JUL 3, 2022 / Mobile Phones

Cropping: Your secret tool to quickly improve your smartphone photos

If you’re after a simple way to make your smartphone photos really stand out, you cannot look past the power of cropping.

What is cropping?

There are all sorts of factors that can affect the quality of a smartphone photo, including lighting, focus, the quality of your smartphone camera and more. While apps can apply filters to make your photos stand out more, they’re often overused and lead to other issues with improving smartphone shots.

The reality is that there’s a simpler tool that you can use – or should at least experiment with – if you’re trying to get your photos to really stand out.

That tool is cropping. Cropping refers to cutting away parts of an image, and you might think that it’s a pretty odd thing to suggest that you’d make a photo better by making it less of a photo.

Why crop your photos?

So why is cropping a great tool for improving your photos? It comes down to the fact that “great” photos are subjective, but what’s most often picked up on are the points in the photo that draw your eyes in. A busy photo with a lot going on has a lot to distract you, whereas one that has a few clear details taking up much of the frame is one that will typically stick with you longer.

Cropping also has the side benefit of effectively “zooming” in an image, because you’re cutting away extra detail, and in most smartphone camera apps, that will leave you with an image that’s blown up to the same effective size as a regular photo.

It’s not the same thing, or the same quality as having a true optical zoom as you’ll find on some – mostly premium – smartphones – but it’s often actually better than using the digital-only zoom on cheaper phones. That’s because you can better frame the shot without hand judder at full resolution, and then crop down to the detail that you really want after the fact. Many smartphones will also apply a level of AI to the whole affair to smooth out rough edges, although there’s a limit to how far you can acceptably push this kind of thing.

Cropping can be especially effective for any photo of a living subject, whether that’s the family pet, the grandkids, or the blushing bride. We typically like looking at people more than their surroundings, and a bigger face is one that commands more attention.

A guide to cropping

First, you’re going to need a photo, of course. If you want to play around with a shot with zero consequences, take a selfie. Or a photo of a TV screen or poster, something with a face in it and some other details. The photo might be OK by itself, but we’re going to experiment to make it a little better. Bear in mind that much of this is subjective, so go with what you think looks good to make you happy.

Open up the Photos app on your smartphone, and look for an “Edit” option. On iPhones, it’s in the upper right corner; on many Android devices it’ll be at the bottom of the screen, which is certainly where you’ll find it if you’re using Google’s Photos app for example.

From there you want the crop command. On iOS, this is a square-ish icon on the right bottom row with arrows circling it – because it’s also where you can make rotational changes. In Google Photos, it’s labelled as “Crop”.

A photo being cropped on an iPhone

You should see your photo with an outline or dots around the edges. Slide your finger in or out, and you can adjust the crop of your picture in real time. The bits you’re going to slice out will darken, and when you release your finger, you’ll get your new crop. Don’t be afraid to slide around a bit to find the best crop for your image. If you make a mistake, just tap on the edges of your new cropped image, and slide back out to “restore” your changes. If you totally decide cropping isn’t right for this image, just tap cancel, and nothing at all will change.

By default, your crop will scale to the photo’s original ratio, whether that was a standard 4:3 shot, a wider 16:9 image or even a square photo. You can crop to other ratios, or even to your own sizes if you like. On iOS, tap on the ratio button located just to the left of the pencil icon at the top right. On Google Photos, it’s the rectangle next to the word “Auto” while in Crop mode. From there, you can choose a variety of crop ratios.

A photo being cropped on an Android phone

By default, iOS will save your new cropped photo as the photo, while Android offers to save the crop as a copy. If you want both the cropped pic and your original in your iOS photo reel, the easiest way to do this is first create a duplicate of your photo before you start cropping. Select your shot in the Photos app and tap on the share icon – it’s the square with the upwards arrow at the bottom left of the iPhone screen – and then scroll until you see “Duplicate”. Tapping that will create a copy of your photo in your photo library, which you can then adjust as you see fit.

How to get the best cropping results?

Are there rules for cropping faces and people? As they say, rules were made to be broken, but for generally pleasing effects, it’s usually advisable to keep eyes in the upper third of the picture. Cropping out distracting elements – a bright tree in the background, or some other element of the picture – can be great for drawing focus in on your personal subject but be very careful cropping out parts of their body, as you can end with an odd-looking picture if your subject cuts off at, say, the elbows, or just below the chin.

Read more smart phone tips and tricks here:

When is it time to update your phone?

How to delete smartphone apps

Five cool things you didn’t know you could do with your smartphone

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Alex Kidman
Tech Journalist