Cropaholics Anonymous

Photographing wildlife, particularly birds, seems pretty straightforward once you’ve got to grips with things like metering and exposure. You take the shot and even though the bird seems quite small in the frame you know that you’re going to crop the image in post production to fill the frame with the subject. So you don’t worry too much about the in-camera view. And that’s something, as wildlife photographers, we all do. It’s as though we’ve got a ‘licence to crop’. For sure there are times when we have little choice but to crop the image…especially if we want to show-off the animal in, maybe, portrait…these are the times when we can’t quite get as close to the animal as we’d like. Cropping is a great tool, yes? Well, yes and no.

To crop or not to crop…that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous cropping, Or to…. apologies to Will Shakespeare, but I want to concentrate on just one reason why we shouldn’t always reach for the cropping tool: Animal habitat.

Theses two images are of the same bird:

The difference between the two, at first sight, is clear…one’s a close up of the other.

In reality the first picture is an in-camera heavily cropped ‘version’ of the second (both taken within 1/16sec) . So here’s my question: ‘Which do you prefer?’ This is not about the technical quality of the image but rather as a viewer which do you like the most? Tough call, eh? Of course it is because it’s subjective. For every 20 people who prefer the first there’ll be 20 who prefer the second. It’s a bit like stating the obvious!

“Therein lies the rub,” apologies again to Shakespeare. But I want us to think about the fact that animals live in a habitat. So why shouldn’t we show, in our photographs, where the animal lives? This demands something from us that, I would suggest, few photographers consider: placing the bird in it’s natural surroundings. It’s something we need to think about when we consider the photograph we want to create. It no longer becomes a question of point and shoot…it becomes a question of ‘what do I envision the image to be’. It’s a thought process. After all, we think about things like light and metering and exposure settings so why shouldn’t we spend time thinking about placing the animal in it’s natural habitat so that the viewer sees not just the subject but where the subject lives? It’s about telling a story. It isn’t something we should perhaps do every time we take a photograph but it’s certainly worth considering and, it seems to me, we are also showing a kind of respect to the animal and we’re helping the viewer understand much more about the bird than it just being a beautiful animal. Yes, it’s a discipline: it’s about envisioning the image we want and applying the tools we have at our disposal to make it happen. And one of the tools we have is the ability not to crop. Try it next time you’re out. Envision what you want before you press that shutter button. Avoid the crop. Fill the frame and place the animal in it’s habitat. It can be really hard at times but it’s a good thing to practice. Use the camera’s preview screen to see how others will see your image. Put the animal where it belongs. Tell the story.

Give it a go. It’s not easy. Keep trying. Be a recovering cropaholic.

Stay safe my friends.

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