Recently I viewed a magazine and was shocked how photographers ignore the rules of cropping when it comes to people photography. While it’s often heard, “learn to break the rules” when it comes to photography, it’s better said, “Learn the rules first, then learn to break the rules effectively.” But before I delve into the rules of cropping, specifically with people, let’s make sure we don’t confuse cropping with composition.
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 to include cropping itself, 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 could go on.
It all depends which instructor or photographer you ask to define composition, but in this photography tip, 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.
Cropping Outside the Camera Is for Farmers
In traditional cropping, the idea is to crop tight and eliminate distractions to the subject. A professional photographer will crop in the viewfinder frame and leave no empty space as they rely on the old saying, “Cropping outside the camera is for farmers.” I’ve heard too many amateur photographers say, “I like to leave space to fit an 8- x 10-inch picture frame,” which really means, “I’m ok with throwing away one-sixth of my digital camera’s megapixels.”
You can avoid this if you remember that the primary purpose of an image is to convey a message through content and the proper crop helps convey this message more effectively when the final composition relies on a perfect crop.
Four Fundamental Crops
In people photography there are four fundamental crops: full-length (head to toe), three-quarter (mid-thigh up), bust-up (traditional portrait), and the headshot as all other crops are mere hybrids of the latter. All crops are applied in the same manner regardless whether the subject stands, sits or lies, for both horizontal or vertical compositional formats. The effectiveness of image composition comes from a tight crop in the viewfinder frame, thus one reason professional photographers often avoid full-length crops.
On occasions when the viewpoint or perspective involves elements such as landscapes intermixed with the human form, or where the human subject is considered a small element of the scene, then you will capture your subject in full-length because your crop is for the scene. 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.
Full-length crops make it hard to fill the frame tight due to the perspective of a 35mm format camera and are best left for plain backgrounds. Most photographers avoid full-length crops except when they photograph groups, such as at a wedding or when someone is lying down, like at a beach or on a bed.
The Three-Quarter Crop
The most popular crop for people photography is the three-quarter crop or basically where you crop your subject slightly above the knees, about mid-thigh up. This crop is common in catalog, glamour, editorial and even in environmental portraiture photography.
If the full-length or three-quarter crop doesn’t work with the photo concept you’re trying to achieve, try the below the bust crop. For men it’s usually coined as “one and a half buttons up” where the photographer captures one and half buttons of a man’s formal shirt, excluding the collar button. If a man sports a suit, then you crop just beneath the V-line formed by the lapels.
If a photographer crops below the elbow they need to show the entire arm and hand, the same goes if a photographer crops 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 headshot varies based on its final use. 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. Some photographers crop everything but the head while others will show part of the neck and still others start at the base of the shoulders or even crop off part of the head.
If the headshot is for a high school portrait keep in mind some yearbook publishers have specific requirements that include head to chin size similar to passport photos. Still other headshots that vary are those for actors and even models have certain requirements for their comp cards.
Fashion Photography Crops
When it comes to crops, fashion photography makes exceptions because the subject is merely a coat hanger that accentuates the clothes (fashion). This 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 often avoid models looking directly into the camera, which often results in full-length or three-quarter crops with a more focus of the torso—the exception, when the fashion image is more editorialor beauty oriented, especially if the model wears a hat or hair accessories. Basically, if a person looks at you, you naturally look back, however, fashion designers want you to look at what they’re trying to sell so the eyes are not the focus in this genre of photography.
The rules of photography are often broken by professional photographers and some of the most effective photographs are created by rule breakers, but only because the photographers that captured those photos knew and mastered the rules first and understand how to break the rules effectively. These same photographers understand the difference between cropping and composition and know how one affects the other. In the end, if you crop and compose tight to emphasize the important elements of an image, you’ll create some great photographs.