A Study in Extreme Cropping

Cottonwood Sawtooth Ridge illustrates the advantages of radical surgery when required

By Bruce Barnbaum Back to


One of the most spectacular roads I have ever driven is the Cottonwood Road in southern Utah, heading north from Highway 89 about 18 miles west of Page, Arizona, to arrive, approximately 75 miles later at the tiny town of Cannonville, Utah. Along the way—particularly the middle 35 miles—lies some of the most remarkable, ever-changing scenery anyone could imagine.

But Cottonwood Road is a rough dirt road that is virtually impossible to traverse if wet. It crosses several streams, it gets washed out once in a while, and it often has other unpleasant surprises, so few people ever drive it. Those who do are richly rewarded, especially those who take the time to get out of their cars to investigate some of the innumerable side canyons and bizarre geological formations along the way. It’s a never- ending array of colors, shapes, and surprises, which I haven’t found equaled anywhere else.

Taking the negative

Toward the southern end of the spectacular middle portion of the road, you pass a series of pointed rock uplifts, before the road suddenly makes a turn between two of them, taking you, in essence, behind this array of impressive, triangular forms. At one point, as the road climbs higher behind and beyond these formations, you can look back at the whole set of them, pointing upward like the teeth of a giant saw. With the road snaking up the valley in the foreground toward your viewpoint, it’s quite a stunning sight.

I made the photograph in 1988 on one of my many traverses of the road, using my Linhof Master Technika 4×5 camera and a 300mm lens, in mid-afternoon. The sawtooth ridge is clearly the main feature of the image, but I never liked the bits of road showing in the lower left quadrant and at the bottom edges. For years I couldn’t f igure out how to deal with the presence of the road in the image.

One day I finally had a startling revelation: crop the photograph dramatically, to a long, narrow panoramic format. I studied the 4×5 contact proof image for a long time with the use of cropping L’s just to get myself over the barrier of eliminating roughly 80% of the image. The truth f inally settled in on me: I really didn’t need or want any of the parts that I was now planning to eliminate. It freed me to do what I really needed to do: conf ine the image to the sawtooth ridge alone.

The crop that cures

Please understand that I have cropped images many times in the past. I have written numerous articles advocating cropping when appropriate. I have recommended cropping often during my workshops. I have argued against the practice (that some photographers settle on as an overriding method) of never cropping an image, but always printing full frame, sometimes going so far as to print the black edge around the negative just to prove that the entire negative is being used (an idea I really hate). So cropping was not a new idea to me. But cropping this radically was, indeed, a new approach, one that made me distinctly uncomfortable. So I had to work with my own hesitancies and hang-ups to finally decide to proceed. Once I got myself over the hump of fighting a cropping as severe as this, I realized it was not only the best way to go, it was the only way to go.

I wanted to eliminate not only any semblance of the road, but most of the hazy near-white sky across the top of the image. So I also cropped down below the distant ridges, leaving only a small chip of sky just left of center.

It was a very hazy afternoon. In dry country like that it could well have been dust in the air from recent winds, though it was quite calm when I exposed the negative. There was quite a large contrast range in the scene, from the shadowed areas of the sawtooth ridge to the blank white sky. Largely ignoring the sky, I pushed up the contrast of the scene in developing the negative, but not by very much. I wanted to retain all detail in the nearby shadowed areas as well as in the more distant ridges sweeping upward on both the left and right.

Printing the image is quite easy, with minor amounts of dodging in some of the darkest shadows to maintain all visible detail there (deep black shadows would have been incompatible with the quality of light that day), followed by careful burning of the sunlit slopes on the left.

But there is also a great subtlety that is very important to me: visibility of the most distant mountain where the sky dips down to its lowest point (one that may not come through easily in the magazine reproduction. To my eye, that distant mountain must be visible… but just barely visible.

The final image is printed roughly as a 5×20-inch print. Don’t forget the great advantage of that long, narrow image: I can cut my 16×20 enlarging paper into three strips 51/3-inches wide, getting three complete prints onto one sheet of enlarging paper.

About the Author

Bruce Barnbaum
Bruce Barnbaum teaches photography workshops throughout the year, focusing on the art of seeing and the art of conveying impressions of your photographed world (real or imagined). He has two monographs in print: Tone Poems - Book 1, 2002; and Tone Poems - Book 2, 2005. Both are collaborative efforts, featuring a CD of classical piano music performed by Judith Cohen. www.barnbaum.com