Cropping – An Essential Hack

February 17, 2020 ~ Many professional wildlife photographers prefer to compose “in the camera”, meaning that their images occupy the entire frame and every juicy pixel is available for the final print. I would like to achieve that level of perfection. But until I do… cropping happens.

My 500mm lens reaches out there a fair distance. But at some point, the subject is too small, or too far away, and I wind up taking the shot anyway because… a female Kingfisher! OMG, I’m not letting that one get away.

DSC_3041 edited
November – Female Kingfisher at Cullinan Park, TX
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/500 f/6.3 ISO 1000 at 500mm
(Remember, you can click on any image to enlarge; then close the image window to return to this page.)

That’s a nice photo, but not great, because it is too heavily cropped, and includes too much cluttered background. The high degree of magnification means that the photo is starting to look grainy (and cutting out more leaves would have made it even grainier). Here’s what the original photo looks like on my screen inside Photoshop with the crop boundary marked. You can see that I’m trimming off over 90% of the photo area, leaving most of my Nikon D850’s 45 megapixels wasted on my virtual cutting room floor.

Screenshot 3041
Screenshot of my Kingfisher photo showing crop boundary

The solution, in the case of my Kingfisher, is to get closer (I would have had to walk on water), or use a longer lens (or tele-converter). So, until I have more equipment (or I improve my stealthy sneaking-up-on-birds skills), I crop.

Screenshot 9397
Screenshot of Tri-color Heron showing crop

Sometimes, the subject is close… but I want to be even closer. That was the case with this handsome Tri-color Heron. He was hunting close to the shore, only about 50 feet away, so I was able to capture a fair degree of detail. I could have shown you the full bird, but when I found I had sharp focus all the way to the eye of his shiny little fish, I couldn’t resist a more aggressive crop.


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January  – Tri-color Heron with tiny fish at Brazos Bend State Park
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/1600 f5.6 ISO 1000 at 500mm

Then there is cropping for composition. I’ve not yet mastered the multi-point changeable auto-focus point of my fabulous D850 (sometimes it’s a little intimidating to have a camera that is so much smarter than I am). So, I’m placing the 9-point array in the center of my lens on the eye of my subject… which means his head is in the center of the photo. That’s not always the most artful arrangement, now is it? Here, I’ve cropped the shot to place the Mockingbird’s eye in the right-hand one-third of the photo, and included the curved vine for interest.

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December – Mockingbird at Galveston Island State Park
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/3200 f/7.1 ISO 1000 at 500mm

You can snoop on how much I’ve cropped a photo. Using the Chrome browser on my computer, when I click on a photo from my website to display the enlarged image, a new browser window opens. If I hover my mouse over the little “X” which would close this new window, the name of the photo and the actual size of the photo in pixels is displayed. Since you know that my camera takes photos that are roughly 8000 x 5500 pixels (45 megapixels), then you know that any image smaller than that has been cropped, and by how much.

Screenshot LBH
Screenshot showing that my photo of Shadowing Little Blue Heron was a serious crop

In many cases, my camera and lens can see small critters better than I can. It wasn’t until I got home and could zoom in that I could see this little bird well enough to identify him with certainty. This is a male Vermilion Flycatcher, only here in the winter months, and I felt hugely lucky to see him. So, of course I cropped out the acres of empty sky, and the miles of bulky dead branch.

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October – Vermillion Flycatcher at Elm Lake in Brazos Bend State Park
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/2500 f/5.6 ISO 800 at 500mm

Notice that this Flycatcher photo is less grainy than the Great Egret shot, or the Kingfisher shot. This is because the Flycatcher was shot at ISO 800 instead of ISO 1000. It seems like a small difference, but it is important when you know you are going to crop to shoot with the highest ISO possible. Steve Perry, of the Backcountry Gallery, has an excellent article on this.

It is true that grainy photos drive me crazy. And I need to invest in the gear that will make the photos I want to take. And I need to polish my skills (a lot). But, in the meantime, hey, let’s enjoy ourselves and the photos we do manage to take, shown to their best advantage… cropped!

2 thoughts on “Cropping – An Essential Hack”

  1. Hi Sam,
    I was tickled to share your wonderful photos with Mom. She loved them! Thanks for the beautiful post, it really brightened her day!


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