From time to time, a client will ask me: "Megan, what happened to the top of my head?!"
Seeing your picture with part of your head lopped off may be alarming, uncomfortable and downright disconcerting. It breaks the conventions we've come to know so well. After all, anyone who's grown up in America and had their yearbook photo snapped year after year after year, knows that eyeballs go near the center of the frame and heads are left fully intact.
Check it out for yourself. Hop on over to your Google browser and image search the term "high school yearbook pictures." I'll wait right here while you give it a go....
See what I mean. That's what a photo ought to look like!
...Or is it?
See anything else that jumps out at you about those pictures? Did your image search turn up a bunch of black and white photos?
The conventions of portrait cropping have changed over the decades. I'd like to think for the better!
In this blog, I'll introduce you to the New Rules of portrait cropping and fashion cropping. I'll tell you all about how modern professional photographers use cropping and composition know-how to enhance the way the world views your headshot or portrait.
Like so many trends, the bending of our portrait photography rules starts with the fashion industry. Let's do a quick Google image search of "fashion magazine cover."
Count the number of times that heads have been cut off to some degree.
These crops sure don't resemble what we were used to seeing with our old-school yearbook pics. See how high up the models' eyes are positioned in the frame? Notice how your gaze goes right to their eyes even with all the visual distractions of word overlays and big hair and fabulous fashion screaming for our attention.
What's going on here?
Eye contact is a powerful thing. We are programmed to connect with eyes, not so much the tops of heads.
Let's play good crop, bad crop. Look what happens when we move a portrait around within a frame. We'll use the old school rules and the new rules of cropping.
Let's say we wanted to show a close up of beautiful Jaime. Closeups lend extra connection and intimacy. If we were to show the entire head and bring the eyes into the center of the frame (a la Olan Mills), our image would resemble the one on the right above. Using the modified Rule of Thirds on the left (more on this soon), we create a very different look and feeling.
Notice how you respond emotionally to the two images.
In the image on the left, our model exudes power, confidence, assurance.
We are literally and metaphorically looking up to her. In the image on the right, with her eyes positioned lower, she seems submissive, smaller in the frame, even unsure.
The fashion world wants us to look up to our fashion icons. The higher in the frame they go, the more our eyes drift up, looking for that connection. Our clever minds subconsciously fill in the missing piece of the round head and we are left with the emotion of the image without the worry that our poor models have recently undergone lobotomies.
But what if you really, really want to see the top of her head? There's a simple solution to that. Your photographer need only step back a few paces. The composition rules stay in place but the subject becomes smaller and smaller in the frame.
Notice how the eyes are neatly lined up along an imaginary horizontal axis? On the whole, I wouldn't say that one image crop is necessarily "better than" the next.
But I will say that at this scale, the strongest, most intimate connection with the subject is the image in which her face fills the frame most completely, lopped off head and all.
Since 2/3rd crop and tight crops are the most popular lengths for headshots, they are also the images most notoriously missing part of your head.
"Okay, got it. Now tell me more about that Rule of Thirds, Megan."
Thought you'd never ask.
The Rule of Thirds is an artistic concept of composition that you can see at work in many masterpieces from historical to modern times. The idea is that you would split an image into three columns both horizontally and vertically using imaginary lines. The most pleasing compositions are ones in which the points of impact in the image align with one of the points of intersection of the Rule of Thirds lines.
Remember, when it comes to portraits and headshots, the impact is in the eyes.
A classic example of a Rule of Thirds crop is seen at left above. The eyes are neatly aligned on that top third line and the points of intersection align exactly with her eyes. This would be a fine portrait crop as is. But rules are meant to be broken!
To get my beautiful subject Michele ready for a fashion magazine cover or a captivating headshot, I could take a page out of the fashion industry's book and bring her eyes up just a bit into the top most portion of the frame. I also added a little extra visual oomph by tilting the image and going the teeniest bit asymmetrical on ya. Artist's prerogative! The diagonal lines of her mouth, eyes, and flowing hair make for an extra compelling image. The only thing that's missing is the top of her head and that's a-ok with me. I suspect by now it's a-ok with you as a viewer, too.
Now that you see the power of cropping, why not give it a try at home?
The next time you post a new Facebook profile pic, dare yourself to get off center. Move your eyes further up in the frame and see how changing the crop changes your emotional response. When shooting snapshots too, move your camera viewer around.
Center targets are sooooo 1950's. Jump into the modern portrait scene and crop it like it's hot!
I'll bet the next time you spy the row of fashion magazine in line at the grocery store, you'll nod knowingly at the chopped heads and appreciate your new insider knowledge. :)
Crop on, fashion friends!
Want to see more fashion-forward portraits? Head on over to our Beauty portraits gallery.
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Want to learn more RIGHT NOW? We have a "Tips" section on the blog just perfect for you! Here's one of our most talked about how-to's: https://megandipiero.com/blog/posing-secrets-of-the-red-carpet. Enjoy!