Over the last few weeks I’ve been involved with three different conversations with photographers about when to crop a photo in post processing. One person suggested cropping at the beginning of the process, one suggested cropping at the end and the other just wasn’t sure.
I tend to crop differently depending on what software I’m using. The cropping process in Lightroom is different than in Photoshop because of the way they handle your image files. Let me explain:
When using Lightroom or Aperture, I can crop at any point in the process without really worrying about the workflow. The reason why is that all of the edits in LR/Aperture are applied globally and the crop doesn’t affect these settings. If you crop the image at the beginning of the process and then continue editing the image with saturation, contrast and noise reduction, then LR/Aperture allow you to change the crop later on while still applying all your settings to the entire photo.
In other words, crop instructions in LR and Aperture are only a virtual crops. They don’t really remove pixels or image data from the file. For this reason, I often crop at the beginning of the process in LR/Aperture because I know it can be easily changed or reversed.
The workflow in Photoshop is different though. When you crop an image in Photoshop, you are actually eliminating pixels from the picture. Let’s say that you decide to initially crop your photo in a square format, then convert it to black and white. Then, you do some more work on the photo such as cloning out dust or adding contrast. Finally, at the end of the editing process, you decide that you also want to create a 5×7 image with the same settings as the square crop. With Photoshop, you can’t easily to this because you cropped at the beginning. You’ll have to undo all your editing steps, crop it as a 5×7, then re-do all the editing steps. Therefore, in Photoshop, I recommend cropping at the end of the process. That way, all of your edits are in place and you can crop for output as your final step.
Take the image below as a workflow example. Notice the blown-out area of the sky in the upper right corner? I know that this isn’t going to reproduce well when printed, so I’ll need to crop it out. The question isn’t if, but when I should crop. In the Lightroom/Aperture workflow, it doesn’t matter when I crop. I can crop at the beginning or at the end of the process since all the edits I make are just instructions.
On the other hand, if I was working on the image in Photoshop, I tend to wait to the end of the process to crop. That way, my edits are applied to all the pixels, and my final step can be to crop the image for my desired output. This gives me the most flexibility with my files, since I might want to make one image as a panorama and another as a 4″x4″ square with the same settings.
A reader of the Nikon Capture NX 2 book just sent me a question over email:
Mike – just finished your book After the Shoot. I found it the best explanation to date of the functions and use of NX 2.
You mention that you crop at the end of you workflow. However, if you add control points prior to cropping, the location of the control points will be in the wrong place after the crop. Therefore the cropping needs to be done at the beginning of the workflow for control points to be used correctly. Is this correct from your experience?
Here was my answer:
Robert – You can crop at the beginning or the end and still have the color control points be in the correct position. If you crop at the end, the effect of the control point doesn’t change, but its virtual position changes. For example, if you put the control point on the sky and change the saturation, then the sky will still be saturated. However, it will appear that the control point’s physical location has changed. Rest assured however, that the same pixels are still being affected just as they were before the crop.