To Crop or Not to Crop?

Candid street photography of a jeans mannequins in a shop window on Regent Street, London. Taken by London street photographer Darren Lehane.

Street photography and its rules.  There’s nothing like it to create fierce debate, animated discussions and even falling outs.  One such area is whether street photographers should crop their photos or not.

The Integrity of Vision

We can blame Henri Cartier-Bresson for this.  Like a lot of the rules that purist street photographers live by, a lot of them did seem to stem from Uncle Henri.

This is what he had to say about cropping.

”If you start cutting or cropping a good photograph, it means death to the geometrically correct interplay of proportions. Besides, it very rarely happens that a photograph which was feebly composed can be saved by reconstruction of its composition under the darkroom’s enlarger; the integrity of vision is no longer there.”

However, there’s a catch here.  Despite this, Cartier-Bresson did crop what is arguably his best known image.  Here’s the evidence:

Henri Cartier-Bresson cropped his famous decisive moment
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous image from Gare Saint Lazare in Paris, France,


As he explained:

“There was a plank fence around some repairs behind the Gare Saint Lazare train station. I happened to be peeking through a gap in the fence with my camera at the moment the man jumped. The space between the planks was not entirely wide enough for my lens, which is the reason why the picture is cut off on the left.”

So yes, even the great Henri Cartier-Bresson cropped his photos on occasion.    However, I suspect this was a rarity for him.

An Issue That Keeps, Ahem, Cropping Up

So where do I stand on the issue of street photography and cropping?

All photos are a crop of a wider scene.  How a photographer, street photographer or not, chooses to frame a scene immediately crops it in effect.

Candid street photography of a woman taking a photo on her smartphone, with a pointing arm behind and leaping men in a poster, on Charring Cross Road, London. Taken by London street photographer.
Charing Cross Road, London (2014)

So I’m not adverse to cropping, where necessary, but I have two basic rules when it comes to  cropping my images:

1. Keep a crop to a minimum and never more than 10-15% of the overall image.  More than that and you’re not really cropping any more, you’re digitally re-creating another image. You’ve lost the integrity of vision that Cartier-Bresson talked about.

2. Always, yes ALWAYS, keep to the original shooting ratio.  So if you shot in 3:2 ratio, then make sure you crop keeping that same perspective.  I personally hate odd size crops.  If nothing else they look inconsistent when presenting a portfolio. And NEVER crop a horizontal image into a vertical, or vice-versa.  Again you’re losing that integrity of vision.

Even as I write this I can hear Garry Winogrand shouting out, “if you crop too much, you’re no longer a photographer.  You’ve become an illustrator or a graphic designer.”  Ok, I’m not sure he did ever say that, but I’m sure he’d agree.

Shooting Ratios

Candid street photography of a woman pushing a boy up onto a lion at Trafalgar Square, London. Taken by London street photographer Darren Lehane.
Trafalgar Square, London (2013)

And whilst we’re talking about shooting ratios and cropping, I’m quite opinionated on the ratio we shoot in.  For me, the classic 35mm ratio is 3:2 so that’s what I choose to shoot in.

However, with the advent of digital the 4:3 ratio has become more prevalent.  It’s a bit too “boxy” for my tastes, but it’s acceptable as a shooting ratio on the street.

The only other one I think is ok, is the 1:1 square ratio – as viewfinder cameras would have allowed – think Vivian Maier here.

Outside of this, I think other perspective ratios have no place in street photography.  That’s why always crop in one of these 3 ratios.

Coming A Cropper

Candid street photography of an old man by a boat on the beach in Hastings, East Sussex. Taken by London street photographer Darren Lehane.
Hastings, East Sussex (2012)

Another thing to consider when cropping an image, you are in effect changing the relative focal length. So you may have have shot an image on a 35mm lens, but an over zealous crop could lead to the image ending up more of an image shot at 50mm.

Of course, ultimately these are just my own personal rules and whether you agree or choose to follow them is entirely up to you.

I’d wager that the vast majority of photos taken by masters of the street photography genre are not cropped, or are only minimally done so.

Equally, I doubt you’ll find many who shoot outside of the 3:2 or 1:1 ratios.

Part of the beauty of shooting street photography for me is to be part of the history and the tradition of it; to be part of it’s own ongoing moment. And that requires consistency and working within its strict philosophies.

Tell Me What You Think!

So how do you feel about cropping in your street photography? Am I talking nonsense?  Or do you strongly agree? I’d love to hear you views below.




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