Photo Editor: Photo Cropping for Motor Sports

Posted on 23 Jul, 2015 by Scott Jones
Leon Haslam Aprilia Laguna Seca WSBK 2015

While looking at the reader versions of the latest Raw Challenge I thought I might make some comments on the choices one makes about photo cropping when editing an image.

I’m often hearing amateur photographers comment on how much they’d like to have a 500mm or 600mm or 800mm lens. These are all useful tools for motor sports, for sure, but in my opinion one shouldn’t be obsessed with super-tight telephoto shots at the exclusion of wider images.

When you shoot a bit wider, you have options when editing that you simply do not have when you shoot really tight. Consider the image above, for example. This is Leon Haslam in the rain at Turn 11, Laguna Seca.

Behind the subject is a colorful eni advertising board, complete with the fire-breathing six-legged dog. I have cropped this image according to my particular taste for what I want it to look like. But coming up with this version, I passed by several other possibilities, one or more of which might have pleased you better if you’d been in my situation of editing this image for display.

Here is the original raw image without any processing. You can see that there is plenty of space around the subject, which is more or less in the middle of the frame.


If you watch my images carefully you will likely have noticed that I almost never place the subject in the middle of the edited photo. In this I follow a very old principle of composition known as the Rule of Thirds. In fact I tend to push my composition beyond the “thirds” portion of the principle much of the time. So when I look at this unedited image and start thinking about what I want the edited version to look like, the first thing I know is that I’m going to crop it in such a way that the rider is NOT in the middle of the finished crop. (The rider was in the middle when I shot the image because the middle focus point on most cameras is the best at tracking a moving subject. But while I will usually place the subject in the middle of the frame while shooting, I very rarely leave the subject there for the final, edited image.)

Knowing that I’m going to crop the subject into a corner, so to speak, I have four main options (top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right), each resulting in a different look for the final image, then I make small adjustments from those main options.

In the main image at the top, I have decided that I want to have the rider in the bottom left with plenty of wet, gray tarmac to his right. There is a wash of color behind him, with a strong largely horizontal division that is slanted as it rises from left to right. (I talk a bit about rotating an image for drama in this post.)


If I place him top left I get left of the yellow and black background, more tarmac, and the top/bottom division is different, rider and background colors ‘floating’ on top of the tarmac.


But if I crop a bit wider, leaving the rider in the top left corner, I can include the green artificial grass with the blue and white rumble strip. This version adds some context, some setting, to the image. The rider is less isolated, and now there is a slanted, horizontal V shape made from the yellow and black board on top and the rumble strip on the bottom. This is a subjective choice, whether to include this feature in the image and show a bit more of the rider’s situation. The trade off is that he’s smaller and it’s more difficult to see his face through the clear visor. As with most things in life, every choice involves some sort of compromise.


Next, I’ve placed the rider in the lower right, which includes a lot of the eni advertising and two of the dogs. (If the original had been shot a bit wider I might have been able to include two complete dogs rather than having the left one suffering from half-a-head syndrome. But at this point I’m working what I have in the original exposure.) This version has much more yellow and black in the background rather than the simplicity of the gray tarmac. Again, a subjective choice, but to me the rider is a bit lost in front of such a strong background.


Upper right sees the horizontal V shape return but the subject is at the open end rather than the closed end. Thus there is a different tension in this version, and this represents a different subjective choice. The rider is escaping that V shape rather than trapped in it as he appeared when cropped into the top left of the image.


Of course we also have the option to crop very tight as if the original image had been shot with a longer lens. As long as the image is sharp and the use of the image does not require a lot of pixels (such as a large print would), this is another subjective choice we can make. Notice that even though this image is cropped about as tight as it can be, I still haven’t put the rider in the middle of the shot.

With the wide shot, there are many more possibilities requiring greater subtlety of judgment than I’ve shown here, at least in terms of smaller adjustments to the main options (subject in one of four corners or tight with limited background). Editors often like a rider off to one side of an image so that a headline and text can be place into the ‘empty’ space. When you’ve shot wider than tighter, you have more freedom to expand this space to suit the particular use of an image.

Now that we’ve thought a bit about the principles involved, let’s look at another example where these ideas have a greater influence on the look of the final version.

Here’s a fairly tight crop of Rossi at Sachsenring.
Valentino Rossi Sachsenring 2015


When we crop a bit wider, and wider still, we get images that are quite different in terms of the story we are telling with them.

More versions of this image on the next page:

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