The Cropping of Images – The Top 5 Tips the Pros Use When Working in Lightroom!

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The Cropping of Images – The Top 5 Tips the Pros Use When Working 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, you can improve your image by following some basic rules for cropping your photos.  Let’s talk about how to crop images in Lightroom, how it works, and some of the essential rules to making your images pop!

Let’s Begin with the Basics!

Let’s start with the basics.  “What the heck is an image crop,” you ask?  Wikipedia describes image cropping like this:  Cropping is the removal of unwanted outer areas from a photographic or illustrated image.  If you want the full definition, click HERE.

Cropping pictures 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 clicking the shutter, you’re ahead of the game.  If not, no worries.  When you’re in post-production, follow a few rules for cropping in my favorite photo editor, Lightroom, to get just the look you desire.  So, here are my five best tips to get cropped images that look professional!

Rule 1 for Cropping of Images – Use the Rule of Thirds

We learn to format our art with everything aligned in the center when we’re small.  I don’t know why – maybe so we have enough space to add stuff on the sides.  Perhaps because the subject should take center stage?  I mean – it works that way in the theater.  The star craves that front-and-center position!

I’m not sure about all 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 intersections, and voila!  You’ve taken your first step to producing a rockin’ crop!

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 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 a shape other than that tic-tac-toe board shows up, 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!  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 click and drag on the dots in the corners of the image to change the size of the crop.  Another option is selecting an area and clicking and dragging right across the image to choose what 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 to 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

Rule 2 for Cropping of Images – 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.  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 to 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 that file 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 photos in post-processing, from headshots to full body.  Just follow the blue lines.  Wherever you see a red line, stay away from cropping there.  A simple way to remember how to crop a photo with a human is this:  If it bends, it stays!  Don’t crop 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

Here’s a bonus tip – if you’re struggling with fitting all of your subjects’ limbs into the current photo crop, 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 using the crop tool, click on the word “Original” to the right of Aspect.  A menu will appear with various aspect ratio options to resize images.

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 dimensions.  Be aware when 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 image online on social media.  As I mentioned above, be sure you’re giving yourself extra space around your subjects when 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 pictures 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 online 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 

Pink background with "Hip Grandma Merch" available on front

Rule 3 for Cropping of Images – 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 many beginning photographers (and even some more seasoned) miss.

If your landscape photography image has a horizon line, it should be straight, even if you have a person whose entire body shows in it.  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 cropping images 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!  The straighten tool is a handy feature and works almost every time.

If it doesn’t work 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, 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, you can creatively try breaking the rules with intention, which brings me to our next pro tip.

Click HERE to learn how to use Leading Lines to improve your images!

Rule 4 for Cropping of Images – 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 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.  Your eye is drawn away from the background and right to his body mechanics by tilting the image.

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

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Rule 5 for Cropping of Images – Let The Details Tell The Story

Now – to bring it all together – your photo’s overall point is to tell a story, right?  It 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, 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.

Click HERE to see amazing photos of backyard birds of Michigan and get my camera recommendation!

Wrapping it all up!

Now that you have some basic knowledge about tools for cropping photos get out there and practice shooting.  Then see what happens when you apply this knowledge when 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 can apply or break the rules after taking the picture.  One of the many advantages of digital photography is that you can take as many photos as possible 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!

I would love to know how I can improve this blog for my readers. Would you mind taking this short anonymous survey to share your thoughts?

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12 thoughts on “The Cropping of Images – The Top 5 Tips the Pros Use When Working in Lightroom!”

  1. Ooh, I like these. Hopefully, these will help make my pictures better. Thank you, these are awesome guidelines.

  2. 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!

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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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