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Photographers Throw Money and Megapixels Away

Are You Throwing Away Your Pixels in Digital Photography?

In the past eleven years, I’ve taught over 450 photography workshops and seminars, and the one common thread I see, is photographers throwing money away, literally, by leaving room in their 35mm digital cameras for cropping their images to fit industry standard frame sizes. The most common frame photographers put their photos in are 8- by 10-inch frames, thus they are losing one-sixth of their original image, and if the photograph was captured with a 24-mega-pixel camera, that’s four megapixels down the drain, or in the case of a $4,000 camera, it’s the same as burning ten, one-hundred dollar bills.

It's always best to fill your photographic frame, in the camera!

My first thought is why? My second thought is you obviously have never worked with a photo editor and had your work published in a printed publication. My last thought is that you probably bought your camera based on megapixel marketing hype, or on the Jones’s standard, I have more megapixels than you. It’s sad, but it’s true, many photographers think in 5- by 7-inch or 8- by 10-inch mindsets—it’s time to think outside the box, or rectangular frames in the case of digital photography.

Let’s look at the why part first. We’re a society that tends to be programmed as we grow up in life. Most of us grew up with (in inches) 11×14’s, 8×10’s, 5×7’s and the 3 1/2×5’s, the latter made famous by the Noritsu one-hour mini-lab explosion of the 1980’s. Though the 3 1/2×5’s graduated to 4×6’s, our problems with mandatory societal-cropping (think frames, mattes and photo albums) didn’t originate with the most popular digital camera format today, the 35mm format. Part of this non-ending frame standard formats, I base on what I like to call, “the framing industry makes more money by selling larger frames and mattes theory.” And to ground my theory, let’s look how it all developed, no pun intended, or the second part of obviously you’ve never worked with photo editors or editors before.

Don’t Throw Your Money Away
If you purchased a 24-megapixel camera for $8,000, you could be throwing away 4-megapixels and $2,000. The simple solution, shoot full-frame!
The first 35mm format camera was invented by Leica in 1913, not Kodak, Kodak invented film and introduced the “135” for film, 35mm wide in a cartridge, but the actual film image area size is 24mm wide (11mm’s are used for sprocket holes and spacing) by 36mm in length. It’s based on metric units, not American inches. It’s this format that led to the words, “full-frame” and sometimes “double-frame” in relationship to the “single-frame” 35mm movie format, which is another story in itself.

Now that you know the history of 35mm (135) film, let’s look at full-frame, because it’s this term you’ll hear photo editors tell photographers often when it comes to improper cropping in their 35mm cameras, especially if their photographs are for publication. A full-frame 35mm image makes (in inches) 4×6’s, 5×8’s, 8×12’s, and 10×15’s, thus to fit a full-frame photo, a photographer would have to purchase a matte, with an opening cut to fit the full-frame image, thus the matte would then go into a larger frame—think costs to the photographer and client here. An 8×12, full-frame photo would then be matted to fit the larger and more expensive 11×14-inch frame.

On the other hand, photo editors harp at photographers not to crop in the camera, or not to leave space for placing an image in a frame for several reasons. One, primarily based on the old film days, is that 35mm is so small that pre-cropping in the camera makes the useful part of the photo even smaller, so when the photo is enlarged, it gets grainy, or in the case of digital photography today, electronic noise and jagged pixel edges are more prominent, especially with older digital cameras. This holds even more relevance if the photo editor needs to crop your photo to fit the layout of a publication page.

But the other main reason photo editors harp on photographers to fill the frame totally when shooting is the fact that photo editors don’t place photos in a publication page based on frame and matte sizes, they publish and fit photos in a publication based on column inches and percentages—to test this theory, first, notice how a magazine or newspaper normally has more than one vertical column of text per page. Second, take a ruler and measure ten photographs within that publication, any ten. You’ll find various odd sizes and the chance of a photo being exactly to standard framing sizes is rare. Not even the cover of a magazine is an 8×10, more like 8 1/2- by 11-inches in most cases, and the cover is one of the few cases where the original photograph is sometimes cropped.

Now let’s take this one step further, or the third thought, that most digital cameras are purchased on the Jone’s theory of I’ve got more megapixels than you. Say a photographer purchases a DSLR, digital single lens reflex camera, based on megapixels. And since I’m not the best in math, let’s make it simple for math’s sake, even though I know there are cameras with more megapixels than what’s needed for publication when it comes to the 35mm DSLR’s. Let’s pretend your camera is approximately 12-megapixels. Let’s pretend you haven’t read this article yet, so you do what most amateur, non-published photographers do and leave room in all your photos for cropping for that old 8×10-inch frame/print standard.

Now we know that a 35mm camera, film or digital, makes an 8×12-inch print when printed full-frame. But you want an 8×10-inch print, which means you’ll cut-off 2-inches from your full-frame. So 2-inches goes into 12-inches (full-frame) six times, as 12 divided by two is six. So we agree, we’ve lost two-full inches of your original photo, or in the case of digital photography, 1/6th of the original megapixels captured. Now we take our original 12-megapixels and divide that by that 1/6th loss of the original megapixel information and we have two again. We then take that two and subtract it from the original 12-megapixels and now we have 10-megapixels—in other words, we’re actually shooting 10-, not 12-megapixels and we paid for 12.

Confusing? Well it’s really not and I told you I wasn’t good in math, but in simple terms, when we crop in the camera while shooting for the print and frame standards society has programmed us for, we lose 1/6th of our original photo which means we’ve paid to lose 1/6th of our megapixels. In all those years of teaching photography seminars and workshops, I’ve explained my lets sell more frames and mattes theory to thousands of attendees, so don’t feel bad if you spent $8,000 on a 24-mega-pixel camera and have been throwing away four of those megapixels with each photo you’ve captured. Yes, I did 24-megapixels because the math is easier, but for most publications, you only need 5-megapixels. Don’t throw away your money, take advantage of all the megapixels your camera has to offer, unless you can afford to burn hundred-dollar bills.

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  1. Years ago as a wedding photographer I used to shoot for the 8×10 inch format prints with my 35mm cameras. I removed the focusing screens from the cameras and using a negative cut to this aspect ratio I would center the negative on the focusing screen and draw (scratch) with a pin lines on both sides. These days I’m with you I’m all 8×12, complete full frame.

    • Brian,

      Thanks for sharing that experience. I remember when there was special focusing screens with the rules of thirds for photography marked off on them. Thanks for sharing, all the best, rg.

  2. How would this work with a digital camera that has a 1.6 crop factor? You see less in the
    viewfinder than what you get in the picture…………

  3. I naturally gravitate toward filling the whole frame…. However, I actually force myself to remember to shoot at least SOME of my photos so that they can be cropped to fit a 5×7 or 8×10 format, because I shoot boudoir, and a lot of my clients want the small, 5×7 albums, or 8×10 prints. I don’t sell my photos to magazines, and I worry about turning clients off by only offering full-frame sized prints. So you’re saying even in my situation, I am crazy for doing this? I might have to re-think what I offer to my clients. After all, if 8x10s aren’t on the menu, they won’t buy them, right? Now I just need to find some 4×6 and/or 5×8 albums!

  4. Very good read. However one thing that keeps coming to mind is where these “standard” frame sizes came from. I don’t think they came from frame manufacturers or based off of 35mm film. You have to go back farther in time. Large format has negatives in these common frame sizes. I shoot both 4X5 and 5X7, although 8X10 was also a popular size. The 4X5 enlarged/doubled as well as the 8X10 contact sheet are a perfect fit for the most common frame size. The same applies for 5X7 contact sheets & the 5X7 frame size. Interestingly the popular 11X14 is a perfect fit with an 8X10 with a matt.

  5. Muy interesante y ademas verdad lo que comentas en tu articulo..
    Yo uso dos camaras olympus e-500 de 8 MB y Olympus E-1 5 MB y tengo q reconocer que le saco mas probecho a las oly e1 q a la pequeña e500 , ya que me da mejores tonos, definicion q su hermana menor .. ademas para impresiones normales 20 x 30 va bien.. y con buenas ópticas zuiko se logra sacar mas definición que con mb..

  6. Very good read.However, I actually force myself to remember to shoot at least SOME of my photos so that they can be cropped to fit a 5×7 format.

    • Thanks! Yes, sometimes you also have to leave room for text if you’re shooting a cover too, though I never worry about shooting for standard frame formats, that’s what mattes are for. 😉 Thanks!


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