Five Reasons I Crop Peoples’ Heads Off in Headshots and You Should Too

Believe it or not, headshot cropping and orientation is a controversial topic in the photography community. In this article and the accompanying video, I give you five reasons to crop horizontally and take just a bit off the top of the head.

Although the horizontal headshot crop has become more common, it's still the exception rather than the rule. I learned this technique from my mentor and founder of the Headshot Crew, the great Peter Hurley, and decided to reach out to him while writing this article to ask him why he crops his photos horizontally and takes a bit off the top. Here is what he said:

Open any magazine and you’ll see a bunch of cropped heads. Visually, I like the eyes above the centerline, focusing all the attention on the face. I think there’s power in composition and proximity of your subject to the lens, so the top of the head takes a back seat in many cases. I have lowered my camera angle over the years, so the cropping of the head is dependent upon the combination of camera height and the angle of the person’s head to the camera.

I think that Peter gets right to the heart of the matter with his comment. The close, horizontal headshot crop is all about focusing the attention on the subject's face and eliminating any and all distractions. In order to elaborate on what Peter told me, I want to give you five reasons why I like the horizontal crop and prefer to lob the top off my subject's head.

1. It Removes Distractions and Demands the Viewer’s Attention

Cropping close helps to eliminate distractions and forces the viewer to focus on the face, in particular the facial expression. To be sure, expression is the most important part of a great headshot and what ultimately serves to draw in the viewer. By cropping out the top of the head, and just below the shoulders, the viewer is forced to engage with the subject’s face and not so much with their clothing or hairstyle. And, although hair and clothing are very important, as Peter says, they take a back seat to the expression of the unique human face in front of your camera. A wide crop, on the other hand, which includes a lot of space above the head and a lot of the subject's body, has the opposite effect and adds a lot of busyness and distraction to the image. In my book, the hair, makeup, and clothing are secondary to the face that you want your viewer to connect with.

A headshot of Jacob, an actor.

2. A Cropped Head Combined With a Shoulder Crop Is Even Better

You may have noticed that in addition to cropping head tops, I also crop out one shoulder and purposely place the subject either to the left or right side of the frame. I learned this technique from Peter as well, and the reasons for doing it are the same as for cropping the head, with some added benefits. First, by placing the subject intentionally in the left or right side of the frame, you force the viewer’s eye past the negative space created by the background and towards the subject’s facial expression. Using a simple background also helps to enhance this effect, since the negative space of a gray or white background gives the viewer no reason to concentrate their gaze anywhere but on the face. Secondly, the off-center crop gives the subject a sense of movement, especially when the subject is posed at an angle. Take this headshot of Dana, for example. The close, off-center crop, combined with the angle of her head and body, not only make her face the most important element, but provides a sense of movement, as if I just called her name and she just spun around and smiled. I love this kind of headshot!

A headshot of Dana. By cropping close and placing the subject off center, it gives the image a sense of movement and draws the viewer in.

3. It Stands Out in a Sea of Vertical Headshots

Another reason to love the close crop is that it stands out from the crowd, which is filled with vertical headshots and textured backdrops. Remember that the goal of a professional headshot, especially for actors, is to help them catch the eye of a casting director. Even corporate headshots should stand out, since you want your clients to make a strong a visual impression as quickly as possible. While most photographers use a similar vertical, loose crop, where the subject is leaning in towards the camera and placed in front of a busy textured background, those of us who crop close and keep the background simple give our clients photos that immediately stand out in a sea of faces, especially since it’s cropped horizontally instead of vertically. Think of it this way: if you are a casting director looking at hundreds or thousands of headshots, the closely cropped horizontal photos with great light and a simple background can’t help but catch your eye. If you combine this with an engaging expression, it's hard to beat.

A headshot of Brandon, a model and actor. A simple, neutral background removes all distractions from the most important part of a headshot, the subject's expression!

4. I Never Crop Heads in Camera

I'm going to let you in on a little secret: I never crop heads or shoulders in camera. In fact, I shoot using a fairly loose horizontal crop so that I can provide my clients with the best variety possible. This is extremely important, especially when working with corporate clients, since many marketing departments will request vertically cropped headshots to fit a pre-made template on a company website. When I deliver images, I provide the uncropped version as well as cropped versions, since each client has their own specific needs, and I want to go above and beyond for them. I believe that this is best practice for headshot photographers, so save cropping for post. Having said that, I always encourage my clients to use the close horizontal crop and show them what it looks like during their session. Their response is always fun when they see firsthand on my monitor how a crop can take a good image and make it great.

An uncropped image of Louis that shows my in-camera crop. I never crop heads in camera, just in post. 

5. Not Every Headshot Should Be Cropped This Way

Although the majority of my headshots are cropped according to what I’ve learned from Peter and have presented in this article, the fact is that I don’t crop every head and many times will leave the entire head intact if I feel it makes for the strongest composition. I have found that when I leave the head and shoulders in frame, it’s usually with a head-on headshot, where the subject’s shoulders are squared towards the camera. Take this photo of Regina, an actor. Since her body has such great symmetry, I wanted to keep both shoulder in the frame, as well as her entire head. Her expression is also part of the reason why I did this. She looks sort of aloof or troubled here (an expression she needed for finding specific roles), and seems very distant, so having her distant in the frame itself helps add to the effectiveness of the photo. 

A headshot of Regina, cropped wide without removing the head top or shoulders.

What About Portraits?

The cropping guidelines I presented in this article are primarily used for head and shoulders headshots and not for portraits. Although there are times that I like to crop a portrait closely, usually I leave the entire head in the frame and use a variety of different crops. Take, for instance, this image of Chris, a model. Although I am touching the top of his hair with the crop, his entire head remains intact. Plus, you can see here that every now and then, I will actually shoot in the vertical position! 

Conclusion

I hope that this article and video have given you reasons why you should give the horizontal close crop a try. In my mind, there is no stronger way to crop a headshot than cropping close, snipping off the top of the head and shoulder, and framing it horizontally. Finally, keep in mind that I don’t consider these as rules I need to follow religiously, but as guidelines that work well for the majority of headshots. I will leave you with one other quote Peter Hurley gave me. Peter quipped: “I’m fine with cropping heads; everyone knows it’s intact up there!”

Log in or register to post comments
16 Comments
Mike Ditz's picture

Reason #6 Back when I was "into film" not the rolls, the movies the film teacher was always talking about the Warner Brothers close up used in the classic movies of the 40s.

But I know a lot of actors and they are such scaredy cats only a brave one will take that close crop / horizontal photo to an audition.

Pete Coco's picture

Hey Mike, this is a great point and was brought up in the comments on my video as well. This crop is very common to the movies and has been for a very long time.

Catherine Bowlene's picture

When I just started photography I used to think cropping was a simple thing to do and all these tutorials and Photoworks articles on the subject were not necessary at all. Boy, I was wrong! Right cropping works wonders on your shots.
As for the head cropping part, I agree that not every headshot should be treated this way, there are photos for which it won't work at all, but then there are pictures that would only look better after that. It takes a creative eye to tell one from another.

Pete Coco's picture

Hi Catherine! I agree with you, and yes it's so true that a creative eye is what makes the difference.

Paul Trantow's picture

Yes and yes: A couple things: Watch any film/TV show where they get closer and closer. At some point, you're cutting into the subject's hair. Be wary of any Art Director who hasn't figured this out! Also, cropping seems to affect this: 1 square crop will cut into hair often while a 2x3 crop probably wont! Nice story.

Peter Gargiulo's picture

I can't tell you how many times clients have told me..."Don't cut off the heads"—Drives me nuts! Thanks for this.

Pete Coco's picture

You got it Peter, glad to help!

Eric Robinson's picture

It can work and be eye catching but was not made popular by Peter Hurley. Try David Bailey and in particular his famous contact sheet print of the Rolling Stones from the early 60s where both Jagger and Brian Jones both lost the tops of their heads. It’s always an option but never always the answer.

Pete Coco's picture

Thanks Eric, I will check out David's work. Peter popularized the cropped head, horizontal, headshot for actors. I don't think anyone was doing it before him for actors headshots but I may be wrong.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Dude, give it a rest already. Every time there's an article that mentions Peter Hurley, you're quick to pounce on it with disgruntled obvious envious bs.

Pete Coco's picture

I think it's almost impossible to definitively say where a specific style has developed as artists and trends overlap through time. But Peter certainly popularized the cropped head, horizontal headshot for actors. I don't think anyone was doing that before him, but as I mentioned in another comment, I may be wrong.

It's also easy to try and discount what Peter has done for the industry but there are few photographers in the world who have had the impact that he has, especially when it comes to helping other photographers create their own successful businesses.

Michelle Elmer's picture

I can’t wait to experiment with this concept. I also like what was said in the comments to make sure the eyes are 1/3 down the frame. That seems like a good guideline to me for cropping.