are the main focus of the image.
The photo below shows how cropping in tightly has allowed us to reveal as much of the door’s detail as we need – the paint color, the well-used door, the crack in it, the brass door knob – and still include the dog as a subject.
3. Create Abstract Results
Even the most mundane subject can result in interesting or aesthetic photos when you forget about the subject itself and concentrate on one of its facets or qualities: a curve, a shape, a texture, or a reflection. Close cropping is a great way to find such opportunities and achieve abstract results.
In the next example, you’d be hard-pressed to guess that the subject is a cattle grid. The tight crop has allowed us to draw attention to the repetitive bars and the complementary bars of sunlight, rather than trying to convey what the subject actually is.
4. Remove Unwanted Or Distracting Objects
Sometimes your perfect subject is surrounded by ugly items that you can’t move, like telegraph poles, signposts, vehicles, people or trash cans. These could result in an ugly background. In situations like these, crop in tightly to ensure nothing undesirable is included in the frame.
In the example below, cropping in tightly allowed me to exclude several unwanted elements from the scene. I’ve also created the illusion that the clean lines and expanse of painted white boards continue way beyond the edge of the frame.
5. Create Tension
Cropping in tightly allows you to decide what to include and what to leave out of the scene. Nothing creates tension in photographs better than leaving something out of the scene that the viewer expects or needs to see in order to “resolve” the photo. As the viewer wrestles with the lack of a solution, they are forced to spend time asking themselves questions about what they’re viewing.
In the example below, a boy was safely playing amongst some large rocks. Had I photographed him from farther away, the results would have been somewhat uninteresting. By cropping in tightly, the boy seems to be in grave danger, about to be crushed between the rocks.
Summary of Close Cropping
You’re now a bit more aware of the benefits of close cropping and have identified several ways it can enhance your photographic composition. As with all composition techniques, practice makes perfect.
While it’s best to use this composition technique in-camera at the time of shooting, you can also apply it to existing photos simply by using the cropping tool in your favorite photo editing app. Just be aware that you’ll end up with a smaller, lower resolution image after cropping and this will reduce the maximum print size you can achieve.