Framing v Cropping

I am asked to note down what I understand to be the difference between cropping and framing.

My own working definition, slightly glib and deliberately circular,  is ‘Framing is cropping done in the viewfinder. Cropping is framing done or refined in post-processing’. Both words describe the act of selecting a segment of the scene before the camera, making a decision about what to include or reject (Szarkowski, quoted in course papers, p26) and arranging the principal elements within the picture space. Szarkowski (ibid.) notes that the action forces a concentration on the picture edge and the shapes that are created by it.

Of the two dictionaries of photographic terms that I consulted, Lewinski (1987) defines neither term and Bailey (1987) fails to define framing. He defines cropping as ‘Editing of a print or image, and the rejection of unwanted areas to concentrate on the main subject of the picture.’

Michael Freeman appears to adopt the same working definition as me, and the first chapter of ‘The Photographer’s Eye‘ (2007) is an extended riff on the subject. On the page headed ‘Cropping’ (2007, 20) he tells us ‘Cropping is a way of reworking the image well after it has been shot; an option for deferring design decisions, and even of exploring new ways of organising an image.’

Freeman (2011, 156) also gives a useful description of framing, ‘Framing is how the boundaries are set; the shape of the camera frame is the given, and often the first decision is how this is going to be applied to the scene in front of the photographer … The viewpoint and the lens focal length are the two main variables, followed by decisions on what will be included and what left out.’

John Hedgecoe (1994, 154) regards both actions as cropping in his glossary and uses the term ‘framing’ (1994, 28) for the compositional technique of using foreground objects as a frame to focus attention on the main subject.

Liz Wells (2000, 283) reminds us that framing also refers to the act of placing a physical frame around a physical picture. It acts as the margin between the work and the wall and delineates the edge of the picture – which brings us neatly back to the Szarkowski quote in the course notes.

I am aware that there is a debate about whether cropping is acceptable or to be avoided, but that is a topic for another day. In my opinion, some cropping is inevitable (Film or sensor formats are often not proportional to the paper size. Optical viewfinders rarely correspond precisely to the frame captured on the film or sensor) but it is best to keep it to a minimum in order to maximise the amount of information (pixels or negative area) in the final image.


Bailey, A. (1987) The Illustrated Dictionary of Photography. Leicester: Windward

Freeman, M. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye. Lewes: Ilex Press

Freeman, M. (2011) The Photographer’s Vision. Lewes: Ilex Press

Hedgecoe, J. (1994) John Hedgecoe’s Complete Guide to Black and White Photography and Darkroom Techniques. London: Collins & Brown

Lewinsky, J. (1987) Jorge Lewinski’s Dictionary of Photography. London: Sphere Books

Wells, L. (2000) Photography: A Critical Introduction, Second Edition. London: Routledge