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                                                                                                                   April 2015 / Issue #21

Composing and framing photos
for maximum effect

By Mike Hamers, Lightspeed  – Edited by Kris Green, Turn Words 2 Money

Whether you’re utilizing stock in yours advertisements or website, or you are also the photographer, here are some tips to help you create more impact with your visuals. It can be challenging to get the right photo to fit the desired space without some kind of correcting. Common needs for correction include distracting background elements, framing mistakes, unbalanced images, limited space in your marketing piece, etc.

While the temptation might be to delete these images completely – DON’T!  Being “digital” these days means editing after-the-fact is quick and easy. CROPPING is one option for fixing common problems. Cropping is usually done in photo editing software like Photoshop or by using non-destructive clipping paths or “paste-inside” masks like when using Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, QuarkXPress software.

Cropping gives you a second chance to frame your images and can be used in the following ways to make your images pop!


Crop To Cover Framing Mistakes.
One common problem we face are shots that have one side of your subject too close to the edge of the frame, or even have it chopped off. This can leave the shot feeling cramped, incomplete or uneven. For example when taking a portrait and you slightly clip the ear of your subject.

While you could spend a lot of time using specialized “healing brush” tools in Photoshop to create more space around your subject (and possibly re-create the clipped ear), consider cropping the image even tighter. This image shift can take the focus away from the “missing ear” issue and make the final image quite dynamic.

While the following shot isn’t “missing an ear,” it is an illustration of poor framing (that big light colored floor is quite distracting). There would be many ways to crop the shot to get rid of the floor and make it more interesting, including the one shown to the right.

Crop To Find Balance.
Cropping images can help you balance an unbalanced image. Two examples include:
1) A shot where you attempted to put your subject in the dead center of your shot
    but where it ended up being slightly off center
2) Or where you want to use “”The Rule of Thirds” (demonstrated further down)
but when framing the shot you forgot about the principle.

First let’s look at the example of the bee photo below to demonstrate finding balance. The initial shot is adequate – but the benefit of getting in closer is that the bee’s eye is in a stronger position (using the Rule of Thirds). I also wanted to remove the second stem of lavender in the background because it is distracting and leads the eye away from the bee. The second image nicely demonstrates the power of cropping to enhance the final image.

The Rule of Thirds.
The theory is that as humans we prefer uneven divisions rather than even, and off-center to dead-center. Units of 3 and 5 are more dynamic than those of 2 and 4 in all cultures. The basic application to the rule of thirds is to divide an image down into thirds (horizontally and vertically) so that you have 9 sectors


The "Rule of Thirds" identifies four important zones of the image that you should consider when placing points of interest as you frame your image. I call these four points the “sweet spots". This grid also gives you four ‘lines’ that are also useful positions for elements in your photo composition – 2 verticals and 2 horizontals.

The theory is that if you place points of interest in the intersections or along the lines, then your photo becomes more balanced. The viewer of the image interacts with it more naturally when the Rule of Thirds has been used.

Reinforcing this theory, scientific studies have shown that when looking at images the viewer’s eyes usually go to one of the intersection points most naturally rather than to the center of the shot – using the Rule of Thirds works with this natural way of viewing an image rather than working against it.

Here are some additional examples of how the Rule of Thirds balances image composition

In this image below, the subject’s head was purposefully placed on one of the intersecting points. Notice where his eyes fall. His eyes are a natural point of focus for a portrait. His tie and flower also take up a secondary point of interest. Keep the Rule of Thirds in mind as you edit your photos.

Computer-based editing software today have good tools for cropping and reframing images so that they fit within the rules. Review high-end images like on the National Geographic site to see how many apply the Rule of Thirds as a guide. Below are some additional grids placed on images so you can see the Rule of Thirds at work.

The "Rule of Thirds" is shown in this pair of images.

Crop To Edit Distractions

There’s nothing worse than thinking you’ve taken the "money shot" and getting home to view your image to find that somewhere in the background of your image there is a distracting element that you’d not seen when framing your shot.

Cropping can solve this problem in some instances – particularly when the distraction is on the edges of your image. If the distraction is more central you might need to explore some other post editing techniques. I illustrated this technique in the first image with the bee shot when I edited out the distracting extra lavender spike

Cropping keeps the focus on the action and makes for a stronger statement.  
In this action shot, cropping away excess background and focusing in on the winning catch makes for a stronger image. Notice how the 2 remaining players line-up with the 2 vertical grid lines with the Rule of Thirds grid. 

Crop To Change Shape Format
Sometimes the problem with an image is that the shape you’ve chosen to shoot it in (i.e. how you’ve held the camera, vertically or horizontally) is just wrong for the image or for the space allocated to this image’s use in your ad or on a website.

For example, cropping allows you to change an image shot in a horizontal “landscape” format, to a vertical “portrait” if needed, as well as the other way around.
Direct mail postcards hows power of image cropping and masking.
Also, by cropping an image you can move into some non-standard image sizes if a unique shape adds to your shot. For example, sometimes cropping an image into a square can add impact. Sometimes cropping the top and bottom of a horizontal shot to create a panoramic image can have a dramatic impact also. As you use images in your print materials or on your web pages, experiment with different image shapes to see what works best for the layout you have.

Direct Mail postcard shows image-masking for non-descructive cropping and shaping

Things to Consider When Cropping
KEEP YOUR ORIGINAL SAFE: Clone or backup your images first before you start manipulating. Always keep an original intact. This means you can go back later, copy the image again, and find a different way to crop.

TAKE YOUR TIME when cropping. There are almost unlimited ways to crop an image and it’s worth trying a few of them before settling on one.

WORK LARGE FOR QUALITY CONTROL: Cropping (as well as other types of special effects, clipping paths, or corrections of color balance, hue, saturation, brightness/darkness, etc.) all work best when starting with a large image. By “large” I mean an image with an over-abundance of pixels both in physical size dimensions of height & width (as measured in inches, picas or points) AND the DPI (dpi = the number of dots-per-inch within those dimensions).

NOTE: You can have a 3-inch image with 300 dpi, 150 dpi or 72dpi. What is different is the amount of detail the dots can deliver and the color accuracy. More dots mean more detail. . . fewer dots mean less detail BUT quicker loading with smaller file size (measured in KB and MB, which are kilobytes and megabytes, respectively). Pixels are your data and the more data you start with the better your success as you crop and change the image. I always work at 300-dpi for maximum quality control.

The last step I typically do is to “OPTIMIZE TO THE OUTPUT DEVICE” by scaling the image to its intended size BOTH in the physical height x width AND in the dpi. The only exception to this rule is that I sometimes run a filter, like Sharpening or Blur Filter to the image AFTER the image is at its final size so I can evaluate the pixel appearance visually at the final size and make my final micro-tweaks.

– If you are going to print the final image on smooth glossy paper with a tight or coated surface you want to use the highest quality dpi of 300dpi.

– For absorbent newsprint quality paper where the ink spreads with the paper fibers you need fewer but bigger dots so you want to use images of around 100 – 120 dpi.

– If you are creating images for on-screen viewing you match the mechanical limitations of screen monitor resolution so use images of just 72 dpi. So keep the Rule of Thirds in mind as you edit your photos. Computer editing software often has good tools for cropping and reframing images so those images fit and give your final product more impact.

Special thanks to Cynthia Magliocco for use of her images in this newsletter. She lives and teaches photography in Montreal, Canada and is an administrator for the Facebook site "Show Us Your Two Best Images" which is where we met. See more of her work at

Mike Hamers is an award-winning graphic designer, illustrator and author who lives and works in Niwot, CO. He has been the owner of Lightspeed Design for 23 years. During that time he has won over 20 national and international awards for his logo designs, stationery, packaging, book cover and font designs.

Mike has had his illustrations in Wired magazine and brochure design work in "The Little Book of Layouts: Good Design and Why It Works".  Mike enjoys working with all sizes of companies – from solopreneur's startups to large national companies. His broad experience crosses most industries including bio- and nano-science, biomedical devices, technology and manufacturing, software, foodservice, and more. Mike's comprehensive design and illustration portfolio is viewable at

Mike Hamers, Owner of Lightspeed Commercial Arts, Designer and Illustrator

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