May 042011

Can Cropping Save And Image?

Last week Knut Skjærven opened a

discussion on Facebook about the

cropping a photograph into either

a square or a Divine Rectangle.  By the

time everyone chimed in, the field was

split.  There was no clear winner, but

no one had touched on the geometries

that govern each shape.

Original Image. Knut Skjærven


The Images

Before I explain the breakdown of the images, I wanted to share the images with overlays made on Photoshop.  Most photographers are visual people and learn well from example.  Instead of launching right into the explanation and spoiling all the fun, I thought everyone could look at the images and start to re-evaluate how they view the inherent properties of a square (1:1), the negative (1:1.5) and the Divine Rectangle (1:1.618).  One thing to consider when cropping images, is that unlike the film days, we pay through the nose for digital sensors.  On a Leica M9, we pay about $8.11 per square millimeter.  To put that in perspective, cropping an M9 image from a rectangle to a square removes about $2,300 worth of usable sensor.  That is a serious reduction, one that might convince photographers to stick to the 1:1.5 full frame.

And very quickly I want to thank Knut Skjærven for taking part in this little experiment and allowing me to run through his images.  I will be posting the explanation of the breakdowns on Friday.

Update: What Do We Want

When we take a picture, what are we trying to accomplish?  Unless you are a conceptual artist who is deconstructing a photograph, by breaking all of the rules and conventions, the aim of picture take is simple.  We use a camera to create the illusion of three dimensional space on a two dimensional plane.  In order to move the viewer’s eye around the image, we must acknowledge the frame of the negative.  The proportions of a negative or digital sensor are the first step in understanding how to compose an image.

In art school we were encouraged to “be creative, explore, and resist convention.”  This is a guaranteed way to spin your wheels and find your photography stuck in a rut.  Learning classical composition is the dirty little secret that most photographers do not want to discuss.  Without an understanding of the geometry of rectangle or square, it can be challenging to produce consistent results.  But how do you know whether you understand a rectangle or a square?  Its easy.  If you have heard that composition is a matter of using the “Rule of Thirds” and “foreground, middle ground, and background” then someone has cheated you essential knowledge about image making.

My personal belief is that the rule of thirds was a scam proposed by the publishing industry to keep amateur and aspiring photographers off the trail of success.  Why would they do that?  Because if you are your own best critic and truly understand composition you will not need their lists about “How To Take Better Pictures.”  An educated viewer will spend less time at the news stand and more time studying Master Artists.  If you live near New York City, the Metropolitan Museum is pay as you wish.  Giving a quarter to the museum is worth more than a 10 year subscription to any photo magazine.

If its good enough for Henri…

Within the Leica world, Henri Cartier-Bresson might be the only thing photographers agree upon.  It seems like he is an influence for almost everyone.  His compositions are magnificent.  Why is it that the son of a French sowing thread empire became the grandfather of all street photography?  A little discussed fact about Cartier-Bresson is that he was a classically trained artist.  He studied painting and drawings with Andre Lhote.  Lhote was a painter, sculptor, teacher, and critic who ended his career teaching at Cambridge University in England and authored a famous Treatise on Landscape Painting.  Bresson, unlike the other Magnum founders was educated as an classical artist.  The theories of composition were drilled into him as a child.  Later in life, short quotes of Cartier-Bresson, give us a glimpse of his background.  He knew, from Lhote, that geometry is essential to photography.  And this type of geometry is not some abstract notion of space or a God given instinct.  It is just like the mathematical times tables, the are learned.  Students are given exercises which they practice.  After years of study as an apprentice (often 10 years) they are ready to start making their own art.

“If the shutter was released at the decisive moment,

you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without

which the photograph would have been formless and lifeless”

-Henri Cartier-Bresson

Master artists are infamous for making their students struggle to learn their lessons.  Statements are made with essential information missing so the student learns to fill in the blanks.  If we look at this Cartier-Bresson quote we can see what he is really saying if we understand his background with Lhote.

Put into less abstract language he is saying the following:

“If”:  Notice how he starts the statement with If.  He is not even giving the reader the credit of saying “when”, because as far as he was concerned most photographers would never take a properly composed image.

“Decisive Moment”: Cartier-Bresson hated this quote.  Originally it had some meaning, but has been so over used that it is almost meaningless.  The decisive moment is a fraction of a second where the moving geometry of the world align into an exact composition.  It is the momentary capture that mimics the efforts that classical artists would put into their paintings. Weeks, months and even years of sketches would go into a single painting.  For Cartier-Bresson about ten times a year he would find a scene that matched the compositional strength of a painting.  If Cartier-Bresson could see photographers shooting pictures from their hips he would be turning in his grave.

“Geometric Pattern”:  Here comes the heavy stuff.  Without understanding the geometry of the film negative, taking successful images is no different that playing roulette.  It is true that if you never play, you will never win.  But with some formal training the odds will be in your favor.



The Original Image. Knut Skjærven

Square Crop. Knut Skjærven

Divine Rectangle Crop. Knut Skjærven

The Original Analyzed

The Original. Knut Skjærven

The 3:2 Negative

The ratio 3:2, can be reduced to 1.5:1.  In classical art it is referred to in reverse, 1:1.5.  This ratio is not a Golden Ratio, it is not a Root ratio, but it has proven itself very useful over the years because it is made from a square (1:1) and half (.5:1).  Without going into a lesson on the Root Rectangles, I will leave that to Myron Barnstone, I will say this.  The way to compose with the 1:1.5 rectangle is to use overlapping Root 4 rectangles.  The Root 4 is the only rational Root Rectangle because its ratio is 1:2.  By overlapping one Root 4 over another, we get the grid that was used by Cartier-Bresson for the majority of his images.  Its encourages us to compose on the diagonals and use the reciprocal diagonals to strengthen our work.

In Knut’s image, if we overlay the Root 4 rectangle we notice an immediate problem.  The dock, which runs to the horizon line is stronger with any of the diagonal elements in the picture.  The girl on the left and the man and women on the right are not repeated anywhere else in the image.  But the dock appears in the center of the picture and there are radiating lines that support the dock.  When we think of composition, repetition is a tool to emphasize a point.  If we assume the dock is the most important feature we see its shape repeated on the line of the jetty walk way, the border of the jetty and the water, the line from the top of the photographers head to the horizon and the horizon itself.  These lines all radiate from a common point in the center of the horizon.  Mathematically the dock is repeated on six different lines.  Its is has the most support of any geometric shape in the image and will be hard to overcome, even with cropping.

Composing on the Diagonal

Horizontal and vertical lines create predictable images.  A wide open seascape runs from left to right and telephone pole goes from top to bottom.  They are similar to one line jokes.  Once you understand the joke, its over.  We want to make compositions that are dynamic, that pulse, and move us.  There should be a clear understanding of depth and most of all there should be a clear focus.  In art we create hierarchies.  If not, it is impossible to tell what is important.  One of the first elements to understand is how to use a diagonal for composition because it is the link between the vertical and horizontal lines of the negative.  The diagonal lines allows us to move from the ground to the sky and back again.  It is essential to understanding composition.  When it is misused it is so powerful in fact that no other element can dominate it.  In this case we see how the dock and its supporting lines draw our eye to the horizon and all other elements are secondary.  Even if we had Cartier-Bresson’s “Puddle Jumper” on the left and Eddie Adam’s Execution on the right, they would still be no match for that dock.  Its simply too strong.

The Major Design Element. Knut Skjærven

Main element and its repeated lines. Knut Skjærven

Major diagonals. Knut Skjærven

Competing Compositions. Knut Skjærven

Geometry breakdown for a 1:1.5 rectangle using a Root 4, upper portion. Knut Skjærven

Geometry applied to the lower portion. Knut Skjærven

How does the original image read now? Knut Skjærven

The Square Crop

The Square crop. Knut Skjærven

The Square

By cropping this image to a square, a new set of compositional rules are introduced.  The square possesses its own geometry which is different from the 1:1.5.  Truth be told, we can use two Root 4 rectangles stacked side by side to create a square, but trying to envision a square while looking at the rectangle of the viewfinder is a challenge.  In most cases the square crop is a postmortem fix.  Because the image was not conceived with the square in mind, any parts of the picture that work are accidental.  We can compose for the rectangle or the square, but not both at the same time.  If you find yourself attracted to the square, try shooting a Hasselblad because the negative will be square.

Once the image is cropped we see how the major diagonal line becomes steeper as it moves from left to right.  It starts to emphasize the relationship between the girl and the photographer.  Though the alignment does not quite work.  Aside from the parallel intervals formed by her pony tail, the line of her arm, the line of her right leg and her left ankle, there is only one point that coincides with the photographer.  The line between her ankle and his lens are the only points occurring on the same line.  Cartier-Bresson suggested we “…count the points and rounds, rather like a boxing referee.”  In this case the score is Dock 6 points, the People 1 point.  The Dock still wins.

Major diagonal intervals. Knut Skjærven

Competing Compositions. Knut Skjærven

Geometry of a Square. Knut Skjærven

Square Crop. Knut Skjærven

The Divine Rectangle Crop

Divine Rectangle Crop. Knut Skjærven

The Divine Rectangle

Knut deserves to be given some credit.  Having one’s picture critiqued can be a dicey proposition and I commend him for looking into the options of the native 1:1.5 rectangle, the square, and the Divine Rectangle as options for his pictures.  He is searching for answers to his format.  The curious mind will find it essential to understand why certain elements work and why others do not.

I can only assume the seduction of the Divine Rectangle or the Rectangle of the Whirling Squares as it is often called, came whispering in Knut’s ear.  The geometry imbedded in this rectangle is mystical.  Its has been found on major alters across the globe and is present in living forms from flowers to mollusks.  When it is divided along its diagonal in creates a square and another similar Divine Rectangle.  This process can be repeated into infinity.  These divisions which alternate between vertical, diagonal, and horizontal eventually create a logarithmic spiral.  This is dynamic.  We will have a curve that spins around the frame of the rectangles and has been employed by artists for centuries.  So why can we use it as photographers?  We can, but as Knut found out, it requires we trim off the top of every image.  The ration of the Divine Rectangle is an irrational number and goes on forever.  For simplicity sake it can be shortened to 1:1.618.  Does this mean we should trim the top of all of our negatives to match this rectangle?  Absolutely not.

Make up of a Divine Rectangle. Knut Skjærven

Major Diagonals. Knut Skjærven

Divine Rectangle. Knut Skjærven

Complimenting Divine Breakdown. Knut Skjærven

Competing Compositions. Knut Skjærven

A Word Of Caution

There is one major caution against using the Divine Rectangle for composition.  While looking at a 1:1.5 it is awfully difficult to picture the lines of a 1:1.618.  They are close enough in size to just give you a headache.  Its best to reserve the Divine Rectangle for drawing or painting where you can set your canvas size.  And in this case we will see that even applying its shape to a normal film negative will not change to conflicting elements of the photograph.  In this case the Dock will not be overcome by the Divine crop.  It will maintain its position as the dominant force in the image.  In the “Competing Composition” images we see the orange section where the division of the rectangle overlaps the triangle of the dock.  This orange zone is where the two elements are fighting.  The result is that while we are drawn from left to right on the diagonal of the girl and photographer, we are pulled off course by the dock.  The dock and the horizon win again.  Why is that a problem?  Since I have not spoken to Knut, maybe he wanted the dock as the most important part of the picture.  Its possible.  But even if that were the case, it still has one direction.  The dock runs to the horizon and then the story is over.  If the dock were supposed to be the dominant feature, it should relate in some way to a diagonal.  If it relates on a diagonal it will bounce our eyes back into the frame and continue the story of three dimensional space and the illusion of depth.

While the cropping of the square and the Divine Rectangle start to emphasize the people with greater strength in the image, the crop never quite overcomes the power of the dock.  The primary triangle will forever own this image.  It is a case where the background became more important than the main subject.

Divine Crop. Knut Skjærven

What Could Be Done In The Future?

When we look at a scene, we might see a dominant feature like a tunnel, a dock or a long road.  The best thing we can do is acknowledge the strength of the feature and use it to our advantage.  For Knut, if he could have stood 45° from center of the dock, he might have been able to use the line of the dock to “point” at either the girl or the photographer.  This way the setting can be used to further emphasize the subject.  Otherwise the scenery will take center stage and the figures will be lost in the field.

To close this I wanted to add a few images by Cartier-Bresson which show how he uses the Root 4 rectangle to connect his figures on the diagonal and make them the clear focus of the image.  In the end, no matter how the image is cropped the picture cannot be saved.  The original capture can be tweaked, but it will never come alive.  In the coming weeks I will be discussing in greater detail how to use the proportions of the 1:1.5 rectangle to your advantage.  If you are interested in having private teaching sessions, I tutor a small group of individuals and there are a few available spaces at the moment.  If you are intersted please email me here ( and I will send you the details.

Thanks again Knut!


Beijing, China 1948. Henri Cartier-Bresson

Beijing, China 1948. Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson Adam Marelli

Beijing, China 1948. Henri Cartier-Bresson

Beijing, China 1948. Henri Cartier-Bresson Adam Marelli

Beijing, China 1948. Henri Cartier-Bresson

Beijing, China 1948. Henri Cartier-Bresson

Beijing, China 1948. Henri Cartier-Bresson

France, 1932. Henri Cartier-Bresson.

France, 1932. Henri Cartier-Bresson.

France, 1932. Henri Cartier-Bresson.

France, 1932. Henri Cartier-Bresson.

France, 1932. Henri Cartier-Bresson.

France, 1932. Henri Cartier-Bresson.

France, 1932. Henri Cartier-Bresson.

France, 1932. Henri Cartier-Bresson.

  20 Responses to “Your Shot [003] Updated”

  1. Dear Adam

    What can I say? I am impressed and honored that you have used one of my images for this analysis. I am not familiar with this kind of thinking, I simply shoot what I see, and crop/adjust to what I like.

    The reason that I often crop in post production is that I shoot without a viewfinder and therefore often have to do later adjustments. I am really looking forward to read your next blog post on Friday. I am not only just going to read it, I will study it.

    Many thanks so far. Have a very good evening.


  2. Impressive work in analysing Knuts pic. I do agree that a thorough look through classic compositing rules with cropping, end in pictures that a pleasant to look at. Classic rules rule.

    • Hey Lars,
      Composition does not seem to attract much attention other than the rule of thirds. Happy to hear the interest in classical rules is out there. : )

  3. Thanks so much for this piece Adam. It is so informative and a great way of explaining things. I am still a learner and thoroughly appreciate your sharing your expertise. Perfect way of connecting the right to the left using creativity and logic.

    Adam when you accepted my friend request and asked where i first saw your work, I could not remember until I read Knut’s post today. I read and commented on his original, waiting for the tommorows post.

    • Hey Renee,

      Thank you, glad you enjoyed the start of the piece. While many artists/photographers would love to pretend they were born with a camera in hand and had some innate sense of composition the reality is that composition is learned.

      In the end, the right brain can express itself more fully if the left has been properly trained. I wish someone told me early on that masters like Cartier Bresson were heavily trained in drawing and painting.


      • Adam talent, humiltiy, and honesty are inspirational. Once again, thank you for taking the time to teach those who are still in the learning process.


  4. Hey, Adam, it might help too to draw the Bressons with the main armatures of the 1.5. Intersecting at 90 degrees to the full 1.5. This is what Myron showed me on Monday in the Bresson image of the girl running up the steps. It broke down better in that armature as opposed to the overlapped root 4.


  5. Hey Adam

    Many thanks, Adam, for this impressive analysis. In fact, it is so good that it should be published elsewhere too.

    I need to read it a couple of times and will then comment on it in more length. You analysis is very, very interesting for a number of reasons, that I shall come back to.

    Just for now, I am just honored that you did this. Thanks.


  6. Adam,
    Great job discussing a difficult but necessary concept. Many of us have been shooting for decades being driven by our enthusiasm for the capture. It reminds me of a high handicap golfer. Every once in a while he hits a good golf shot and when asked “what do you think you did right?”, he doesn’t know. Every once in a while a photographer takes a good photo and never understands why the photo works and is so appealing.

    When I look at the geometry of composition as explained I am excited to look for those new moments when the geometry give form and patterns the elements of my photographs. I just hope it happens soon than the typical 10 year apprenticeship.

    I think you are on to something very important for serious photographers. We hunger for this kind of information and yet I have never heard or seen it explained this way.

    Hats off to both you and Myron Barnstone for instilling the need to understand the value of classical training even as it pertains to the digital world.

  7. This is the third time I have read this article Adam, I consider it the necessary primer before moving on to the others analysing particular photographers. I think I’m now starting to understand this and interestingly I can loook back at my instinctive reaction to the two crops and see that some of the diagonals were there in how I looked at digested the images. There are people who do a lot of this instinctively but I don’t think I’m one of them so this is is absolutely the best way for me to learn. It also appeals to the analyst inside of me that likes to understand why an image works. Interestingly the ten years timeline is not surprising, it ties in with the 10,000 hours adage which is this is how long it takes a person to truly master a craft, activity, instrument etc. Right now on to the next article and then Myron’s website.

    • Hey Darell,
      You are right on the money. Most people are left with instinct because the training in composition is so deficient. Myron really taught me a lot and made the whole process a bit easier to understand. It even cleared up “hunches” that I had about composition. I found patterns in my work which were effective, but I could not really explain why they worked. Now its much easier to do that.

      And the 10,000 hour adage is very true. It applies to Mozart, Michelangelo, Einstein, the whole lot of great thinkers all put in thousands of hours. Imagine if someone told you they wanted to be an analyst and they said they were going to do everything on instinct? They would have to be mad? Composition is the same game. First one learns the rules, then comes practice, and then a personal voice can emerge. Until then its like playing the lottery.

      Let me know how you make out with the following articles.


  8. this article is simply incredible… I can only imagine the countless hours it took to write up such a manifesto about the art of cropping. Can’t wait to read what else is on this website…

    • Hey Brandon,

      Happy to hear you liked the article and hope you enjoy the rest of the site. Thanks for contributing.


  9. Great article and thanks for delving into this topic. I’m a photographer and composition was really the one mystery remaining in my skill set. I can explain lighting, exposure, posing etc but there was a whole chunk missing in composition skills. I’ve purchased the complete lecture series which is truly fascinating. Myron is such a great presenter of information, he’s passionate without being in your face, critical without being rude, insistent without being bossy. I can watch the series without feeling the need to skip forward like you do with some training videos. There’s an awful lot of information in there though and I can see myself re-watching many many times over.

    I’d love to see more on the overlapped root 4′s into the 1.5 clearly, as a photographer I’m given my frame and need to work back from that, yes – tail wagging the dog, but as you say, cropping these toy cameras looses you a lot of detail. Can you use both overlapped armature’s? Why are the sinister and baroques left out of the final Bresson overlay. I don’t want you to answer these here and now but would very much welcome further explanation specifically on the 1.5 problem I have and HCB overcame!

    Am recommending the site to friend and colleagues – thank you for donating your time to my learning.

    • Hey DWBell,

      Really happy to hear that Myron’s series is working well for you. Your description of his teaching style is spot on. Like he says, “I’m just a big teddy bear.” Its true, he is firm and the comments are very direct. But every comment can be put to good use. And the more you watch, the more you can absorb. When I first heard that he requires everyone to take the class twice, I thought he was out of his mind. After lesson 1, I understood why he makes this statement.

      As for the Bresson, the sinister and baroque diagonals are left out of the final picture to avoid confusion. When all of the lines are viewed at the same time, it can be over whelming at first. Artists, including Bresson, usually need a few angles to work within a picture. Like Myron says, “A good artist will rarely use more than 5 or 6 directions in total. The 45 degree angles in the last image show how we can organize information based on the 45. Its a secondary force, but can add powerful unity to a scene.

      The articles will be forthcoming, my analysis of HCB for Craig Semetko is in the works right now. It should expand a bit further on the concepts and we will be looking exclusively at the 1.5.

      Happy to contribute to your photographic experience.

      If you have any more questions feel free to write or comment. The dialogue is helpful for all of us.
      : )


      • That’s great, looking forward to it Adam.

        Ok, understood about the 45′s. A couple more points of clarification if I may, as you’re encouraging dialogue. Firstly, I’m needing to take baby steps (tell Myron I can play twinkle twinkle so let’s move on! ;-) . With that said, should I start off using only one root 4 in the 1.5, either the upper or the lower. For example using the edge of a table to “block” the lower 1/4 remaining in the frame if I’m using the upper root 4 position, or using the sky in the remaining upper quarter when positioning the root 4 in the lower half. Further, and to keep it really simple, is their anything wrong with applying the baroque, sinister, reciprocal’s directly to the 1.5 in order to better visualise and utilise in these early steps? I appreciate the 1.5 isn’t as strong as a root or phi. Does it still work though? Or is it better to always think in terms of a strong rectangle within the 1.5 and “framing” off the unused space creatively?

        Looking forward to future posts and ….. maybe a forum? =)

  10. All very good questions. My recommendation is draw an X across your entire image, from corner to corner. This will be the Baroque and Sinister diagonals of the 1.5. It will get you composing on the diagonal and visualizing parallel relationships in your images. From there you can work up to using the overlapped Root 4′s. I am going to email you two images to give you a better idea.

    But the first step, which took Bresson about 20 years to work through, is use only the 1.5. When you can start to see the relationships of the diagonals and their 90 degree intersections on a regular basis, you will be in business. : )

    Future posts will be forthcoming, have not considered a forum yet, but anything is possible…

  11. Hi adam !

    It’s nice to see your article here. I’ve been wondering how you can give analysis like this? Did you use/have a book that have a theory like this? I’d like to make a research of photo analyzing for my computer degree.

    Thank you so much!

    • Hi Salahuddin,

      At the moment there is no book on the subject for photographers. You can look at Bouleau’s Painter’s Sacred Geometry. But it tends to be overly complicated and quite expensive.

      If you are interested in learning more about analyzing work, please join us at one of the workshops or for a One on One.


  12. If you would like to get much from this article then you have to apply these methods to your won web site.

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