Portrait photography : cropping guide, the 8 keys

A good portrait crop can dramatically change the way your photo looks. It can reinforce an emotion and create striking visuals, help build a story. A bad portrait crop, in the other hand, can completely ruin a photo, make it look wrong, unnatural.
If you are wondering how you should crop your portraits while keeping a natural feeling, you are in the right place!
In this article we will help you understand the common photography rules when it comes to cropping your images, showing you what is supposed to be a good crop!
As with every rules, there are some exceptions! With experience, you will train your eyes and immediately see and feel what a good crop should be, even if the rules are not 100 percent respected! After all, the most famous painters would not exist if they only followed the rules! But, they had to know and master the rules to be able to break them!

1. Common photography cropping guide

Below, you will find the commonly accepted cropping guide. The green lines represents areas where you can crop, the good ones. Red lines shows bad cropping ideas!

Cropping Guide Schema
Do not crop off joints : elbows, wrists, knees, feet etc. Instead try to flatter your model’s features, try to elongate them.
It’s always better to see real world examples to understand the concepts! We will show you the very basics to crop the portrait of this wonderful woman.

Portrait Brunette No Crop

The photo gallery below shows what good crops are, based on the common guide. We have highlighted in green where you should crop.

2. Focus your audience : remove distraction

Now you know the basic of body cropping, let’s see how you can achieve amazing results. Everything has something to do with your eyes…
What does your eyes do?
First, seat down, relax! Pic one photo you are going to crop and edit. Open it in full screen to remove any further distraction (notifications, other apps on your desktop etc).
Then, have a very quick look at the photo and ask yourself :
  • What is the first thing your eyes see?
  • What is the second thing your eyes see?
  • Is there any other area of the picture that captures your sight?
  • Do your eyes seem conflicted between two or more elements in the picture?
Try this exercise a few time and answer the questions. If your eyes are wandering in the picture, or are caught by a detail in the background before laying on your main subject, something is wrong. If you keep going back and forth between details of your image, again something may be wrong.
You want to create striking visuals, let emotion pass trough your photographs or focus attention on aesthetic, story telling etc. The first step is to remove any distraction from your portrait. The first thing your eyes should stop on, is your main subject, then the background for example. Try to be minimalist, help your audience focus on what’s important!
Now let’s have a look with an example! Look at this wonderful portrait! What do you think?

Portrait fashion
Wonderful! Oh yeah, we said that before!
But, our attention is not 100% focused…Eyes tend to go back and forth between the model, the left corner (illuminated red line and the object adding more distraction), and finally the glowing lens on the left. This could be better either by cropping, or by removing the unwanted objects in the frame.

Fashion Model Cropped
We cropped the image tightly in respect of the common cropping guide. The result is a much more pleasing visual without distraction. Most of the time cropping correctly your pictures is enough.
Removing distracting details ( Photoshop )

Fashion Portrait Photoshopped

But, if we decided that the picture was more interesting for geometrical reasons (The upper lines) we could remove distraction using Adobe Photoshop. Now the model is the center of attention, the eyes are no longer wandering…

3. Show your model's eyes

Tell the story, put more drama, more joy, more emotion in your portraits by cropping to show your model’s eyes. This will also bring more facial features and put more emotions, more natural feeling in your pictures. Depending on the kind of your portrait you are trying to achieve, this can provide a tremendous help for better photographs.

Portrait showing eyes

4. Let your model breath! Follow the eyesAdd Your Heading Text Here

When you take portraits where your model is looking on the sides, up or any other directions that’s not right at the camera, try not to lock him / her up! Again, try to tell a story, let your model breath. Let the eyes of your model lead the way you crop!
  • If your model is looking to the right, leave some space in that direction
  • If he looks to the let, again leave some space to let him breath! 
This will not only remove the claustrophobic effect from your pictures, but it will also put more drama, reinforce the audience interest in this particular picture!
In this example, the framing creates an unbalanced effect, it’s unnatural!
Black and white portrait

This is the original picture in which the model have space. The eyes are looking far away, he can breath!

Black and white portrait

Golden Ratio, Rule of Third, Golden Spiral

Most of modern photo editing software offer tools to help you create the perfect composition. In the next examples we used the PhaseOne Capture One software.

5. Golden Ratio

This is one of the most used tool by amateur and professional photographers. With this tool you can place your model in the center and achieve amazing results, keeping your audience focused on your model’s eyes.
When cropping, try to place your model’s eyes at one of the four intersections (at least).

Golden ratio

6. Rule of third

With this tool, try to place your model at one 1/3 of the grid (or its intersection) on one side or another. Try to keep the eyes on the upper grid line, and place the eyes at one of the four intersections. It may seem strange to you, but the first thing your audience should see is your subject, his eyes. Then the whole scene.

Rule of third crop

7. Golden Spiral

This tool is not as popular as the previous ones, but still, you could achieve amazing results with it. If your portrait also emphases on small secondary details, this could help the viewers eyes follow all over every details of compositions like the model’s face and object in his hands or textures and shapes.

Spiral Fibonacci Cropping

8. Crop in-camera

Now that you have learned the basics of cropping, try to crop directly in-camera. With practice, you will train your eye and be able to save time! Try to apply the cropping rules directly when pressing the shutter. This will benefit your photographs and workflow : If you crop tight in post, you could loose a lot of pixels information, thus loosing quality! If you crop in camera you will have more details in your images and you will save time in post processing!
We hope you enjoyed this article and learned some useful tips to enhance your photography skills!
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