When I’m with friends or family in a public place and we want a group photo, I hate asking strangers to take the picture. It’s not that I don’t want to bother strangers. I like bothering strangers. It’s that strangers, as a rule, stink at taking photographs. Waiters, in particular, are the worst. (If you are a waiter and you are reading this post, I apologize. Also, I would like an Arnie Palmer and a dozen wings.)
The primary offense of the waiter-stranger-photographer is that they stand too far away and zoom all the way out (and somehow still manage to cut off everyone’s feet). The photo ends up being mostly sky with a tiny collection of nearly unrecognizable, feetless people at the bottom. On occasions when I do resort to asking a waiter-stranger-photographer to take a picture, I find myself saying, “Step a little closer, don’t be afraid to zoom in. And where are those wings I asked about?”
By way of example, I offer this photo of my family and me taken by a waitress at Smitty’s Clam Bar in Somers Point, New Jersey, last summer. (To the waitress’s credit, she did not cut off our feet in the photo, and she was very good at her actual job, but you’ll see what I mean about the zooming. Did she think that tubby guy on the bench was part of my family? And does that guy think he’s fooling anyone drinking beer out of a paper Coke cup?)
Granted, nowadays it’s easy to crop digital photos, so this is less of a problem than it was in the days of rolls of film and printed photos. But still, why do people stand so far away and zoom so far out? And is it just me, or does my brother look like he’s eight feet tall in this photo?
On a seemingly unrelated note (I’m getting to the point, I promise), I recently received an email from Friend of IBD and noted Detroit Tigers fan Phil Broder with images of “actual billboards in Detroit, Michigan, put up by GM.” (The forwarded message says, “This is definitely cool … Pass this on to anyone who thinks old things can be cool!” I don’t know what it says about me that Phil thinks that I would think old things are cool.)
You can see a bunch more of these here.
The first thing you’ll notice is that these billboards were clearly not designed by the waitstaff at Smitty’s Clam Bar.
In my opinion, there are two elements to these billboards that make them successful. The first is the succinct, clever writing. Each slogan is short and packs a punch (much like most of the Tigers fans I know). The second element is a distinct aesthetic that relies on strong color combinations and sometimes extremely close-cropped images.
The close crop is not just a striking visual technique. It’s a powerful statement, one that expresses confidence that the subject of an image can withstand scrutiny. (Come to think of it, this may explain why waiters stand so far away when they take photos of my family and me.)
Moreover, in my opinion, close-cropped photos are more interesting to look at. (That said, cropping to the point of abstraction is a technique that has its place. For instance, I would not recommend cropping head shots down to a single nostril.)
Whether you’re a designer working with photos that have been provided to you, a photographer trying to capture the essence of a thing, or a waitress at Smitty’s Clam Bar, I’d recommend cropping just a little more closely than feels comfortable, and see how you like the result.