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What We Expect to See: When to Crop Limbs in a Portrait

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One of the rules of portrait photography is to crop somewhere other than through a person’s joints. Many of the rules of photography are amenable to being broken, but this is not one of them. Cutting a person off at the joints creates a disturbing and distracting sense that the person in the photograph has been amputated. Even the best portrait with perfect expression and lovely pose will suffer if badly cropped.

There are diagrams and general rules that suggest where a person might be cropped for a portrait, but the guides are not absolutes. You must judge each pose and portrait for yourself and decide where to crop. To help you make these decisions, I am going to explain how we see and why cropping a person through a joint is disconcerting. With that information, you will be able to confidently decide with each portrait where to crop.

How We See

What we see is a combination of what our eyes see and what our mind contributes. Our minds are strong and persuasive contributors, and can aid or trick us. For example, when presented with an incomplete drawing, our minds will close the visual gaps, rely on what is familiar, and tell us there is a complete object. In the drawings below, our minds close the gaps and we see the sketches on the left as a circle and a square even though the lines are broken and the shapes are incomplete. Our minds rely on what we’ve seen before to close the gaps and tell us the image on the right is a tree. 

Our minds fill in the visual gaps

If there isn’t enough information in an image, our minds struggle to close the gaps. Instead of seeing a complete object, our minds are distracted with trying to sort out and fill in what’s missing. Without enough information, our minds often trick us, misinterpreting what we see. 

What We See

When we look at a cropped photograph of a person, our minds tell us the person is complete. We may not see complete bodies, but our minds draw on what’s familiar, fill in the visual gaps and imagine the person as whole. Our minds are at rest, confident that what we expect to see is there just outside the edges of the photograph.

When we look at a photograph of a person whose limbs have been cropped at the joints - at a shoulder, elbow, wrist, knee, or ankle - our minds are uneasy, struggling to interpret what we’re seeing. We can see some of the person’s limbs so our minds begin by considering what is complete. For example, if a person is cropped at the knees, our minds begin by considering “thigh” and “knee,” not “leg.” 

Our minds then search for some information to determine what comes below the knees. If the person has been cropped at the knees, the photograph doesn’t provide enough information for our minds to imagine the rest. Our minds misinterpret the lack of information as something missing. Even though we may know differently, our minds trick us and see the person’s legs as amputated.

In the photograph below, because the person’s legs are incomplete, our minds begin with what is complete: the person’s thighs and knees. There isn’t enough information for our minds to begin imagining lower legs. Instead, our minds misinterpret the lack of information and tell us the person’s lower legs are missing. Similarly, because of how he is posed, the person’s left arm is incomplete. We see a complete shoulder but there isn’t enough information for our minds to begin imagining an arm. Our minds misinterpret that to mean the person’s whole arm is missing. We may know that the person has complete legs and both arms, but our minds have tricked us into seeing the person’s legs and arm as amputated. 

Cropping at the knees and not showing an arm distracts our minds

What We Expect to See

Our minds are also lazy. When we are offered lots of visual information, our minds expect to see all of the information. 

In the photograph on the left, we see all of the person’s right arm and almost all of her left arm. Because the photograph provides so much information about the person’s left arm, our minds expect to be given all of the information. Instead of filling in the gaps, our minds become distracted with what’s missing: a tiny sliver of arm and a few fingers. 

Missing just a small bit of information

In the photograph on the right, we see a good portion of the person’s upper and lower arm, but there is a small piece of information missing to complete the image of her arm. Also, as with the photograph on the left, the person is missing just the tips of her fingers. Our minds are distracted with the separation of her upper arm from her lower and focus on what's missing: her elbow and fingertips. 

Applying the Principles

When you are next taking a portrait, consider how we see and apply the principles to your decisions about where to crop. Include enough information that our minds are able to fill in the gaps but not so much information that our minds are distracted by what’s missing. We want our minds to easily imagine the rest of what would be outside of the frame and not be busy trying to determine what’s missing in the frame.

If you are still not confident about where to crop a portrait, take the photographs with plenty of room around the person. You can then make your cropping decisions during post-processing. You can always cut off a bit more but you can’t add what isn’t there.

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