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Cropping In Photography—An Element Of Composition

Cropping Outside The Camera Is For Farmers

Recently I was viewing a photography book  along with a photo magazine and I was shocked how photographers are ignoring the rules of cropping when it comes to traditional and environmental portraiture, photojournalism and even glamour photography.  While it’s often heard, “break the rules” when it comes to photography, it’s better said, “Learn the rules first, then learn to break the rules effectively,” especially when it comes to cropping an image. But before I delve into the proper cropping of an image, specifically with people, let’s make sure we don’t confuse cropping with composition.

Composition and Cropping in Photography

U.S. Army Rangers prepare to jump from a Blackhawk helicopter during a helocast operation. U.S. Army photo by Rolando Gomez.

Composition is the framing of the subject relative to the fore- and backgrounds in relation to the story told with the photo. In fact, composition has many elements that affect it including cropping, lines (implied, inherent, imaginary, diagonal, S-curves), rule of thirds, framing, viewpoint (message), format (vertical or horizontal), perspective (depth and distance), depth of field (background/foreground focus), the balancing of elements, juxtaposition, symmetry, texture, and the list probably could go on, depending which instructor or photographer you ask to define composition. In the case of this article, we’ll focus on cropping and how it presents the subject, then more specifically with “body crops for people,” as a compositional element of the final image.

Full Length Crop, Composition in Photography

Model Candice Marie is used in this image to show size perspective of the rock formations in the Moab.

In traditional, non-people specific cropping, the idea is simply to crop tight to eliminate any distractions so the viewer’s primary focus is the subject, not the clutter around the subject.  Crop fully into the frame of the viewfinder, leave no empty space as the old saying goes, “Cropping outside the camera is for farmers.”  Do not get caught up in, “I have to leave space to fit an 8- x 10-inch frame,” that’s the same as throwing away one-sixth of your digital camera’s megapixels and it’s nothing but wasted money. The primary purpose of an image is the message it conveys (content) through the proper crop and if it’s conveyed strongly, it’s more effective toward the final composition.

In the case of photography of people, there are four fundamental crops, full-length (head to toe), three-quarter (mid-thigh up), bust-up (traditional portrait), and the headshot, all other crops are mere “hybrid crops” of the latter four. These crops apply the same whether the subject is standing, sitting or lying, regardless if the compositional format is horizontal or vertical. The composition of the image is more effective when it’s a tight crop that fills the frame, so if you want a headshot, crop for the headshot but compose for tightness of the frame, this is why full-length crops are often avoided.

Composition and Cropping in Photography

Playboy Playmate Holley Dorrough poses on a large conference table to help illustrate the massive size of the table.

On other occasions, where full-length crops are acceptable, are when the viewpoint or perspective involves other elements, such as landscapes intermixed with the human form, or where the human subject is just a small element of the overall scene that is composed to form an image.  Some examples could include a rock formation where the model only plays a role that helps show perspective or perhaps a person next to a tall building or even a person in a large architectural interior.  Still even another example could include a model standing next to a sports car where she only adds some sensuality to the image.

Composition and Cropping in Photography Three-quarter Crop

Playboy Playmate Monica Leigh poses for an Evan Williams Liquor advertisement.

When those other elements to complete the image are not included, full-length crops make it hard to fill the entire frame tightly due to the perspective of a 35mm format camera and are best left for plain backgrounds. Most photographers avoid full-length crops except when photographing groups, such as at weddings or when someone is lying down, like at a beach or on a bed.

The next crop, and probably the most popular crop, is the three-quarter crop, basically where you crop your subject slightly above the knees, about mid-thigh up. This crop is common in catalog, glamour and some environmental portraiture photography. This is also my favorite crop when it comes to my glamour, portrait, editorial and fashion photography.

If the full-length or three-quarter crop doesn’t work with the photo concept you’re trying to achieve, the next crop is from beneath the bust of a woman.  If photographing a man, the crop is usually coined as “one and a half buttons up.” Simply meaning, that the photographer will capture one and half buttons of a man’s formal shirt, excluding the collar button. Depending on the type of suit the man is wearing, the crop is usually just beneath the V-line formed by the lapels. While I mean no ill reference to those with disabilities, it’s often expressed for the three-quarter and the bust-up crops as a rule stated, “Above the knees or above the elbows otherwise you have an amputee.”  That saying is meant to help photographers remember, but more important it merely states, don’t give your subject a look as though they’ve been amputated.

Cropping in Photography, Crop for Man

In further explanation, if a photographer is going to crop below the elbow they need to show the entire arm and hand, the same goes if a photographer is cropping beneath the knee, the feet and toes should show.  This is where hybrid crops can come to play, while a full-length photo will show the legs, feet and toes, a hybrid crop that shows the full arm, hands and fingers, might be of a subject lying down on her side, but the crop is across the middle of the abdomen with the arms bent down and toward the subject’s face in a more L-shaped pattern.

The last crop, the headshot, varies, depending on the final use of the headshot.  If it’s just a portrait, then it’s up to the photographer to determine the best cropping and framing of a headshot, hopefully the most flattering for your subject.  Some photographers crop everything but the head, some show part of the neck, some start at the base of the shoulders, while others even crop off part of the head.  Where a photographer has to pay attention to cropping detail is if the headshot is for a high school portrait as some yearbook publishers have a specific requirement including head to chin size, this even applies to passport photos. Still other types of headshots that vary in specifications are those for actors and actresses, and even models have certain requirements for their comp cards.

Composition and Cropping in Photography, Headshot

When I was photographing model Samantha P. in the Moab, I noticed a light pattern caused by her hat, so I made a headshot type crop to emphasize the pattern of light.

Now there are a few exceptions, one of those is in fashion photography because in fashion photography, the subject is merely a coat hanger that accentuates the clothes (fashion).  This is also why many fashion photographers ignore cropping rules of the body and often crop below the model’s elbows and knees, but rarely show the entire limbs or extensions of the limbs. Fashion photographers also avoid the models eyes looking directly into the camera, which sometimes results in full-length or three-quarter crops from the bottom of the image up to a portion of the head cropped at the top, as the head is not as important as the torso—the exception, when the fashion image is more editorial or beauty photography oriented, especially if the model is wearing a hat or hair accessories.  Basically if a person looks at you, you naturally look back, however, fashion designers want you looking at what they are selling, not the model’s eyes unless it’s mascara, other make-up, or eyelashes they are selling.

The rules of photography are often broken by professional photographers, in fact, some of the most effective photographs are the rule breakers, but only because the photographers that captured those photos knew and mastered the rules first—they understand how to break the rules effectively, not break them on purpose so the photographer looks like a cool, maverick artist. These same photographers understand the difference between cropping and composition and know how one affects the other for an effective image, basically, cropped tightly and properly composed to emphasize all the important elements in the image.

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  1. Good info. I like your work too.

    • Makai,

      Thanks for your comment and nice words. Please let others know about so other photographers can gain some valuable information about photography. Thanks, rg.

  2. Good post Rolando. I find that breaking the rules only works when you are aware of the rules you are breaking and truly understand why you are breaking them. If I try and break the rules and it’s done incorrectly, I always end up reverting. If breaking the rules doesn’t result in a stronger image, there’s no point in even trying, and that’s why its important to understand completely the rules of cropping and all those wonderful cropping tools (thirds, golden section/rule, etc).

    • Thanks for the nice comments, and yes, be aware of the rules first, then learn to break them effectively. Thanks again, and please everyone know about Lens Diaries™. Thanks!


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Welcome to (Lens Diaries™), a hybrid photography blog with social flair. The photoblog provides photo tips, photo tutorials and photo diaries by professional photographer, author, writer, speaker and social media consultant, Rolando Gomez.

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