Book covers with photos where the heads are cropped off are quite popular. There’s a lot of advantages to them, it gives the reader room to imagine what the character looks like and makes it easer to choose a photo that might not be a perfect match.
On the other hand I know a lot of people dislike them. Some readers will go so far as to refuse to even pick up a “headless” book. Why the hate?
A major part of the negative reaction doesn’t have to do with the fact that you can’t see the whole photo, it has to do with the spot the designer chooses to crop at. There’s a simple rule to remember when you’re cropping a photo :
Don’t crop at a joint. Especially the neck!
There’s something about cropping at the neck that doesn’t say “close up shot that leaves some mystery to the reader’s imagination”. It says “guillotine”.
Okay, here’s an example. On the left is the original photo, but for our book cover we want to focus on the apple in her hand and let the readers imagine what her face looks like. So we crop the head out. Because I cropped at the neck, she looks headless. There is something about the way our brains work, when a picture is cropped at a joint we have trouble imagining what is outside the photo. It’s not a concious thing, I’m sure if you thought about it, you’d know that she does have a head. But still, our subconscious says headless.
So, how can we pull this off in a less disturbing manner?
Always crop above or below the neck. For this photo, above works much better. I find that cropping between the lips and the nose is a sweet spot. You might think that you need to crop the whole face out but it’s really the eyes that people notice, so cropping here works just as well for letting the reader imagine her face.
If you crop in even closer, people won’t think that you’re being tricky at all, it just looks like your took the photo up close to focus on the apple.
Okay, with both of those examples I cropped above the neck, so here are a couple examples of cropping below:
These are both photos I took in my other job as a photographer. I love to take shots like this to show off the bride’s bouquet. Cropping in close like this is a great way to focus attention on the object the model is holding, be it a bouquet, a cupcake, or a sword.
This principle is most important for heads but it applies to any joint: fingers, ankles, wrists, knees, elbows, all that. Crop midway in between the joints.
On the left I cropped at the elbow. Now, this isn’t as terrible as chopping her head off, but if you look at the photo on the right you can see that it just looks more…comfortable. Your subconscious is happy that she’s not an amputee.
Still not sure where to crop? I made you a handy chart below. Green is best, yellow is alright, red is the colour of blood because you just lost a limb.
So there you have it, my friends. You can easily make your book covers look better by cropping above or below the neck.
Unless, of course, you are writing a story about the French Revolution.