Rules for Cropping Photos – The Top 5 Tips the Pros Use When Cropping in Lightroom!

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Rules for Cropping Photos – The Top 5 Tips the Pros Use When Cropping in Lightroom!

It seems like a simple task.  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 by following some basic rules for cropping your photos.  Let’s talk about cropping in Lightroom, how it works, and some of those important rules that will make your images pop!

Let’s Begin with the Basics!  H2

Let’s start with the basics.  “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.  Follow a few rules for cropping in Lightroom when you’re in post production to get just the look you desire.  So, here are my five best tips for cropping your photographs like a professional!

Related: 5 Habits that will Improve Your Photography Composition

1 – Use the Rule of Thirds

When we’re small, we learn to center objects when we create art.  I don’t know why – maybe so we have enough space to add stuff on the sides.  Maybe because the subject should take center stage?  I mean – it works that way in the theater, right?  The star craves that front and center position!  I’m not really sure about al of that, and I didn’t feel like researching it, so let’s 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, you will find that there is almost always a better way to compose your shots than plopping the subject directly in the front and 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!

Related:  The Power of Editing – Taking A Photo from Average to Astounding! 

Cropping in Lightroom Makes it Super Easy

Cropping in LIGHTROOM is super easy.  You can get this detail right with a cropping tool that includes a built-in gridline for just this purpose.  This feature is an immense help to me when I start processing an image and it is available in both Lightroom Classic and Lightroom Mobile.  Look at what a difference a simple crop can make when using the rule of thirds.  See how the first image centers my son, Tucker (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 that leaves me wondering what else is over there. The second example shows the thirds lines how they appear when cropping in Lightroom. 

Some Details for Making It Happen

It’s simple to make this happen.  When you’re cropping in Lightroom, exit the Library module and enter the Develop module.  Click on the small dotted square to open the cropping tool.  Those thirds lines will appear.  If something other than that tic-tac-toe board shows up, simply press the “O” button as many times as necessary to cycle through the Crop Guide Grid Overlay options.  Eventually, you’ll see that tic-tac-toe board.  This little keyboard shortcut is so handy!  Don’t worry – when you leave Lightroom, this setting stays the same and will be there when you re-open later.

screenshot in lightroom showing cropping tool for cropping in lightroom
This symbol opens the crop tool in Lightroom

Now that you have the crop tool open and are ready to use it, you can either click and drag on the dots in the corners of the image to change the size of the crop, or you can choose an area, and click and drag right across the image to choose the area you’d like to crop.  Go ahead and play with the cropping tools to get a feel for them.  I think you will find this tool very easy to use.

Let’s Talk Cropping Rules

Now that we’ve covered the technique, let’s talk about cropping rules.  Do you see how Tucker 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 that he’s reading aligns with the left thirds line, and the placard is near the top left intersection.  Is it just me, or does this feel more comfortable to the eye?  Simple, isn’t it?

Another great read:  10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Me

Now 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 bit of 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!!!!

Related:  How a Low Angle Shot Can Drastically Improve Your Photo Composition

2 – Don’t lose your limbs, and other portrait photography tips

Now that you understand the rule of thirds, let’s talk about the importance of arms, legs, ears, feet, and fingers in portrait photography!  One of my favorite rules for cropping portraits is not to cut limbs off of people.  In post-processing, 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 look to see what is most pleasing to your eye.

See how including the entire person in the shot pleases the eye?  But don’t export too quickly!  You haven’t finished cropping your photo yet!  Do you see anything else amiss with the 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!!!!

Here’s a handy cheat sheet showing you some basic rules of when and where to crop portraits in post processing, from headshots to full body.  Just follow the blue lines.  Wherever you see a read line, stay away from cropping along that area.  A simple way to remember how to crop a photo with a human is this:  If it bends, it stays!  Don’t crop anywhere where someone’s body naturally bends, such as elbows, knees, ankles, etc.


cheat sheet with boy and red and blue lines showing where to crop and where to not crop following rules of cropping photos

A Note About Aspect Ratio when cropping in Lightroom

Let me give you a bonus tip – if you’re really struggling with fitting all of your subjects’ limbs into the photo, try a different aspect ratio, which can magically give you space to squeeze in extra details when needed.  Changing aspect ratios is pretty straightforward when you’re cropping in Lightroom.  When you are using the crop tool, click on the word “Original” to the right of Aspect.  A menu will appear with a variety of aspect ratio options.

screenshot in lightroom showing aspect ratio menu for cropping in lightroom

Play with this tool to see how it works with your image.  If none of these work exactly how you’d like, you can click on “custom” and enter your own dimensions.  Be aware when you’re choosing your aspect ratio that this may affect how you frame your image when you print it.

Photo and Portrait Cropping for Social Media

Since we are talking about aspect ratios, this seems like the perfect time to address the best ratios for when you want to use your photos on social media.  As I mentioned above, be sure you’re giving yourself extra space around your subjects when you’re shooting.  Even if you’re using your cell phone to take photos for social media, you’ll notice that each platform likes to crop your photos for you before allowing you to post them.  Here’s a quick rundown of the different aspect ratios that various social media platforms use for images.

Instagram = 1 x 1 (Square)

Pinterest = 2 x 3 (vertical)

Facebook = 1.91 x 1 (horizontal) or 1 x1 (square) or 4 x 5 (vertical)

Related:  Amazing Low Light Photography Settings to Change the Way You Shoot After Dark 

3– Straighten Your Horizon!!!!

You’re about to learn something about me.  I am a wee bit OCD when it comes to this rule for cropping photos.  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 landscape photography image has a horizon line in it, then it should be straight, even if you have a person and their full body in the image.  That’s it.  There are tools a-plenty when you’re cropping in Lightroom to make it right.  Straightening the horizon is quick and straightforward.  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 you’re cropping 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!  This straighten tool is a handy 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.

Screenshot in Lightroom showing tilt tool for cropping in lightroom

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 well at creating drama in a photo.  The rule for breaking the rule 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.

husband and wife kissing demonstrating cropping in lightroom
husband and wife kissing demonstrating cropping in lightroom

Now take a look at this shot.  See how much-added drama there is when tilting the horizon intentionally. This little guy walks EXACTLY like his dad.  By tilting the image, your eye is drawn away from the background and right to his body mechanics.

boy walking down a path from behind demonstrating creative cropping in Lightroom

Related:  How a Prompting and Posing Photoshoot Will Capture Natural Photo Poses of Anyone

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 when you’re cropping in Lightroom.  Handling small details allows the viewer to see the story you’re telling without getting distracted by, well, distracting elements of the photo.  So 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, isn’t it?  My eye goes right to him first. The story I’m telling in this photo 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.

Now that you have some basic knowledge about cropping photos and tools at your disposal, get out there and practice shooting.  Then see what happens when you apply this knowledge when you’re cropping in Lightroom!  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 the rules or break them after you take the picture.  One of the many advantages of digital photography is that 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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