I am often asked “What is the most important photo processing technique?”, and my answer is always cropping. From the expression on the face of the questioner, I suspect that was not the answer they wanted. They wanted to hear about some secret photoshop presets or a magic filter and/or a unknown bit of software. However cropping and getting the composition right is definitely one way to take an ordinary photo into something memorable. The next question is usually then “How do I know when the composition is right?” and some comment about the dreariness of the rule of thirds. I tend to agree the rule of thirds and its ever present overlay grid are a bit overdone and under explained. I must admit I tend to just crop by eye and seldom use cropping guides but they can be very helpful to bring you towards that more interesting photo. When I am photographing birds in flight I am definitely concentrating on panning on the birds movement, and keeping the bird in frame and not the composition in the view finders, that can be sorted out later. So here is a little exercise using the same photo, above, and using three other common composition tools from Lightroom 4.
In this case I have a fairly simple 6 by 8 grid. You can choose any setting you like. I have taken the conventional crop in the vertical putting the gull just below the top third (ie 2 grid spaces down). However I wanted to get stronger asymmetry into the horizontal, so I made the gull 4 grid space wide and then I could leave 1 grid spacing behind it and 3 in front. This gives the bird room to appear to fly into.
Artist have long know of the Golden ratio, which is roughly 1.6:1 and I suspect the rule of thirds is just an oversimplification of this ratio. However the simplicity of the golden rule is that is you make focal points and strong edges at or close to the golden ratio from the sides it will automatically be more appealing to the viewing In this case I used the box enclosed by the ratio to “house” the gull. However it has left the final crop a little to symmetrical for my taste. So…
I wanted to get the asymmetry going so I shifted the crop so That the gulls eye was at the intersection of the ratio’s grid lines and the leading edge of the wind approximately running along the ratio. For me this is both a closer crop and tells a stronger story. The golden ratio is a better default than the rule of thirds in my opinion
This was a bit of a new composition concept for me. I first saw it in a photo app called Pro Capture and have used it a few times but only had mixed results. In this case I like the strong curve of the dark wing, and I moved the crop around till this match the spiral. Horizontally I like the position but I feel the bird may be a little low.
The results are quiet different, but I hope you agree they are all stronger images than the original. At the end of the day I still think once you get your composition confidence you will be able to judge the most appropriate crop by eye.