In photography, there is a thing called a limb chop. And just like it sounds, it’s bad.
A limb chop happens when a part of your subject’s body is cropped and excluded from the frame. Compositionally, it is considered to be a poor choice.
This is because we want to see all of those little fingers and toes! And most of the time, excluding these things in the photo looks like a haphazard accident. Of course, that is not how we want our photos to look!
Then there are times when we could argue that this kind of composition is acceptable. But what makes a good limb chop versus a bad limb chop? As with most things in art, this is subjective. Let’s explore tips and guidelines to keep in mind when considering how you compose your photographs.
Why are chops against the rules?
So you get that you aren’t supposed to exclude parts of your subject from the photo. But why does it matter if a hand or toe is missing?
There are several reasons. Firstly, limb chops can leave your viewer feeling uncomfortable (even if it is just subconsciously). Having a part of the body you know exists suddenly go missing is a strange experience, even in a photo!
Furthermore, cropping a limb that extends out of the frame can distract the viewer. We like to follow lines in photos and when there is a line of an arm or leg leading out of the frame, we tend to move away from the subject and onto the next thing. And we want our viewers to stay and ponder our photos!
Finally, cropping can downplay the importance of a person or object within the frame. By cropping at limbs in an uncomfortable way, it sends the message that perhaps the subject doesn’t require all of the viewers attention.This is particularly problematic when that person or object is your main subject!
How to avoid chops
It’s always best to capture as much correctly in camera as possible. While exposure and white balance can be easily adjusted in processing, if you’ve chopped off a body part in camera, there isn’t much you can do to add it back!
As you’re shooting, take the time to scan the edges of the frame and see if anything important is too close to being cropped out. It’s so much easier to correct the errors before they happen.
Another method (which I almost always employ) is to shooting your frames just a bit wider than your envisioned composition. This ensures that there is plenty of space to keep all limbs intact and allows you to crop closer later as desired.
Where to crop & where to avoid cropping
As much as we wish that we could avoid uncomfortable crops all the time, the truth is that not all chops can be avoided. If you are in a tight space working with a longer focal length or if you have a lot of people in the frame, cropping out parts of your subjects may be necessary.
So what do you do when a chop is unavoidable? You do your best to chop with intention! Try chopping on longer bones, such as the thigh, shin, upper arm, or forearm. Avoid chopping directly on joints.
You can chop the head. However, you need to avoid chopping too much (where’d that face go?!) or too little (did she mean to do that?!). In the case of a crop on the head, be sure to include the ears, eyebrows, and chin, but steer clear of chopping so little that it looks like a mistake.
You will also want to avoid chopping a person at the widest part of the body. This gives the impression that the body remains that width beyond the chop, which is less than flattering.
Areas to watch out for would be the chest area on women as well as the hip and bottom region on everyone. The one exception to this rule is maternity portraits. In maternity portraits, it is acceptable to chop on the bump.
Another common mistake to avoid is cropping out auxiliary subjects. If a child is playing with a toy, the toy is as much of a subject in the image as the child. Therefore you will want to take extra care to keep all of the toy in the frame.
As you shoot, identify the primary and secondary subjects. Then assess which elements can be chopped, which cannot, and how to crop as best as possible when chopping is unavoidable.
Experiment with dramatic chops. When a chop particularly drastic, it can translate as more obviously intentional.
Take a step back or stand on your tiptoes to keep limbs in the frame. Sometimes just a little shift in your position can make a big difference in the effectiveness of your composition.
When are chops okay?
We all slice little bits off in our photos from time to time…mistakes happen! It’s like when you trip over your own feet and then pop up and proclaim, “I meant to do that!!” When you accidentally slice off an elbow or the bottom of a foot, crop in even more and proclaim, “I meant to do that!”
However, there will be other times when you might actually want to crop in close. In these circumstances, you should do so in a way that leaves no question as to whether or not it was intentional. Whether you chop in camera or crop in later, make the chops significant enough that the audience cannot assume the chop was a mistake.
While there are guidelines about where, when, and why an image can be chopped, there are always exceptions. Rules are made for breaking, right?! Knowing your intended audience is a major factor in determining if a chop is acceptable or not.
If the images are for personal use, the only rules are those you set for yourself. This means that you are free to love an image in spite of a chop error or crop off an ear just because you can.
When the intended audience is outside of your personal circle, try to stick to acceptable chop areas. Avoid chopping ears and chins and chop on long bones when possible.
Work on taking a step back. This can make all the difference in giving the subjects plenty of room in the frame, avoiding chops on three-quarter shots and full-body shots. When it comes to close up, snuggly, family shots, some chops are inevitable. Try to be mindful of the rules so you can make the best choice possible for your composition.
When curating a portfolio or submitting images for a contest, be mindful of any chops that are considered “incorrect” according to general guidelines. A small error in cropping can make all the difference in how a judge perceives your work.
But for me, it all comes back to intention. Will your audience see the chop as a mistake or an intentional choice? Is it clear in the image that chopping was your intention? Does the chop improve the image? Or would the image be improved without the chop?
Sometimes chops just happen. And that’s okay! These photos, though maybe not portfolio-worthy, might still be your personal favorites.
The important thing is to work with intention. Strive to compose your frame thoughtfully. And to capture the story in front of your camera in a way that speaks as clearly as possible to your audience.