How to Crop Your Digital Photo for Printing

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How to Crop Your Digital Photo for Printing

If this isn’t a huge disappointment, please tell me what isn’t. You get a bunch of your point and shoot pictures printed, only to find out that the top and bottom of every photo has been completely cut off. As you stare at the faces and scenes chopped in half, you’re wondering what could have caused this and whether it is your fault as a photographer. Well worry no more. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation, and it has nothing to do with an error on your part.

It all comes down to the difference between point-and-shoot and film (and digital SLR) cameras. It also has a lot to do with a fancy thing called an aspect ratio. “What the heck is an aspect ratio?” you’re wondering. Let’s start with that.

Aspect Ratio

The Aspect Ratio is simply the ratio of the width to the height of a photograph.

Let’s assume your photo were perfectly square shaped. If it were, the width would be the same as the height. In that case, the ratio of the width to the height would be exactly 1:1.

Now let’s move onto something a little more complicated. Let’s say you have a rectangle that is 4 inches wide and 3 inches high. If you were to do the math, the aspect ratio of this rectangle would 4:3. For every one inch of width you have .75 inches of height. The same ratio applies even if the size of the image increases. The aspect ratio of a 12 by 9 inch rectangle is still 4:3.

The reason your photos are printing with the top and bottom cut off (cropped out) is because the aspect ratio for a point-and-shoot camera image is 4:3 whereas the aspect ratio for a printed photo is 3:2. In order to fit a 4:3 image into the 3:2 print, the photo needs to be cropped. Usually they cut the top and bottom.

The red rectangle is a 4:3 image.
The yellow rectangle is the 3:2 image that will be printed.

The other way to do it is to resize the photo, so you see white edges on the left and right. Now while that keeps the whole of your original photo, it adds ugly bars. Most people don’t like that, so printing shops prefer the crop option.

Your 4:3 photo resized in a 3:2 ratio print.
Note the white edges on each side.

3:2 is for printing

Why does the printed image have a 3:2 ratio when cameras uses 4:3? Why can’t the printers use the same ratio, so the cutting isn’t needed?

It’s because film cameras use the 3:2 ratio. The entire photo printing industry (around well before the digital age) has adopted the 3:2 standard. That’s why you didn’t need to worry about cropping with your old film camera. In keeping compliant with the film model, digital SLR cameras have inherited the 3:2 aspect ratio. So if you have a DSLR camera, you don’t need to worry about cropping for printing.

Point and Shoot cameras were first designed to show on a computer screen, so create an image with a 4:3 ratio – the same as the computer screens of the time.

Avoiding the Chop

If you want to avoid the dreaded chop, there are a few things you do.

Shoot your photos knowing part will be cropped away

This is probably the easiest and most practical solution to the problem. Just try not to place anything of importance, such as a person’s face, in the upper or lower portions of the photo. What can you place in the those parts of the photo? You can shoot the sky, hills, and other background elements. So long as there is no subject matter in the top or bottom portion, you do not run the risk of cutting that subject matter in half.

Print with vertical bands

You can tell the printer to keep your whole photo and print white vertical bands on the left and right of the image. You can cut the bands off yourself later if you want.

Crop your photos before the printer does it for you

Remember, the printer will take any photo shot with a 4:3 aspect ratio and try to cram it into a 3:2 space. But you can beat it to the chase! Some photo kiosks will show you your photo beforehand, and allow you to select what part of the image to cut. You can move the ‘cut marks’ around so you don’t cut out anything important.

You can also use image manipulation software like Adobe Photoshop to crop either the top or the bottom of the photo before you send it to the printer. You can also look for the handy ‘crop for printing’ option available with some other image editing programs. Photoshop doesn’t have that, but here’s how to do it:

  • Open up your point-and-shoot image in Photoshop. Go to the rectangle selection tool. On the upper toolbar (just below the File, Edit, etc. menu), there will be some options labeled “style,” “width,” and “height.”
  • Under style, select “Fixed aspect ratio.”
  • In the width box, type “3,” and in the height box type “2.” You guessed it. That’s the aspect ratio of a digital SLR picture.
  • Now simply use the rectangle selection tool to select the part of the photo you want to print. As you do this, you will notice that the rectangle is constrained by the aspect ratio you specified earlier. Whatever you select, it will always be 3:2!
  • Once you are happy with your selection, copy it, create a new file, and then paste your selection into that file. Save your new file with a clever name to remind yourself that it is the cropped version. I like to add “_crop” after every cropped photo.
  • Take your new files to the printer and enjoy life without the dreaded top chop!

The chop can be incredibly frustrating, especially if you just threw away a bunch of money. So do your duty as a good citizen, and tell people about it so they don’t make the same mistake.

And if you have any photos that look much better after cropping them, send them my way. I’d love to see a before and after comparison. I’ll pick the most dramatic comparison and discuss it in the next photo critique.

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About the Author ()

David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.

Comments (18)

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  1. Scott Oney says:

    Thanks for the info. Exactly what I was looking for.

  2. Paul says:

    Just to clarify, if your camera shoots 4:3 and you don’t want to crop just pick a print with a 4:3 aspect ratio e.g. 6×4.5, 8×6, 12×9, 16×12 etc. If your camera takes 3:2 pick one of those – 6×4, 9×6, 12×8, 18×12 etc. Just do the maths – it’s simple really.

  3. Paul says:

    Please excuse my bad typing below. I am of course talking about the aspect ratio NOT the aspect ration!

  4. Paul says:

    This article is full of inaccuracies. It is simply not true that all prints have the aspect ratio of 3:2 – what about 6×4.5, 8×6, 10×8, 14×11, 16×12, 20×16 24×20 etc.? All common print sizes but none of them 3:2. And there are loads more. All you have to do is work out the aspect ration of your final cropped image and pick the correct print size, of which there are dozens.

    Also, not all dSLRs take pictures in 3:2. Four thirds dSLRs take shots in the 4:3 aspect ration like compacts.

  5. allan says:

    I have a canon DSLR and it still crops my photos very frustrating, when you think you have a good photo it suts the hell out of it.

  6. Rob says:

    Going on three years after the first reply in this string, still same problem with point-and-shoot digital. Wow – didn’t know of it until now, as I was one of those avoiding digital shooting.

    Sadly, I visited an alleged haunted property. In taking an accidental photo, I found that it contains an image that everyone readily identifies as an upper torso, with face toward top and hand below. The famous ghost there was said to have worn a turban-type headpiece in order to cover an ear that was cut off by her employer.

    The seeming figure in the digital pic has a turban like shape around the head, a grimacing mouth, and hand folded toward bottom. Cropping loses one or both.

    Geez. I’ll try to figure out the white border option and cut the excess . . .

  7. Marilyn says:

    Thank you…you made my day. I couldn’t figure this problem out and you made it very clear and simple.

  8. Beth p says:

    Thanks, this tip nicely explains why my first (and only) experience with a discount photo place turned all my close up pics of Pa’s 90th birthday chopped everyone’s head but about a third. I was sure it was nit my fault and noe I know it wasn’t . Thanks David

  9. Kathy Wesserling says:

    There are really two factors to cropping for printing – especially, for the cheap local printing services:
    1] Aspect ratio (as you explained): My first orders were so frustrating because I had resized for that ratio! First P&S was 1:1.3 / Now, my 50D = 1:1.5 /(6 x 4 or .6667 for 4 x 6) . But, even cropping to the AR, too many prints were positioned incorrectly with images trimmed badly.

    2] Actual Print Size: It takes extra time (and ticks me off!), but the printing issues only seem to be resolved if I size them to the exact print size I want before ordering.

    You’d think that if the Aspect Ratio was spot-on, that one could then print any size that fit in that range… 6 x 4, 12 x 8, 24 x 16, etc. It may not matter if you’re printing large at a Prolab, but if you’re having it done locally, make sure of how the service handles your file.

    A side point – you may have to tell local services NOT to mess with you color profile (another article?)

  10. Dwight says:

    My Konica A2 as the options to take photos in several aspect ratios, but my son’s Cannon Sure Shot does not (it was a gift from grandparents). When I go to buy a small P&S camera for myself, I will make sure it has that option. At such high MPixels wasting a little CCD sensor area is no big deal; especially with time saved not cropping.

  11. gideon says:

    Now I understand why i received back from the shop cropped photos printed from film. it is because of the digital developing machine. is it true?

  12. Roberta says:

    Send your photos thru http://www.walmart.com to be printed at the store. do not crop anything. It will give you the option to print what they call true digital. It is printed in the 4:3 aspect ratio. no cropping off the top and bottom, and no ugly white borders. You get the whole photo. The print will be slightly smaller, 4×5.3 I do it all the time, and they look great.

  13. Jobey says:

    Thanks David
    You always explain stuff so clearly. I always wondered why I had white bars down the side of my photo paper when I printed an image. Always thought the paper was the ‘wrong size’.

  14. Sean says:

    This is partially true, if I’m not overlooking something. A 4×6, 6×9, 8×12 print is 3:2, but a 4×5, 5×7 or an 8×10 is not.

  15. MCM says:

    Thank you so much for explaining this so nicely. I could never understand why, when i THOUGHT i had correctly applied the right canvas size to a photoshop document, that sometimes they stll get cropped by the printer.

  16. Stan says:

    Many point and shoot camera have a menu option for either 4:3 or 3:2

    I personally have it on the 4:3 setting and leave more room at the top or bottom (or both) and use Photoshop.

  17. Susan Taylor says:

    Thank you. I have had problems with this for a long time. Even the people at Adobe couldn’t help.

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