The Top 5 Tips the Pros use when Cropping Photos!

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It seems like a simple task, doesn’t it?  Line up the camera, center your subject, and snap away.  True – sometimes this does lead to a great capture.  But in almost every case, your image can be improved with a solid crop.  “What the heck is a crop,” you ask?  Wikipedia describes a crop in this way:  Cropping is the removal of unwanted outer areas from a photographic or illustrated image.  If you want the full definition , click HERE.

Simply put, photo cropping is all about aligning items in your image in a way that helps direct the movement of the viewer’s eyes.  In other words, where do you want your viewer to look when seeing your image?

Much of this can be handled in the original composition when you take the photo.  If you have the time to properly compose your shot and get all the details lined up before you click the shutter, then you’re ahead of the game.  If not, no worries.  You can still make some adjustments when you’re cropping your photo in post-production to get just the look you’re after.  So, here are my five best tips for cropping your photographs like a professional!

1 - Use the Rule of Thirds

When we’re small, we’re taught to center objects when we create art.  I don’t know why – maybe so we have enough space to add stuff on the sides.  Not really sure, and I didn’t feel like researching all of that, so let’s just say it is what it is.  But today, I’m going to challenge that long-time belief.  Not everything needs to be centered.  In fact, in photography composition, you will find that there is almost always a better way to compose your shots than plopping the subject directly in the center.

The rule of thirds is a great place to start, and it’s super simple!  Imagine drawing a tic-tac-toe board over your image.  Now picture where the lines intersect.  These are the sweet spots in your photo and where the viewer’s eye naturally wants to go.  Line up your focal point(s) at one or two of those intersections, and voila!  You’ve taken your first step to produce a rockin’ crop!

Lightroom Makes it super easy....

LIGHTROOM makes it super easy to get this detail just right with a cropping tool that includes a built-in gridline for just this purpose.  This is an immense help to me when I start processing an image.  Look at what a difference a simple crop can make when using the rule of thirds.  See how the first image centers the subject but leaves so much blank space behind him that it confuses the eye?  I feel like he’s squished way too far to the left of the photo and leaves me wondering what else is over there.

Example of a bad, centered crop
Example of good crop using thirds lines

The second example shows the thirds lines.  See how he is moved over just a touch to align his body with the thirds line on the right?  See how his head is located very near the upper right intersection?  The sign he is reading is aligned with the left thirds line, and the placard is very near the top left intersection.  Is it just me, or does this feel more comfortable to the eye?  Simple, isn’t it?

This is as good a time as ever to mention that when you are taking your photo, be sure and leave a bit of extra space around your subject so you can make these kinds of adjustments with a little room to spare.

Did you see anything else amiss with the first crop above?  If you did, good for you!  If not, you’re about to, and beware – once you’ve seen it, you’ll never un-see it again!!!!

2 - Don’t lose your limbs

Now that you understand the rule of thirds let’s talk about the importance of arms, legs, ears, feet, and fingers!  Even the best thirds alignment loses something when you lose a limb.  Did you notice our subject’s missing foot above?  Look again!  It looks painful, doesn’t it!?

Here are a few more examples.  Take a peek below.  Even though the rule of thirds aligns these photos, they still hurt my eyes a bit.  Can you feel your eye searching for those details?  I can!  When you’re cropping, make sure you avoid cropping people’s limbs.  It is downright painful to the eye.  Instead, leave some breathing room so you can take in all the details.  If you absolutely must cut something off, remember that doing so at a joint gives the least desirable result.  Try some different crops on your photos and really look to see what is most pleasing to your eye.

Image with limbs cropped off
Image with arm cutoff at elbow
Image showing hand cut out at wrist
Image with slanted horizon

See how including the entire person in the shot pleases the eye?  But don’t export too quickly!  You are not quite finished cropping your photo.  Do you see anything else amiss with the full crop?  If you do, good for you!  If not, you’re about to see another oopsie, and it’s only fair to warn you again – once you see it, you’ll never un-see it again!!!!

3– Straighten Your Horizon!!!!

You’re about to learn something about me.  I am a wee bit OCD when it comes to this next item.  One of the first things that will drive me batty and ruin an image entirely for me is a crooked horizon!  It’s a pretty simple fix that all too many beginning photographers (and even some more seasoned) miss.  If your image has a horizon line in it, then it should be straight.  That’s it.  There are tools a-plenty in your editing software to make it right.  Just do it.  Straighten it.

I might be a bit harsh about that rule, but it is sooooo important if you want to be taken seriously even as a hobby photographer. Now let me tell you how to do it.  When in Lightroom, scroll down on the Develop menu to the section entitled Transform.  Click the triangle to the right to drop down the menu.  Click on the Level button and see what happens.  It’s amazing!  It’s a smart feature and works almost every time.  

In the odd event that it doesn’t work quite right, you can use the Transform sliders to rotate the image until the horizon is level.  If this is your first time using the Transform tool, go ahead and experiment with the buttons in there to see what it does with your image.

Now that you’ve mastered some of the basic crop rules, now you can creatively take a try at breaking the rules with intention, which brings me to our next pro tip.

4 - Experiment With Drama

As with any rule, there are always exceptions!  In this case, go ahead and break the rules!  Tilt your horizon or cut off half a face if you want!  Breaking the rules can work really well at creating drama in a photo.  The rule for breaking the rule here is to do it with intention!  If you want your horizon crooked, then be sure the viewer knows you did that on purpose!!!  If you don’t need to show the entire person, then go ahead and crop their heads with abandon!   You can see below what a difference it makes to zoom into the expressions of these two lovebirds. In this case, the central focus becomes their expression instead of the entire photo’s overall view.

Engagement photo not cropped for drama
Engagement Photo cropped for drama

Now take a look at this shot and see how much drama is added by tilting the horizon with intention. This little guy walks EXACTLY like his dad, and by tilting the image, your eye is drawn away from the background and right to his body mechanics.

Photo tilted for drama

5 - Let The Details Tell The Story

Now – to bring it all together – your photo’s overall point is to tell a story, right?  It just makes sense to take care of the details.  This allows the viewer to see the story you’re telling without getting distracted by, well, distracting elements of the photo.  This means if you see something out of place, such as a dirty spot on a shirt or a character who doesn’t belong making an appearance, then crop them right out.  Here’s a great example of an extra character showing up to distract the viewer’s eye from the main focus. See that guy in the yellow shirt? Hard NOT to see him, actually. My eye goes right to him first. The story that is told in this photo really has nothing to do with him. A quick crop removing him makes a big difference and allows your eye to go straight to the photo’s two main subjects.

Photo uncropped
Image with distracting object cropped out

Now that you have some basic knowledge about cropping photos and tools at your disposal get out there, practice shooting, and see what happens when you apply them!  Remember that you can use many of these rules right in-camera as you compose your photos.  But no worries if you miss the shot.  Now you have the option to apply them after the image was captured.  This is one of the many advantages of digital photography.  You can take as many photos as you want and experiment with what looks best to your eye!  You get to choose when you want to follow the rules and when you want to break them!

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  1. These are great tips! I love taking pictures of my kids and always try to use the rule of thirds when cropping because it does make such a difference! Your cropping cheat sheet is so helpful and I also love the idea of tilting the horizon to add drama. Looks great! Thanks so much for sharing these ideas

    • Thank you, Nicole! So glad you enjoyed it! I love hearing from my readers so I know what they’re looking for. Thanks for the comment!

  2. This is such a great post! I never ever thought about the horizon alignment or knew that it was something I could fix with Lightroom. I love Lightroom, this app makes my blogging life so much easier. Thank you for sharing these useful tips.

    • Thank you, Madi! I love Lightroom, too. I can not imagine photography without using it for even the most basic of edits. 🙂 Thanks for stopping in and thank you for the comment!

  3. As a blogger who is trying to learn all I can about proper photographic techniques, this post is extra helpful. I will be following your blog from now on.

  4. Did you say cropping basics? Well, I did learn something. Experiment with drama! Now I like that bit about the 101 cropping basics. Will start practicing ASAP. I do need to change my ”two left hands” into a functional right and left!

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