Ep 348: The essential guide to cropping portraits

To drop or not to crop? And if you are going to crop, exactly where is the right spot? This episode is all about how to crop your portraits perfectly. You’ll discover: key cropping proportions that will make all the difference, why understanding the final use and purpose of the shot is so important, where you should NEVER crop, why you need to allow breathing space and so much more.

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Constructive Critique

PHOTO 348 The essential guide to cropping portraits

Cropping has changed a lot over the years.

1940’s Vogue cover has a very loose crop
1956 Vogue cover with eyes in the centre of frame Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lesley-m-m-blume/lets-bring-back-the-earli_b_195640.html?ir=Australia

It took me many years of trial and error and studying the work of my favourite photographers to learn that there are actually a few golden rules of cropping worth following that make a huge difference to the visual impact my portraits make and how flattering these portraits can be.

Pablo Picasso, 

 Vincent Van Gogh are examples of artists whose styles broke every rule in the ‘how to paint book’ and in their time they were mocked and ridiculed by other artists and critics alike yet today their paintings are priceless. Having said that they all studied conventional painting rules of their time and then went on to break these rules and create their own signature styles.

My shooting, lighting, posing and post production style has developed and evolved over the years but the way I crop my images has remained the same.

Crop in camera

There is no better time to crop a bad composition than just before you press the shutter release. – Bryan Peterson 

Cropping “in camera” basically means you compose your image exactly how you want your final crop to look when you are taking the photo rather than shooting loosely and cropping the shot in post production.

there are two reasons for this.

  1. Images cropped in-camera look totally different to images that are cropped in post-production. Filling the frame and cropping tight means that you which will create great background blur ( bokeh) which removes any background distractions and focuses more attention on your model which is always a good thing.

2. The other advantage of cropping in-camera is your file size is not affected. A loosely photographed cropped image may only leave you with 20-30% of your file size so a file that was originally 30MB as a full-size image is reduced to 9MB with a tight crop. Lower resolution images have less detail and won’t be as sharp as a full size image

Does it matter where you crop a portrait?

I will crop a shot below the knee, mid-thigh, at the waist, across forearm, or through the top of head. If I’m going to crop through my model’s waist I will usually ask my model to bring their arms up so I don’t have to crop through their arms.

I try to avoid cropping at any of the joints of the body. This includes fingers, toes, elbows, knees and wrists.I also think cropping through the model’s chin looks odd.

2. Watch where you crop

Caption: I think cropping mid-thigh looks visually more pleasing than at the knee. Seeing just part of the knee where the dress ends also looks untidy.

As a general rule, I crop in a way that will elongate and flatter the body. 

Cropping at the knees, waist, elbows, toes, fingers, ankles or wrists can make your model look stumpy. 

Cropping off the arms or legs can make your model look square or  larger than they really are


3.Give your model space to breathe

4. Rule of Thirds

I try and crop so the eyes are in the top third of the frame
Leave lots of space under the chin will give the illusion of a longer neck and creates are more visually appealing image

I find my portraits look much stronger visually when the eyes are positioned in the top third of the frame.

Cropping into the chin is visually jarring like socks and sandals

5. Give your clients options

The explosion of Social media means we need to shoot more options. 

Shoot both vertical and horizontal

Fill left hand or right-hand side of the frame.

Allow space for text

Consider FB, Instagram etc formats

Leave room above the head in case you get a cover

Crop a few “in camera”

You never know where the final image may end up in a few weeks or a few years

6. Crop with confidence!

The image on the far left is showing just a bit of skin from the thighs and looks like a mistake. It’s also just cropping into the head and elbow which also looks a bit sloppy. In the image far right I’ve deliberately cropped into the forehead and eliminated the skin below the line of the skirt which looked really sloppy.

Use these suggestions as a starting point and find a style that works for you.

 Start with a full-length portrait and first try cropping using traditional cropping rules then try breaking the rules and see which way you prefer the most.

Every model you shoot will be slightly different so don’t be afraid to experiment

Ask yourself 

“does this crop look deliberate or does it look like a mistake”

Watch out for anything jarring like the example above which shows skin below the line of the skirt. This makes the crop look untidy or like a mistake.

I use the same rules for my landscape and lifestyle images. I want my images to flow naturally and avoid anything that may look visually jarring

Here is an image I photographed at dawn in Paris

The uncropped image looks a little sloppy in composition

A good crop has the horizon line in the top third of the frame. Now my image is visually more pleasing to look at.

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