“The combination of a viewer’s recognition of a subject that is cut off in an image, and knowing about its function, shape, color and other attributes, allows the viewer’s imagination to supply the information missing from the image field”
-The Photograph: Composition and Color Design
Ah the limb chop. Something we hear so much about in photography. So, let’s spend a minute understanding the rules of limb chopping (and when to break these rules!) to ensure a strong composition that properly conveys the emotion of your image.
I prefer to shoot with my 35mm lens, and I love to be right in close with my subjects all the time. Accordingly, it can be difficult not to chop something. From a compositional standpoint, I believe that limb chops can work, but how and where you chop is important.
It is essential to ensure you don’t chop in such a way so that it drags the eye out of the frame. Done properly, when the viewer sees an incomplete shape, the viewer’s mind will automatically complete the shape. How the space that is not in the frame is filled in by the viewer is subjective based on the viewer’s interest and imagination, and that is part of the beauty. Done incorrectly, a shape can appear completely wrong to the viewer, and it can take the viewer’s eyes right out of the frame.
In this image, there is a lot of chopping! The head, the legs, the arms – but each are is chopped in such a way the your eye is not taken out of the frame. In addition, the focal point of the image is the boy’s hands wrapped around his mom and those are not impacted by any chops and the full emotion of the image comes through.
Alternatively, in this image, the chop of the girl’s arms tends to take the eye out of the frame. A stronger composition would have been for me to encourage her to wrap her arms up and together around her mom, similarly to how the boy has draped his arms in the image above. With the arms shooting straight down and out of the frame, the connection falls a bit flat and my eyes are pulled away from the image.
Here’s a few tips to keep in mind:
- Don’t chop limbs at the joints. Chopping between the joints can be much less disruptive to the viewer.
- When cropping the head, crop above the hairline or far enough below the hairline that the viewer is not left wondering where the hair is.
- It’s usually advised not to chop fingers or toes, however, I find that if the hands or feet are not an integral part of the image AND the image is cropped in relatively tight and close, with a somewhat “messy” composition this type of chop can still work……it’s all in how it comes together as a whole.
And here’s a chart that illustrates the best places to chop your subject:
In the image below, I wanted the emphasis to be on the belly and still give the feeling of a mother loving watching her older children as she holds her unborn child. I chopped the head just high enough so you can tell her head is towards her children and not looking down at the belly. I also chopped about 2/3 down her thigh so that her legs have the right visual balance. The result is a faceless portrait that conveys the emotion of brining a new baby into your family – something so many mothers can relate to.
This image is an example of how sometimes the guidelines in the chart above can be creatively ignored. In this self portrait, I wanted the focus to be on my neckless and wedding band – I called it “tokens of my love” as the necklace has one charm for each child. I chopped my face right below the nose, which can sometimes be a tricky place to chop (and you can see it is not recommended in the chart above), but for this image I felt it works because of the way I am faced away from the viewer. My face is not making a connection with the viewer – I am only connecting within myself. So the viewer will not be searching to mentally complete the rest of my face as he or she would if I was engaged directly with the camera. Another chop is where my hand is chopped right at the wrist. Normally chopping a joint can really distract from the image, but in this case, with my hand turned up towards the focal point of the image, I don’t feel the hand chop pulls my eyes away. Seeing the fingers and my wrist joint allows my mind to fill in the missing pieces of my hand/arm. In addition, my arm on camera left is chopped in a less than ideal location, however, that arm in in the background in comparison to my hand and my necklace. Accordingly, it does not carry much visual weight, so I don’t feel it pulls the eye down and out of the face. So lots of chops that could be “technically” wrong, but the image still works for me because the focal point and the emotion of the image are not minimized by the impact of the chops.
Family images when you shoot in close always have chopping, so it’s important just to remember that your chops don’t distract from the focal point of the image. The image below has lots of little chops, but nothing that pulls the eyes away from the loving connection this family shares.
In this image below I have some really tricky chops, most notably the little sitter on the left side of the frame. There is nothing “technically” correct about this chop or composition, but the image still works for me. The older sister on the right is the focal point of the image and she carries the most visual weight. Her placement within the image and the slight chop of her hair are all strong so her shape feels complete. Then you have mom and the little sister chopped on the left side of the frame, but they are layered details behind the focal point of the image, so I almost like the fact that we are only given small slices of them, rather than seeing all of them, as the little slices emphasize that they play a supporting, rather than starring role, in the emotion of this moment. The layers of this image speak volumes to me as a mother and my mind has no problem filling in the missing pieces of the moment with my own experiences and emotions.
So understand the rules, but then don’t be afraid to break them! Just be sure that the eye stays with the focal point of the image and does not get distracted by the way you have chopped a hand, leg or face.
So zoom in, focus on those little toes, on a small shoe swinging below the hip of a mom lovingly carrying her child. Let your viewer fill in the rest based on the emotion you evoke from this small detail. Just make sure your chop does not let the eye travel out of the frame.