Cropping is one of the most essential tools you can take advantage of as a sports photographer. Since sports are fast-paced and the action can happen anywhere on the field, you may not be able to shoot everything in a way that allows you to have an uncropped image. Almost every image on this site has been cropped to some degree.
Here are a few important reasons to crop your images:
- Remove unnecessary distractions/elements
- Clean up backgrounds
- Fix framing
- Straighten horizon lines
- Crop for impact
Next, we will look at a few images that show why it is important to crop images in sports.
Version A – Uncropped
Version B – Crop #1
Version C – Crop #2
In Example 1, you can see two different crops of Version A. Both crops remove the main distractions from the background of the image. The red truck and the goal posts are gone, making your eye look at the subject instead of the background. Version B has her whole body showing the dive, but I would argue it would only be a better crop if she was entirely off the ground. In Version C, I have cropped in far enough to see the details in the image. This crop brings action to the forefront of the image, and you see details lost in the wider crop such as the holes in her glove and hair in her mouth.
In addition to this, cropping the image brings out the rule of thirds. In the original version, she is basically centered in the frame. The moment it is cropped, her face and the ball end up in the crosshairs, giving the image a more visually interesting composition. Please see below for reference.
Version A – Uncropped
Version B – Crop #1
Here is another example of why cropping makes a huge difference in sports. As you can see in Example 2, the uncropped image, Version A, has a lot of dead space around the baseball player. To get the most out of a photograph, you need to remove everything that isn’t necessary. In this case, about 90% of the frame falls into this category. Like with the last example, a wider crop might be better if he was entirely off the ground.
As you can see that in Version A, the player is on the left side of the frame. But when it’s cropped, the ball, his hand, and his glove each intersect a rule of thirds’ sweet spot.
For the most part, loss of quality isn’t that big of a problem. Unless you are planning on printing the images poster size and need extra detail, the quality level will be fine for most uses. Images I’ve cropped like this have run in newspapers as well as online and looked fine. Plus, with newer cameras having upwards of 50 megapixels, you can crop like this and still have plenty of detail.
I don’t want to lead anyone into thinking it’s better to shoot wide and crop later. I wish I didn’t have to crop. Unfortunately, that would require lenses equivalent to 1500mm, sometimes more, for some of the crops I have done. Often, I will shoot with a 600mm lens at events where other photographers have assured me that I do not need longer than a 300mm. This is because if you practice enough with long glass, you will be to be able to shoot tighter images and thus need to crop less.
Straighten up those horizons. Fields are level and you don’t want the images to look like the ball is rolling down a hill! If you can’t see the horizon line in an image, look for something that is vertical – such as a flagpole or fence post – to use as a reference for straightening the image. I can’t stress how important it is to have level photographs.
Unless you are shooting for a client who wants you to deliver images cropped to a specific ratio, feel free to crop images to whatever aspect ratio works best and brings out the important elements in the frame. Squares, rectangles, or “bacon strips,” anything goes – just make sure the crop works well with the content of the image.
Cropping for Impact
You probably hear “crop for impact” a lot, but what does it mean when cropping photographs? Basically, you want your photos to be as dynamic and interesting as possible, showing the action and raw emotion on athletes’ faces. Sports are intense, so show that intensity. Crops should help the viewer see what you want them to see. This is accomplished by using all the techniques discussed above (cleaning up the background, fixing horizon lines, the chosen aspect ratio, and removing distractions).
It is important to remember that you also need to use good techniques when shooting the initial photograph. Cropping cannot make a bad image great, but it can make a great image spectacular.
Challenge: Every so often I take the time to look through my archive and see how I can improve on my current portfolio using skills learned as I’ve grown as a sports photographer. Take some time to look back through your archive and pull out a handful of your favorite images. Try some of the techniques here and perform fresh crops. Can you make your portfolio stronger by re-cropping images you already have?