How you crop portraits makes a big difference to the feel and composition of the image. There are some definite do’s and don’ts when it comes to cropping portraits.
Photo cropping rules apply whether you’re cropping:
- In camera (in other words, how you frame the shot) or
- Cropping photos in post production on the computer
If you’re looking for a straight forward simple rule on cropping portraits… For simplicity, the rule of thumb is not to crop across a joint.
Portrait cropping rules – the details
But there’s more subtlety to cropping portraits than that. For example, what your subject is wearing can impact on where you crop the photo. To find out about what’s considered a good place to crop portraits and what’s a bad portrait crop, read on. We’ll cover the following portrait cropping rules:
- Standard portrait crops
- Hands and feet
1. The standard portrait crops
It makes sense when we’re talking about cropping portraits to list out the standard crops that we use. I’m sure you already use them, but it always helps to give a name to a thing. They are:
- Full length crop
- Three quarter crop
- Two thirds crop
- Head and shoulders crop
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So now let’s get into exactly where is considered good and not good to crop portraits.
2. Cropping portraits – heads
How not to crop heads
Unless you’re making some sort of artistic statement, or need an extreme close up for some reason, don’t crop off the sides of heads in portraits. Keep the ears in frame.
Likewise chins. When you crop somebody’s chin out of the shot it makes their face look heavier and without shape.
In fact, you should include a lot more than just the chin. A floating head also looks weird. So when cropping headshots, crop just below the shoulders.
The right way to crop heads in photos
When it comes to the top of the head, you can either leave space above the head, or crop into the forehead.
Again, you need to be careful about where exactly you crop the photo. Leave too much or too little space above the head and the framing looks uncomfortable. Ideally, when cropping headshots, aim for the eyes to be in the top third of the image.
If you crop into somebody’s head, make sure that it looks intentional. In other words, don’t just skim the very top of their head off. It will look like a mistake.
By all means crop into their head, but don’t crop too far down. Cropping off the top of the head is personal taste, but even if you are in favour of it, there’s a point where portrait cropping goes too far.
3. Cropping portraits – torso
I mentioned above that you can crop just below the shoulders. However, you need to be careful that it’s not too far down. If you crop lower down the body, on women especially, you have to make the decision to crop either above or below the bust.
Cropping portraits through the bust-line is not good.
You can crop at the waist, but not through the hip joint.
The lines in this photo show the right places to crop a portrait.
4. Cropping portraits – limbs
As I mentioned at the start, the most important portrait cropping rule to remember when cropping limbs is to remember not to crop across a joint. So, no cropping at the:
You can crop photos above and below the knee and elbow. Like with cropping heads though, make sure that it looks intentional, so don’t crop too close to the knee or elbow.
Portrait cropping rule of thumb – don’t crop across a joint.
How clothes affect portrait cropping decisions
I mentioned earlier that clothes can affect portrait cropping decisions. If somebody is wearing a dress, skirt or shorts that end just above the knee, you have an additional decision to make.
Most of the time it won’t look good to have a sliver of leg showing below the bottom of the clothing. In these instances it would be good to crop the photo higher up the thigh, or below the knee.
The same goes with necklines on clothing and necklaces. Try not to crop through either, because it breaks the flow of the line and distracts the eye.
5. Cropping portraits – hands and feet
You shouldn’t crop through hands or feet either. This means that you should either include the whole hand or foot, or crop above the wrist or ankle.
Definitely no skimming off tips of fingers or toes when cropping photos!
Bonus portrait cropping tip
Make sure your camera is straight when you take a shot. Especially if you haven’t left much space around your subject. If you then need to straighten the photo in post production, you could end up snipping off toes or even a whole foot!
Further reading: Cropping photos for maximum impact and better composition
No photographer is perfect
I’m sure that at some point every single one of us has cropped a photo where we’re not supposed to crop.
Sometimes intentionally and sometimes by mistake. It doesn’t necessarily mean that all of a sudden the photo is now terrible. Sometimes a photo crop that breaks the rules is more noticeable than others for some reason, which will of course have an impact.
It just means that from a composition point of view, it’s not perfect and this can be distracting, even if the viewer isn’t aware of the rules of cropping portraits.
Further reading: 7 portrait photography tips for better people pics
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