How to Take Better Tutorial Photos with Framing and Cropping

06 Nov 2012


tutorial-photo-blog-hop-240Here's my contribution to our blog hop this week!

As I mentioned yesterday, good photography is increasingly becoming very important to building an online presence. Look at all the big aggregation blogs in the craft community. They share projects from all over, and what do those projects generally have in common? Well-lit, in-focus, well-styled photos.

Good tutorial photography isn't all that hard if you know a few simple tricks. Look at the bottom of this post for links to my fellow blog-hoppers' secrets (they'll appear there throughout the week). And today, I want to share the magic of framing and cropping.


When you're communicating the steps of a project, it's a good idea to think about the amount of information that's needed in each photo. Each of your step-by-step images has something specific to say, and if you hone in on what that is, it becomes much clearer how to best frame and crop your image. Let's look at some basic ideas…



What detail is most imporant in your step?

Let's start with a simple example, above. The upper photo has a fair amount of unimportant information in it: part of my light box, a large chunk of the shirt I'm working on. But what am I actually trying to communicate in this step? I'm outlining a reverse applique with an embroidered back stitch – the back stitch is the important detail. So what if I cropped out the extraneous stuff and focused right in on that tiny operation? The lower photo makes it much clearer, don't you think? (See the video below, by the way, for more on how to crop photos.)



What size are the most important details of the step?

Every tutorial step is different: sometimes you're making a large project, and sometimes it's a tiny one. So, what kind of framing makes the most sense for the step you're shooting?

In the upper photo here, I'm showing a step of a larger project. To communicate how to do this paper fold around this box, I need to show most of the box, my hand guiding the paper, all of the paper with its folds in progress, and some tape to represent that I'll be taping these folds. So I needed to make a wider angle shot to communicate all these things, and I had to find a way to create enough uncluttered space to show all this information. (I did it with sheets of good old posterboard!)

In the lower photo, on the other hand, I'm wrapping a strand of wire around a pipe cleaner – tiny! To make it at all clear what I did with that wire, I had to frame in really, really tightly, and then I cropped the image even more tightly. So I had to work with my camera focus, so it was sharp enough for all this tightness. (I placed my camera on a stack of books to stabilize it.)



When are tools appropriate in your shot?

While we make tutorials, of course, we always have our various tools nearby: scissors, needles and thread, pliers, etc. The question is, when do these tools help a step shot, and when do they hinder it?

I'm always forgetting to move my tools out of my step shots, and have had to do many a retake as a result. See the upper image there, where I left my scissors in the shot? They aren't important to the operation I'm trying to communicate here, which is taking a stitch across the back of this button I'm making. And unfortunately, those scissors are placed so that they can't be cropped completely out. See how much better the retake communicates?

…But for some shots, it might be helpful to have a tool nearby to make it clear that it's necessary for performing the step. Then it's just a matter of placing the tool so there's a suggestion of it, but it doesn't get in the way of clear communication.



Here's a pair of photos where I was trying to communicate the step of opening and adding a jump ring. See how my pliers get in the way of communication in the upper photo? In the lower photo, I moved them a little to the side. Now they're present, but the ring takes center stage.



Hands or no hands?

Some tutorial-makers like to frame their hands in step shots and some don't. I think hands matter most in crafts like knitting or crochet, where beginners might need to see how you hold your hands in order to learn your project. But there are many, many projects, like the one pictured above, where you can get the same information across with or without hands.


I include hands in most of my tutorial shots, because I like the "human presence" of them. But sometimes, they're also a necessary piece of information – as in the shot above, where I'm using my hand to steady a turnip as I hollow it out. Sometimes, the placement of your hands is a safety factor in a project. And sometimes hands just get in the way of communication. Think about what your photo needs to say, and what role your hands play in saying it.

How to Crop (in most photo-editing tools):

This short video walks you through the basics of how cropping tools work. I shot it in iPhoto, but Picasa, Photoshop, most free online photo tools (like iPiccy) and most mobile device photo apps use the same operations.

Did you learn something useful here? Pop over to my fellow hoppers' blogs for more!



Love all the Good & Better photos!
I have been trying to zero in on details I talk about.
I will have to check out the other blogs too
Thank You!

Thank you, Annette! It's nice to connect with you again! Your blog is looking lovely - it looks like you're developing a nice card-making community.

This is another reminder of how important good photography is. Thank you for the great tutorial! I'm always amazed at how effortlessly you capture your ideas with great photos. (Although I do know there is quite a bit of effort in the photo editing process!)

Thank you so much, Julie! Definitely, the taking of the photos is only the beginning! I spend easily as much time editing as shooting, but the editing really makes all the difference.

FANTASTIC! I usually just snap photos with my iPhone when showing tutorials, but this post really opened my eyes to how a "How To" can become a product for your business, just as much as the finished piece! Thank You!

Thank you, Chrissy! I'm so happy you found this one useful.

VERY well said and illustrated Diane! Love the post! You are awesome!


Great post! I often need to remind myself to crop to the *right* shot and not just the pretty shot. After all, there's really no point in doing a photo stepout if the key action isn't clear.

This is definitely something I can do better. It's true that up close and edited photos communicate what's going on so much more effectively. The discussion of tool placement is also really helpful. Thanks Diane!

I used to use a compact camera, Nicky, and when I couldn't maintain focus close-up, I would shoot at a wider angle and crop in. Steadying the camera on a stack of books, so I wasn't holding it in my hands, really helped with focus. I'm so happy you found this post useful!

Heh! It was a how-to for CRAFT back in the day: How to Carve a Turnip-O-Lantern:

These are all really important points and I haven't seen them written about this clearly anywhere else. Thank you! Hands or no hands is always a big question for me. I worked with one editor who loved hands and another who hated hands in pictures.

And on a side note, what are you doing with your hollowed out turnip? I must know!

I love those detail pictures! I enlarge them all the time when I'm following a tutorial- especially with sewing projects. Thanks so much for another wonderfully helpful post. I'll be linking!

I did learn something useful, yes, thanks. The idea of going in close is good, I must remember to do that. I use a compact camera though and it doesn't work so well on close ups as the SLR's.

The other problem we get at this time of year is low light, especially in the evening, we need to remember to light our subject as well as we possibly can (and as you do).

Plus of course, improve our results using post-camera effects. Cropping and brightness (as well as colour correction on artificial light) tools are very useful.

You've highlighted some issues that come up a lot when making tutorials, Diane. One point you bring up that I hadn't thought about is whether a tool is appropriate in the shot or not. Sometimes I leave tools (esp scissors) in just because they enhance the shot's composition. Maybe I should re-think that eh? And I agree that leaving your hands in some shots is a nice way to bring a warm and personal touch to a tutorial. It says: "I made this and so can you." I like that.

Thanks so much for this!