How to Crop Portraits: An Essential Guide

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As you've come along on your photographic journey, you've no doubt tackled many of the important elements of creating a good portrait.

Lighting, exposure, and composition come immediately to mind as topics you've likely spent countless hours learning about and practicing.

If you're like me, there is one thing that you might have overlooked in that process, something that is just as important as the three areas I listed above...

Cropping.

I know cropping isn't a very sexy topic, but how you crop your portraits can actually have a huge impact on how viewers perceive them.

In fact, you can have an absolutely fantastic portrait from a technical and compositional standpoint, and then totally ruin it by the way you crop the photo.

It's that big of a deal!

So, in that spirit, let's take a look at a few reminders for getting a good crop and avoiding a bad one.

Where to Crop: A Few Suggestions

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A good rule of thumb is that when cropping a portrait, look for places on the model's body that provide a natural transition.

In looking at the series of images above, there are a number of points where a crop seems more natural.

For example, in the lower half of the body, below the knee, at mid-thigh, and at the waist are ideal areas to set your crop. Although, if you intend to crop at the waist, be sure the model's arms and hands don't fall below the crop line.

In the upper half of the body, across the forearm and even across the top of the model's head often results in a pleasing image.

Note how each of the cropped versions of the image above looks natural and pleasing to the eye.

That's not just a result of good lighting and sharp focus, either. The manner in which the photo is cropped helps give it that pleasing look.

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Now let's take a look at how the same photo can be ruined by the wrong crop.

Looking at the array of images above, note how the crop is placed poorly.

In each case, something looks like it's been cut off - the toes, knees, legs, and elbows and fingers, respectively, from left to right.

In looking at these two sets of images, you might not even immediately notice much of a difference between the two.

That will change, though, because with the more practice you have in taking photos, composing photos, and cropping photos, you'll develop a keener sense of what does and does not look good.

In fact, you'll find that how you decide to crop the portraits you create will become an integral component of your workflow - just as essential as the lighting you use, the styling of the model, and the composition of the shot.

But as you begin to clarify that style, it's important to remember that although these are important suggestions for cropping your portraits, ultimately, what you do is up to you!

Every photographer has a personal style of his or her own, and it's necessary that you crop your photos in a way that accentuates that style.

For some people, that might mean bending or even breaking the rules of cropping a portrait - and that's okay.

Let's explore a few in-depth tips for getting the best crop so you can begin to incorporate these techniques into your workflow as you see fit.

Fill the Frame

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If we're talking about the easiest approach to cropping portraits, it's filling the frame.

That means that rather than taking a wider shot like the one above and then cropping it in post, you simply fill the frame with your portrait subject when you take the shot.

This is advantageous for a couple of reasons.

First, when you fill the frame as you take the shot, the final result will look different than if you crop in post. In particular, the level of background blur will be noticeably different.

Remember, the closer you are to your subject, the greater the background blur. So, if you fill the frame when you take the shot, you'll be close to your subject and get a beautiful background. If you stand back and crop the image in post, you'll have a larger depth of field with a background that's more in focus.

The other benefit of filling the frame is that the size of the final image file isn't impacted. That means you have all the resolution of the image to work with in post.

Conversely, if you take a wider shot and crop later on, you might only have 25 percent of the image (if that) with which to work. The end result will be an image that has a lower resolution, less detail, and reduced sharpness.

Crop With Purpose

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Whether you crop in-camera or wait until post-processing, one of the most important tips to remember is that you need to crop with purpose.

By that, I mean that your cropping points need to say to the viewer that "this was intentional" and not "oops, that was a mistake."

Unfortunately, there can be a fine line between those two things.

In looking at the image above, note how the top of the man's head is cut off.

But note that it's not just a sliver of his head, which would be an indication of a mistake.

Instead, the photographer framed the shot such that a good portion of his head was cropped out of the image, indicating that they wanted a tighter, more personal view of the man's face.

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In this example, note how the photographer has broken one of the rules noted above - don't crop through joints.

The man's elbow is missing, as is the woman's shoulder.

And even though there are plenty of things to like about this image, the man's missing elbow, in particular, looks a little odd - as if the cropping here was a mistake.

A better option might have been to shoot this portrait from a higher perspective to include the cut off elements or to shoot the portrait in vertical format.

The point is that you need to watch the edges of the frame to ensure that if you're cropping body parts out of the shot, that you're cropping a good portion of them.

Don't Crop at Joints

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As I noted in the previous section, it's usually not advisable to crop at joints.

There's a simple reason for this - joints are often bent, and if you crop right through the joint, the visual flow feels interrupted.

Note how the image above on the left places the crop right through the man's bent knee.

As a result, we get an odd view of the back of his leg as it bends inward

Instead, moving the crop slightly upward to his thigh area, as was done on the right, eliminates that strange half-knee thing and results in a more natural (and purposefully cropped) photo. See this tip in action in the video above from Photography Hacker.

Having said that, it's also important to ensure that when you crop, you're doing so in a way that doesn't make the model look shorter or larger than they actually are.

If you find that cropping at the thigh makes your model look compressed, retake the shot and crop below the knee. That will result in the model looking taller and more elongated, which is a pleasing look more often than not.

Use the Rule of Thirds

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I know it's a bit cliche to mention the rule of thirds, but it truly will help you get a better crop on your portraits, no matter if you're taking a full body, half body, or close-up shot.

Looking at the image above, note how the model's eyes align with the uppermost horizontal grid line.

Better still, the point between his eyes is right at the intersection of two grid lines, which makes for a very pleasing shot to view.

Typically, when framing up a close-up portrait, you'll want to follow this procedure (or place the model's eyes at the upper, left intersection of the grid lines.

Doing so means you get their chin and neck in the shot, which is a much better look than cutting those things off (more on that in a minute...).

Note as well how this photo appears to be cropped with purpose - the man is positioned in the corner of the shot with a good portion of his head cropped out of the frame. There is no mistaking that this was intentional!

Never Crop the Chin

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Just like you want to avoid cropping through a joint, you want to avoid cropping through your model's chin.

It should be obvious why this is the case by looking at the images above.

The image on the left is simply way too close. Yes, most people would say that the cropping looks intentional, but because the model's chin is cut off the shot just looks strange.

What's more, as noted in the previous section, keeping the model's face, and in particular, their eyes, in the upper portion of the frame makes for a more pleasing shot.

That's why the image on the right above feels more natural. Notice as well that the model's face looks more elongated as well, whereas, in the image on the left, her face looks a bit squatty and square.

That's the power of cropping!

Follow These Guidelines, But Know When to Deviate

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As I mentioned earlier, how you crop will become an integral component of your workflow, and will in large part help you determine how your portraits are received.

Though it's necessary to learn the guidelines above and put them into practice, it's also important to remember that photography is art, and you will have your own voice regarding what your photos should look like.

With that in mind, try these strategies for getting more pleasing images and commit them to memory.

Then, once you've mastered these tips, see what you can do to make them your own, adding your personal touches such that they fit better with your aesthetic.

Besides, it's fun to break the rules now and again, right?

If you need a little inspiration for becoming a portraiture rule-breaker, check out the video below by James Allen Stewart:







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