Cropping portraits for flattering results

How you crop portraits makes a big difference to the feel and composition of the image. There are some definite portrait cropping do’s and don’ts.

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 for cropping portraits 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.

I cover the following portrait cropping rules:

  1. Standard portrait crops
  2. How to crop heads
  3. Where to crop the torso
  4. Cropping limbs
  5. Cropping hands and feet

Rules for cropping portraits

1. The standard portrait crops in photography

As we’re talking about cropped portraits here’s a list of the standard portrait crops. I’m sure you already use them, but it always helps to give a name to a thing. They are:

Guide on how to crop portraits

To receive a cheat sheet of these portrait cropping guides, fill in the form further down and I’ll send it to you.

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 should not be cropped in photos. 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 when you crop a headshot. 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 cropping 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’ll 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 portraits 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.

Portrait cropping techniques and guidelines

I overlayed lines in this photo to 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 not to crop across a joint. So, no cropping at the:

  • Wrist
  • Elbow
  • Ankle
  • Knee
  • Hip
  • Shoulder

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, particularly relevant for headshot cropping. 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!

And while we’re on the subject of hands, you might want to learn about posing hands in photos – it makes a huge difference when you do it right!

Bonus portrait photography 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 cropping, you could end up snipping off toes or even a whole foot!

No photographer is perfect

I’m sure that we’re all guilty of bad cropping when we’ve cropped portraits 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 terrible. Sometimes a photo crop composition 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, the crop isn’t perfect and this can be distracting, even if the viewer isn’t aware of the rules of cropping portraits.

For more help with capturing better portraits, ready my 7 portrait photography tips article.

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about cropping portraits, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my portrait cropping tips have helped you to understand where to crop portraits, share that too.

Leave a Comment