Believe it or not, cropping and photo orientation is a controversial topic in the photography community. In this article and accompanying video, I give you five reasons to crop horizontally and take the top of your head off a bit.
Although horizontal head cropping has become more common, it remains the exception rather than the rule. I learned this technique from my mentor and founder of the Headshot Crew, the great Peter Hurley, and decided to reach out to him while writing this article to ask why he crops his photos horizontally and takes the top off a bit. Here is what he said:
Open any magazine and you’ll see a bunch of severed heads. Visually, I like the eyes above the midline, focusing all the attention on the face. I think there’s power in composition and how close your subject is to the lens, so the top of the head takes a back seat in many cases. I’ve lowered my camera angle over the years, so head cropping depends on the combination of the height of the camera and the angle of the person’s head to the camera.
I think Peter gets right to the heart of the matter with his comment. Horizontal, close head cropping is all about focusing attention on the subject’s face and eliminating all distractions. To expand on what Peter told me, I want to give you five reasons why I love horizontal cropping and prefer to lob the top of my subject’s head.
1. It Removes Distractions and Demands the Viewer’s Attention
Close cropping helps eliminate distractions and forces the viewer to focus on the face, especially the facial expression. Certainly, expression is the most important part of a good portrait and what ultimately serves to attract the viewer. By cropping the top of the head and just below the shoulders, the viewer is forced to focus on the subject’s face and not so much on their clothing or hairstyle. And, while hair and clothing are very important, as Peter says, they take precedence over the unique human facial expression in front of your camera. A wide crop, on the other hand, which includes a lot of space above the head and a large part of the subject’s body, has the opposite effect and adds a lot of turmoil and distraction to the image. In my book, hair, makeup, and clothing are secondary to the face you want your viewer to connect with.
2. A severed head combined with a shoulder cut is even better
You may have noticed that in addition to cropping the heads, I also crop a shoulder and deliberately place the subject to the left or right of the frame. I also learned this technique from Peter, and the reasons for doing it are the same as cropping the head, with a few added benefits. First, by intentionally placing the subject to the left or right of the frame, you force the viewer’s eye to move past the negative space created by the background and towards the subject’s facial expression. Using a plain background also helps reinforce this effect, as the negative space of a gray or white background gives the viewer no reason to focus their gaze anywhere other than the face. Second, the off-center crop gives the subject a sense of movement, especially when the subject is posed at an angle. Take this photo of Dana, for example. The close and off-center crop, combined with the angle of her head and body, not only makes her face the most important element, but gives the impression of movement, as if I had just called her name and she would turn around and smile. I love this kind of headshot!
3. He stands out in a sea of vertical headshots
Another reason to love the close crop is that it stands out from the crowd, which is filled with vertical headshots and textured backgrounds. Remember that the purpose of a professional portrait, especially for actors, is to help them get a casting director’s attention. Even corporate portraits need to stand out, because you want your clients to make a strong visual impression as quickly as possible. While most photographers use a similar vertical and loose crop, where the subject is leaned towards the camera and placed in front of a busy textured background, those of us who crop close and keep the background simple give our clients photos that immediately stand out in a sea of faces, especially since it’s cropped horizontally instead of vertically. Think of it this way: if you’re a casting director looking at hundreds or thousands of portraits, tightly cropped horizontal shots with great light and a simple background are bound to grab your attention. If you combine that with an engaging expression, it’s hard to beat.
4. I never chop heads behind closed doors
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I never cut my head or shoulders behind closed doors. I actually shoot using a fairly loose horizontal crop so I can give my clients the best variety possible. This is extremely important, especially when working with corporate clients, as many marketing departments will request vertically cropped portraits to fit a pre-designed template on a company’s website. When delivering images, I provide the uncropped version as well as the cropped versions, as each client has their own specific needs, and I want to go above and beyond for them. I think this is best practice for portrait photographers, so save the crop for the post. That said, I always encourage my clients to use close horizontal cropping and show them what it looks like during their session. Their response is always amusing when they see firsthand on my monitor how a crop can take a good image and make it look great.
5. Not all headshots should be cropped this way
Although the majority of my portraits are cropped based on what I learned from Peter and presented in this article, the fact is that I do not crop all heads and many times I will leave the head whole intact if I feel that makes the strongest composition. I’ve found that when I leave the head and shoulders in frame, it’s usually with a head-on shot, where the subject’s shoulders are squared towards the camera. Take this picture of Regina, an actress. Since his body has such great symmetry, I wanted to keep both shoulders in the frame, as well as his whole head. His expression is also part of the reason I did this. She looks a bit aloof or troubled here (an expression she needed to find specific roles) and seems very distant, so her distance within the frame itself helps the effectiveness of the shot.
What about portraits?
The cropping guidelines I have presented in this article are mainly used for head and shoulders portraits and not portraits. Although there are times when I like to crop a portrait close up, I usually leave the whole head in the frame and use a variety of different crops. Take, for example, this image of Chris, a model. Although I touch the top of his hair with the riding crop, his entire head remains intact. Also, you can see here that from time to time I shoot in a vertical position!
I hope this article and video gave you reasons why you should try horizontal close cropping. In my mind, there’s no more effective way to crop a portrait than to crop up close, cut off the top of the head and shoulder, and frame it horizontally. Finally, keep in mind that I don’t view these as rules that I must follow religiously, but as guidelines that work well for the majority of headshots. I leave you with another quote that Peter Hurley gave me. Peter joked, “I agree with the cutterheads; everyone knows he’s intact up there!