How Do You Crop a Headshot?

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By The Light Committee

When you get a professional headshot made, your photographer will very likely crop the headshot as part of the service. But what is cropping and why should it be done? Is a crop different for actor headshots versus corporate headshots?

To crop is defined as to cut off the ends or a part of something. A full frame camera sensor captures an image in a 3:2 aspect ratio. Nowadays, with so much resolution available in high-end full frame sensors, photographers often shoot photographs with some space to crop. But are there rules to cropping that you should follow?

A model portfolio photo shoot with a woman outside in Venice, CA
How You Crop a Photo Often Starts in Camera, to Avoid – as Much as Possible – Having Things like Trees Extrude from Behind a Person’s Head

Such a practice provides some creative options in post processing. It is also often just safer to do so as you can always crop away but you cannot crop back what you left out in camera. In addition, it allows flexibility in laying out an image depending on specification requirements. For example, a web designer might want a square or round crop for headshots on a website. Or they may want 5×7. How close the photographer crops in-camera can impact end specifications.

Why Should You Crop a Headshot?

So, probably the number one reason to crop a headshot is because headshots are commonly output as 8×10” photos, or a 4:5 aspect ratio. This isn’t a hard rule, it’s just that it’s most common, particularly for professional actor headshots. More and more, square or 1:1 crop factors are becoming common too.

As mentioned, professional photographers commonly shoot photographs a bit further out than what they ultimately output. Even if they shoot for close to how they will crop, many times there are background elements that are desired to cut out of a finished headshot.

Such items to crop might be a studio light or light stand in a studio. It might be part of the studio walls or part of a background that is cut out. Outdoors there are infinite things to trim, particularly with busy backgrounds. Cropping is important because it keeps the focus on the person’s face, which is the main point of a headshot. The background should be used to subtly complement the headshot, rather than taking focus from it.

a headshot of a woman in Los Angeles outside that can be used for a dating profile
A Classic Headshot Crop is 8x10 (WxH) but 10X8, As Is Seen Here, Is Just As Viable

Crop Factor Considerations

There are many crop factor ratios that are common: 1:1, 4:5, 2:3, 5:7, 16:9. The 1:1 factor was popular for use on Instagram for some time. The 4:5 doubled is 8×10, primarily used with headshots. Similarly, 2:3 is best known for 4:6” prints as is 5:7 for 5×7” prints. 16:9 is most known for your standard widescreen TV format. It is also used when a web designer wants to fill an entire web page with a photo as the background for desktop viewing.

If you are considering how to crop your headshot, first consider what it will be used for. You might need different crops for different uses. For example, on LinkedIn currently the crop is a circle. So, outputting to a 4:5 crop factor will require you to further crop in when posting your headshot to LinkedIn.

Why Not to Crop Any Part of Your Head

Cropping a headshot is an art. There are some applications that will have strict rules, such as for passports. Otherwise, it is your call how to crop one. And one frequent practice is to partially cut off the top of your head. This is often a creative call by a photographer, possibly to make the shot that much more of a close-up.

This may not be suitable for most scenarios because it can beg the question “are you hiding something.” Particularly for acting headshots, it is important to show casting directors your entire face and head. This way you leave nothing to imagination. It is easy for one’s mind, in this case the viewer of your headshot, to jump to a concluded question “why did they cut out the top of their head” when such a crop is used. As such, this crop is likely not ideal for a headshot, though fine for a creative portrait, because a headshot is purposeful.

An example of an over-cropped actor headshot
A Headshot Crop Such as This Can Leave the Viewer Wondering Why is His Hair Cut Off? How Tall Does His Hair Go? And More.

Other Advantages to Cropping a Headshot

In almost all cases, when you are cropping, you’re often zooming in on part of a photo, altering its composition. Changing the composition is often why photographers crop, so they can alter the main focus of a photo.

You might also crop to change the orientation of a photo. Perhaps the photographer took a photo you want to use but the camera was slightly off angle. Or, perhaps you as the subject were tilted and you like the shot but without a tilt. Using a crop tool in post-production software, the photographer can level the image.

How you physically crop a headshot varies by software of choice. On powerful desktop applications, such as Photoshop, there are tools to select and then you can drag the crop in or out with a mouse or pen.

Cropping a headshot is not just to ensure it conforms to a crop factor or other requirement. It is also to help emphasize a subject, to center you in a photo or even to not center you. How you crop is part of the art of photography, but it should match why you need to crop too.

square crop headshot example
You Can Future-Proof the Crop of Your Headshot by Going with a Square Crop, Allowing You to Later Crop it to an 8x10 or 5x7 as Needed or Preferred

Where to Crop on the Body

Where you crop on the body might also have an impact. Typically, it is best to not crop where there is a natural joint or bend to the body. So, from the top down, don’t crop exactly at the top of the shoulder or mid-neck, don’t crop at the elbow, the wrist, the waist, the knee, or the ankle. Instead, crop mid-chest, just above or below the elbow or wrist, just above or below the waist, just above or below the knee, and just above the ankle.

Why? Subconsciously, to the viewer, cropping at these natural bend locations can disconcertingly make it appear as though someone’s limb is cut off. It’s not a deal breaker or hard rule, just one that makes for a more pleasing crop to look at.

Final Considerations

Another consideration is that most people get a headshot for multiple uses. So, going with a crop factor that can offer the most uses is a good idea. Hence, the 1:1 crop factor, or square. It is easiest to later crop down to 8×10, 5×7 or 4×6. It is not so easy to crop the other way around. If you know you will need to crop later on, consider a file that has a slightly higher resolution to account for cropping down later on.

If a photographer shoots too wide in-camera to allow for plenty of cropping room later, this can also have a negative impact. Creating space for cropping can be good but not if you know you will need high resolution results.

For example, if you are doing a headshot, you will be printing or digitally displaying on a 16×20 surface and the photographs are shot full body to allow for cropping “options”, and you later decide to crop in from the chest up, you better have a camera with serious medium format resolution, or the quality might not be there. It might get blurry.

So, proper planning is important, and it depends on the end uses of a headshot as to how it should be cropped. And do not forget it will likely have multiple uses. So, ensuring the use of a high-quality commercial-grade camera is a good starting point. When looking for headshot photographer in Los Angeles or elsewhere, be sure to ask about how they crop.