If you get in trouble with your photography, new Picture Tools will help you crop your way out

Guest blogger Cynthia Hartwig, co-owner of Two Pens (@twopens2), teaches business people how to write social media content from both sides of the brain.

I’m going to make a leap of faith here and assume that you’re not a photo professional. That’s good, because I’m not a photo professional either. I’m just a photography nut who is smitten with one of the simplest and most powerful tools in Word and Publisher.

The crop tool is the simplest tool in Picture Tools, but it’s a lifesaver

People with kids end up shooting endless pictures of everything from first steps to the graduation march. And if you’re childless, pets are just as photogenic. The problem is that kids and kittens–as well as dogs, hamsters, ferrets, and pet corn snakes–are moving targets.

Last fall, I spotted a cute cat sporting in the leaves in a planter box in downtown Seattle. The owner was dangling some leaves tied together with string in front of the kitty and it was batting at the toy with both paws. Enter the amateur photographer: I banged off 10-12 shots with my little point-and-shoot and missed almost every one. I got kitty crouched under the leaves; I snapped kitty switching her tail, ready to pounce; I shot kitty launching like a space rocket, no leaves in sight. But did I capture kitty batting the leaves? Nope.

The shot below is the best of the worst. Unfortunately, it has the owner’s shoulder intruding on the action. Kitty’s lower body is out of focus.  And the leaf litter in the sand is distracting.

BEFORE: This shot is marred by extraneous information that takes away from the fun the kitty is having.

But look what happens when I come in tight

By reframing the shot, the most in-focus part of the photo becomes the jagged maple leaf shapes and the thread-like veins. This gives the viewer an instantaneous read on the situation: “Oh, I see, a kitten playing with some leaves.” More important, though, is the peek-a-book effect that reframing has on the kitten’s eye. Animals carry their life in their eyes, so by helping direct the viewer to the kitten’s eye, the drama goes up, while sidestepping the fact that the amateur shooter (moi) missed the shot.

AFTER: Getting rid of the arm and shoulder of the person sitting next to the cat focuses on the action. The peek-a-book effect on the cat’s eye and ear tells your eye where to go.

Think of the Picture Effects Crop Tool as a second chance for glory

In the old days, art directors cropped with two pieces of cardboard laid on a transparency to find a photo’s sweet spot. In my past life as a creative director, I remember a lot of moving of the cropping ells around the image, the humming under the art director’s breath, and sometimes a swear word or two if the photographer bumbled the shot. Magically, the best part of the image would emerge under the cropping ells.

Maybe that’s why I love the fact that Microsoft has included your own powerful crop tool in Word and Publisher.  Just drag the sliders set to the width and height you want to fill and move the crop box all over your image. What you’re trying to do is find the most alive part of the photo that still tells a story.

Now you try it.  To crop one of your pictures:

  1. In your file, select the picture that you want to crop.
  2. Click Picture Tools > Format > Size and click the arrow under Crop.

After you click Crop, your mouse cursor becomes a cropping tool. In your picture, you’ll notice the sliders at the four corners and on each side. Click your cursor on one and crop it any size or way that you want.  Here’s what my picture of the cat looked when I was in the middle of cropping it.

Crop in to enhance the drama

This summer I snapped photos at the regional bike polo competition at Seattle’s Magnuson Park. A man with the organization asked me if I’d mind sending him some photos because this new group didn’t have money for a professional photographer.

“Sure,” I said, but to tell the truth, when I looked at my photos of this fast-paced and often brutal sport, I was bummed. What I hoped to show was the heat and the athleticism and the blood and scabs. What I got was a lot of static shots and lame compositions. Good thing I wasn’t charging any money for my work!

A tighter crop emphasizes shape and movement

In this shot, I managed to get three bike wheels and the polo-type mallet all one frame. But frankly, the effect is pretty busy with a lot of details competing for your attention. The shadows on that hot August day added to the confusion.

BEFORE: The repetition of the wheel shapes is nice but there’s too much going on in this shot and the shadows need to go.

In the crop below, I edited out the shadows entirely. This allowed the leaning biker in cut-offs  to become the focal point. It also put the emphasis on the three off-center bike wheels. I edited all the extraneous elbows, hands, and torsos, reasoning that viewers intuit  that a hand or a foot would logically be attached to the bodies, so no need to show what the viewer already knows. . (You can use this tip in almost any shot: Just ask yourself how much of the body part or horizon or sky one needs before the viewer will fill in the blanks.)

AFTER: A tighter crop cuts down on the messy, irrelevant details and focuses on the action of three bikers scrapping for the bike polo puck.

Tighten in on the action at family events

In the shot below at a family get-together at Twin Lakes, Oregon, I caught my six-year-old niece, Kasey, and her nine-year-old friend, Althea log rolling on the edge of the lake. It’s not a bad shot–the colors are vivid though the girls are relatively small in the photo.

BEFORE: The colors of Twin Lakes, Oregon, are vivid and there’s good action with two girls playing on a log. But, the eye has to take in a lot of information and there’s not much focus.

AFTER: By cropping out a lot of the sand and the big stump on the shore, the emphasis shifted to the two girls. The action is focused in the lower right third of the shot, a better compositional choice.

Eliminating details does the same thing as cleaning clutter from a room

I opted to crop into the large brown sand at the bottom of the photo, and I also eliminated the big stump on the right. I figured that the girls were the highlight of the image, so my crop choice told the viewer where to look. The cropped shot is both cleaner and simpler.

Remember, a crop choice always depends on the story you want to tell

My nieces had a lot of fun rolling on that log throughout the weekend so I made a point of following their activities with my camera.  If you’re learning, like I am, keep shooting in order to challenge yourself to get something better.

In the shot above, you get the drama of two little girls balancing on the log and you get the reward of Kasey’s facial expression that tells you she’s trying hard to balance.  This version is one I had no problem showing their parents. But look what happened when I changed the crop from a horizontal including the shore to a vertical crop which removes it!

AFTER: By cropping the shot of two log-rolling girls from a horizontal to a vertical, I eliminated the shore and told a more dramatic story.

By cropping out the shore, my shot tells a different story. For all I know, one of the nieces took this home and showed her mom what a lame babysitter I am.

For more of my photographer adventures with Office 2013 templates and new Picture Effects tools in Word and Publisher, be sure to check out these posts:.

Five easy ways to use Picture Effects to rescue ho-hum photos

‘Tis the Season for Making 2013 Photo Calendars

–Cynthia Hartwig