Cropping 101 :: Digital Photo Secrets

Cropping 101

by David Peterson 5 comments

Whether you have years of experience or are a newbie to digital photography, cropping is one of the most basic editing tools you can use to improve the look of your pictures. Ideally you will compose your picture with the subject where you want them, an appealing background, etc. Now try that while chasing your two-year-old around the yard trying to capture the perfect shot! Sometimes you are lucky to even get your subject in the frame, let alone have them ideally situated. Never fear, some simple cropping rules and techniques can greatly enhance the appeal of your edited image. I will give you a few simple suggestions for cropping your pictures - most of which can be done with even the most basic of photo editing software.

Rule of Thirds

When you take a picture of someone (or something), they should be directly in the center of the photo, right? Wrong! As you'll know if you've been reading my tips for a while, this is a common mistake made by beginner photographers. If you are the very neat and tidy, organized sort it may go against your gut instinct, but your photo will actually look better with your subject off center. This is where the Rule of Thirds comes into play.

This rule is actually quite simple. Imagine your photo with a grid of two horizontal lines and two vertical lines placed over it - effectively making nine equally sized squares.

Rule of Thirds Lines

You should be picturing a grid with three rows of three squares each. If visualizing is not your thing, you are in luck because most editing software provides you with a grid overlay on your photo once you are using the cropping tool. The idea is to use these lines and the places where they intersect each other to help you place your subject in the photo. The idea is that photos are more pleasing to the eye and visually draw the viewer towards the subject when the focal point of the photo is along one of the lines or line intersections. Portrait photographers often place their subject’s body along a vertical line and the eyes (usually the focus of the picture) along a horizontal line. The photo below demonstrates this principle. If you do not achieve this look straight out of the camera, you can crop to adjust the proportions of your picture.

The rule of thirds still applies even if the subject is not looking at the camera.

You can also use this rule when composing and cropping landscape images.

Removing Background Distractions

Besides the placement of your subject, there are other things to consider when cropping. The background of your photo is also important. As you become a more experienced photographer you will get better at placing your subjects in front of an appealing background. Sometimes that is not possible though and this is where cropping comes in. You may have an entire memory card full of adorable images of your child playing at your local pool - with lots of adults who should invest in larger swimsuits in the background. What to do? Well, there are lots of sophisticated editing techniques that can be employed but your first line of defense is cropping. Cropping is an invaluable tool for focusing in on your subject and removing as many of the background distractions as possible. Keep the Rule of Thirds in mind as you crop and begin to focus the photo area to get rid of distractions. If there are truly a lot of people or other items in the background you will not be able to crop them all out, but you may just see bits and pieces rather than entire bikini clad figures! Lots of background clutter can truly spoil an otherwise good image, so cropping is often the first step towards fixing it.

Avoid Amputations

I have just emphasized the importance and usefulness of cropping, but with that said, it is possible to crop too much! Over cropping, particularly when it is in the wrong place, makes for some awkward looking photos. When you are cropping photos of people avoid cropping them at natural joint locations—elbows, wrists, waist, knees, ankles, etc. If you crop a person’s image at a joint, the result is not good. Your subject will unintentionally look like an amputee. As a general rule if you are taking a picture of a person’s entire body then avoid leaving out only a small part—like a foot or part of a foot. Try to include all of this in your viewfinder—you can always trim it down with cropping later if necessary.

If you must crop the lower section, then don’t cut them off at the ankles or any other joint - crop in between joints. The head is a bit different. We are used to seeing pictures of people with the top of their head cropped off. It typically looks fine. The same cannot be said for the bottom of the face - do not remove someone’s chin! With the possible exception of Jay Leno, this is not a good look for anyone!


Another technique you can use when cropping, is the straightening tool. This is valuable for crooked images, especially for an image with a distinct horizon line, which would look better straight. You can also get creative with this tool and “unstraighten” an image. This will most likely chop off part of your image, but if you follow the cropping rules described above this can add a fun, creative effect to certain pictures.

Cropping is a photo editing basic that you will use often. Always try to compose your picture properly while taking it but take advantage of this powerful tool in post processing to achieve your desired result. For most photographers the pictures do not always come straight out of the camera with the perfect layout. Using these simple guidelines you can effectively crop your pictures to remove distracting backgrounds, create a more visually pleasing image, or even add a creative effect. Ready, set, crop!

Having issues with your photo editor? I have put together a series called Post Processing for Photographers that covers the most common editing tasks needed by photographers. In the course, I'll show you how to remove unwanted objects from your photo; fix lighting and white balance issues; how to sharpen (correctly); and lots more. I cover cropping and straightening in Video 1 (watch it here). More information.

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  1. Pat says:

    The one thing most people never talk about is how much cropping is too much before the photo is degraded to the point where it is spoiled. It would be nice to know if there were a "rule" or guideline about what is the maximum to crop to preserve quality, rather than cropping a photo, posting it online and then have someone tell you it has so much noise "it's too bad" etc, etc.

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Pat,

      It's very hard to give a definitive answer on how much is too much to crop because it depends not only on how many megapixels your camera has, but what quality setting you used to save the photo with, and how much you are cropping.

      Note: online photos are less likely to show artefacts when cropped than when you print the photos. Online has a much less resolution than print, so you can get away with more cropping.


  2. Jannie Taljard says:

    Thanks David, once again very informative, especially to a newbie like me. i will most certainly use the tips.

  3. Hansie says:

    For me it is a very and wonderfull tip thank you very much

  4. Richard Eicher says:

    In the second paragraph on the rule of thirds, shouldn't it say two vertical lines instead of three? This would be similar to the two horizontal lines required to break the photo into nine equal squares.

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