Since we dealt with cropping in the last post, I think it is time for a little anatomy lesson in photography. When shooting people and animals, photographers must pay attention to where they crop their subjects. The reason why has to do with, believe it or not, amputation. Have you ever seen a photograph in which a person’s chest and neck are visible, but her head has been accidentally “cut off”? I have. In fact, that was one of my first photos that I took of my mother. I was about eight years old at the time, but I kept that photo in my scrapbook until well into my teens to remind myself to be nice to my subjects and not amputate their faces.
The bodies of living organisms have natural breaks. These breaks exist because we need joints to help us move. I couldn’t imagine going through life without an ankle, neck, elbow, wrist, or waist. If my bones are my body’s structure, then joints are my physical form’s means of flexibility. I can’t function without having both of these characteristics and neither can my photos.
Let’s Get Started
So how do we photographers achieve a well-cropped photo without making our subjects look amputated? The short answer is that we avoid cropping at the body’s joints. While most people are probably not going to commit my cardinal sin of cutting off their mothers’ heads in photographs, many people do tend to chop off others’ feet. It is almost like we are so focused on getting the rest of a person in the photo that we forget about including the foundation on which they stand.
Let’s say that I want to shoot a portrait of an actress walking down the red carpet at a movie premier. She is wearing the latest fashions from her perfectly quaffed hair to her breathtaking gown to her stunning shoes. I set up my camera to shoot a vertical photo of her curving silhouette and click the button. The resulting shot is gorgeous, endearing, and sure to be a fan favorite except for one thing: I left out her shoes. She was wearing one-of-a-kind lace and satin pumps and I cut off her feet at the ankles. Now she looks amputated and I look to be fired.
My sudden unemployment as a photographer will happen if I: crop out the actress’s feet at the ankles, her legs at the knees, her upper body at the waist, her arms at the wrists or elbows, or her head at the neck. Why? Because instead of following the photography rule of Leading Lines, I instead broke up the photo by cropping at natural body joints.
If I want to make my photos of the actress outstanding so that I can keep my job, then I need to shoot sections of her body that are cropped where there are no natural breaks and joints. I can shoot a dynamic vertical headshot showing of her latest hairdo, makeup, and jewelry by cropping at her shoulders so that all of her head and neck are shown. I can shoot a photo of her cute short dress by cropping midway up her thighs or at the mid-part of her calves. These crop techniques allow the actress’s body’s lines to still “flow” out of the photo without any jarring sense of amputation.
Animal photos follow the same basic principle as people shots. Do not crop your photos at a narrow part of an animal’s body like a joint. Instead try to crop in a wider part of the body such as at mid thigh or shoulder. Cropping flowers within a photo are usually harder to accomplish because most flowers are round. However, they can be successfully cropped at the widest parts of the flower’s petals if at least one full petal is shown in the photo. Please see my photos below for examples of this.
Let’s Break It Down
Cropping the legs of this gentleman at the thighs instead of the knees, allows the viewer to pay more attention to his upper body with worrying about where his lower legs or feet have gone.
I cropped this strange beauty a bit below her shoulders so that viewers would pay attention to her facial expression and her towering headdress. I did not bother showing all of her headdress because the narrowing lines of its silhouette allow the viewer to imagine that it eventually does taper to a point at the end.
During the Pecos High School Class of 1979 Reunion, I shot the hostess as she made drinks for guests. I cropped the photo so that it showed the relationship between the hostess, her actions, and the guests outside her bar’s window.
This body crop allows the viewer to focus more on the graceful curve of the bird’s head and neck without being distracted by its body.
Okay, technically this is photo subject is an object, but I am putting it in the animal category because it is modeled after a praying mantis insect. This photo shows how you can crop the arms and chest of an upright-walking creature without “amputating” them.
Cropping in the middle of this kangaroo’s stomach allows me to use the line of his back to point viewers’ eyes to the most important part of his body: his head.
Flowers and Plants:
“Agave Spikes in Autumn”
The agave cactus’s spines are cropped at their widest width to help the viewer realize that the plant does extend past the frame of the photo.
Both the full and the cropped petals of this lotus bloom all seem to point back to its center, which is the flower’s most important part because it visually holds everything else together.
A single petal is shown in its entirety while the others are cropped close to their widest widths.
The plant stalk in the background is shown in its entirety to help balance out the close cropping of the stalk in the foreground.
I have shown this photo to you in my previous post, but I want to show it again to really emphasis the relationship that cropping has with the width of a subject. By cropping at the widest part of the bottle, I have subtly drawn the viewer’s eye along the subject’s curving form into and out of the photograph. This allows the viewer to realize that there is more to the subject than what is just in the photo itself.
“Tread and Tendril”
See how the center of the wheel is in the center of the photo and in sharp focus, but the sides of the tire are shaved? This is a fun cropping trick to try when you really want viewers to pay attention to the round center of a circular subject (i.e. the circle within a circle).
Remember that while cropping is a way to help eliminate the unnecessary extra details of a scene, it is also an aid to viewers’ imagination. I liken a well-cropped photo to a mystery novel. A good mystery novel weaves together a full story by sprinkling clues for the reader to find and use to solve the story’s crime. When a photo is correctly cropped, it too can hold mystery for the viewer. While the viewer may not see the entire scene in a cropped photo, there are enough hints left on the edges of the photo to help him or her fill in the gaps of the photo’s story.
Keep these points in mind as you begin your homework. And by all means, please refer back to my lesson on Leading Lines if you need to refresh your memory before shooting your own photos.
Shoot 20 images or more focusing on correctly cropping different parts of the body. Since I usually do not focus specifically on people, try creating at least 15 people portraits for this assignment. The other five can be animals, flowers, or objects. Challenge yourself by looking for and cropping things that are oddly shaped. Have fun and experiment. You can shoot vertical or horizontal shots for this assignment, but remember that long thin subjects (like people and trees) usually show best in vertical photos while short wide subjects (like cows or tables) show best in horizontal shots.
Until we meet again, I wish all of you brilliant flashes of perspective!
[ O*] Alycia