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Quick Tip: 5 Tried and True Portrait Cropping Techniques

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Cropping a portrait properly takes a lot more thought than just putting the face in the middle of the frame. In this quick tutorial, you'll learn five techniques to ensure you're getting the most compelling crops for your portraits.


Crop in the Middle of Limbs, Not at Joints

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When you crop a person at a joint, it feels like you are amputating the person at that spot. To avoid that, don't crop a photo at the toes (it looks like a mistake), ankle, knee, wrist, elbow, or shoulder. Instead try cropping at the shin, thigh, torso, or middle of the arm. This way we see part of the limb continuing out of the frame, and it's easier for a minds to fill in the rest.

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Leave Face Space

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You should literally leave space in front of the subjects face. Here, the guy is looking to the right. That means you should leave more room on the right side (in front of the face) than on the left side. This gives breathing room, allows the viewer to relax, and give the subject space to look into.

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The opposite also applies. If you want the viewer to feel claustrophobic and closed in by your photo, then have the subject face the edge and get rid of the breathing room.


Lead the Subject's Eyes

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You know the rule of thirds, right? If you don't, check out this tutorial. It applies to portraits as well. Put your subject's face somewhere interesting in the frame. That leaves room for the viewer to explore the image, instead of staring at the middle.

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Lead the Viewer's Eyes

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This is true for any photo, but make sure to remove distracting elements. You want to look at what your viewer looks at. The first thing we are biologically programmed to look at is a human face. Next, any text that makes us want to read it. After that, we go to the brightest color or the part of the image with the most contrast.

In this photo, we see his face first, then are drawn to the bottle in the background. Next we see the hands, then maybe the reflections of people on the right, then the empty space on the left. There is just too much and your eye movement looking at the picture is very erratic.

Crop out the distracting elements and all we are left with is a face, hands, and the window pattern. We keep cycling through points of interest and never get stuck.

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Keep the Hairline

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Unless you are doing headshots for a casting agency who says you are not allowed to crop into the head at all, it is okay to do so as long as you don't crop their hairline. As long as you leave a good bit of the hair in the photo, then everyone knows "yes, this person has hair."

If you crop at the hair line, there is no visual end to their forehead and that makes it look huge. Worse yet, it makes them look bald. If you are going to crop in tight, then make sure you crop in really tight and go just above the eyebrows to minimize forehead. The eyebrows become the new hairline.

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Apply the Rules for 8x10"

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When you take a photo, your camera (assuming you shoot on a DSLR) will be 8x12 aspect ratio. If a clients wants to buy the ever-popular 8x10" print then you have a problem. You have to cut off part of the photo that you so carefully worked to capture correctly in-camera.

In this photo, I had to crop in pretty tight to get rid of all the distracting elements. I left just enough space above his head that it doesn't cut the top of his hat, and enough space around his hand we don't get the amputated look.

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How do you crop your portraits? Let me know in the comments.

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