Why is the head chopped off?

Craig Cooper Advice, News, portrait photographer

Every so often we get someone questioning why the top of the head (the crown) is chopped off in many of our photos. No, it’s not a mistake! We didn’t print it badly, nor were we a bit wobbly when we composed the shot!

To explain our approach: When we compose photographs we are aware of “leading lines”: these are typically the lines in a photograph where light meets dark (“contrast edges”) such as the line between someone’s shoulder or head and the background. The eye is drawn to, and follows, these leading lines. In close-up portraiture I often crop out the top of the head as the circular line of the head would sometimes lead away from – rather than towards – the eyes, which are properly the focus of most portraits. As an emotional response, such technique allows for a more intimate feel, whereas the same photo cropped full might feel more distant or removed.

Consider the two images below (of the lovely Tania – one of our awesome customers). These are actually the exact same frame, with different cropping treatment. The first is cropped to place more emphasis on the eyes and this has resulted in the crown of the head being cropped out of the photograph. The second is how this image was originally captured and provides a bit more information, but seems a little more distant. I think both approaches are equally valid, but definitely create a different feeling. Which do you prefer?


Hickling_025 copy Hickling_025

The idea of cropping out the top of the head has been around and considered legitimate for a long time – approximately as long as photography itself: I’ve attached some photographs from Edward Steichen who is considered one of the great grandfathers of our craft and went on to be one of the founding contributors to Vogue – these were taken in the early 20th century (1900-1930):

steichen4 steichen3 steichen2 steichen1


I think these portraits are absolutely gorgeous by the way, don’t you? Even more impressive when you consider that they were shot on a view camera – that’s the old camera on a tripod where the photographer puts a cloth over the head – and that they were taken between 1903 and around 1930! Check out Edward Steichen’s wikipedia entry here and more about him here.