Lessons from the Shop: Solving the Mystery of the Headless Photograph by Stanley Leary

 by Stanley Leary

Figure 1 - OriginalFigure 2 - 4x6 Print

        Figure 1 - Original                               Figure 2 - Cropped for 4x6 Print


My wife Dorie was standing in line at a local drugstore and overheard a customer complain about his photos. He asked, “Why is their head chopped?” The clerk told him that the photo technician was off, but could help him tomorrow.

As I walked up to Dorie, she told the customer that I was a professional photographer and could probably help. Many years ago I managed a one-hour photo lab in Texas, where I was asked this same question almost daily.

Missing heads (and other disappearing objects) are a common occurrence when making prints. The reason? Digital cameras make pictures that are a particular shape, a ratio of height to width. When we order prints, say a 4x6 or an 8x10, the shape or ratio is different for each size print.

Unfortunately, the machine that prints the pictures doesn’t know how to crop the images in the best way, because it’s a machine — so heads go missing from the edges of our photographs. To overcome this problem, photographers need to understand that parts of our photos will be cropped off, and allow for this when we make the picture.

The relationship of an image’s “width to height” is called an aspect ratio. Digital cameras produce files with an aspect ratio of 4:3 or 2:3 in most cases. But common print sizes have different aspect ratios. For example, a 4x6 print has an aspect ratio of 3:2; an 8x10 has an aspect ratio of 5:4.

To avoid having an image arbitrarily clipped by your software or photo printing service, one should crop the photo to the correct aspect ratio, prior to printing. Most of the newer software will have preset aspect ratios in the crop tool for common photo print sizes.

In Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, for example, one could change the height and width in the options bar before making a selection to crop, to a specific aspect ratio. But avoid putting a number in the resolution field if you don’t want the image re-sampled when you crop it.

If you don’t have Photoshop, try using a lab such as myPhotopipe.  Labs of this nature have software one can use through the Web browser to crop before ordering prints. This software has a crop-and-preview tool. It allows you to see crops instantly of all photo sizes.  Since Photoshop costs more than $600, this free tool can be a great option, particularly for photographers just starting out.