Crop Tool

The Crop tool in Photoshop is very powerful. It provides an opportunity to refine and finalise the composition that you decided on when taking the original shot.

Tip: When you capture any image, compose generously to allow some wiggle room for adjustments in post-processing. This is particularly useful where your captures turn out a wee bit squint!


1 Bandstand, Ronda

This is the uncropped image. It lacks balance and there is too much black in the foreground.

This is the crop in progress. A standard 3:2 ratio has been maintained.

The finished result is a much more harmonious composition. The foreground black has been reduced and the line of people is almost on the bottom third. The bandstand has been placed one third of the way in from the right.  The image follows the Rule of Thirds fairly faithfully.

2 Barcelona Street Artist

This is the uncropped image. There are significant distractions at both sides.

A square crop was selected. The position of the crop was decided by the paintings in the background. Any further to the right and there would have been a ‘hole’ at the top right-hand corner. In addition, I preferred the artist offset from the centre.

The finished result has no distractions and the artist is surrounded by his work.

Aspect ratio

Before we get to the Crop tool, it’s worth considering aspect ratio.

Aspect Ratio refers to the shape of your photo. It is expressed as a numeric ratio such as 2:1, 3:2 or 1:1, where the first number refers to the width of your image and the second to the height. The easiest ratio to understand is 1:1 as both dimensions are the same – in other words, the image is square. The most common ratio is 3:2 which is based historically on the proportions of 35mm film. Many digital camera sensors are also 3:2. In this case the width is one and a half times the height. The table on the right shows some standard aspect ratios and gives examples of possible dimensions.

Aspect RatioExample Image Dimensions in Pixels
1:1800 x 800, 2048x2048
2:11600x800, 4000x2000
3:21500x1000, 1920x1280, 3000x2000
2:31000x1500, 853x1280, 2000x3000
4:31600x1200, 2400x1800, 4000x3000
4:5800x1000, 2400x3000, 4000x5000
16:91600x900, 2400x1350, 4800x2700

There are advantages and disadvantages to using standard aspect ratios. One advantage is that your images will usually match standard paper sizes for printing (using paper sizes like A3 and A4 are exceptions!). A second is that standard sizes are generally pleasing on the eye. The disadvantage is that you may find yourself forcing your composition to fit the shape rather than going for the optimum composition for your subject.

Aspect Ratio is something you will need to consider when you are cropping your images.

The Crop Tool Options

When you select this tool from the toolbar, a number of options will be displayed on the Toolbar options just below the Menu bar. Hover over any of the icons and a tooltip will appear telling you what they are. 

  • A: Presets – you can choose any of the presets shown. If you click Ratio, you will need to enter two numbers in the next two boxes. Alternatively, you can choose a fixed ratio from the list offered. 
  • B/C: Width and Height: With Ratio selected, Width and Height are entered as proportions. The sideways arrows between these boxes will reverse the values you have entered and change between landscape and portrait formats.
  • D: Clear – this clears the values in the two boxes.
  • E: Straighten – Click this and then drag a horizontal line across your image. Your image will re-align itself to this line. Very useful for straightening horizons.
  • F: Grid icon – choose from a variety of grid overlays.
  • G: Cog wheel icon – this offers you some display choices to help you see what’s going on. I leave this at its default settings.
  • H: Delete Cropped Pixels – if this is ticked, then any cropped pixels will be permanently deleted.  Unticked and they won’t be! This can be useful if you decide to move your image after you have cropped.
  • I: Content-Aware – sometimes you may wish to crop beyond the edges of your image. If content-aware is unticked, a blank area will be added to your canvas. (the canvas is the area which is normally filled by your image.) If it’s ticked, then Photoshop will attempt to fill in the new area using content from nearby areas. This can be particularly useful with images of buildings where the top of the building is very close to the top of your image. Dragging your crop off the top of the image will result in extra space being added at the top of your image. This space will then be filled in with content derived from nearby pixels. 
  • J: Reset – this resets all the previous options to their default values.
  • K: Cancel – cancel the current crop operation
  • L: Apply Crop – click this to apply the crop

Using the Crop Tool

Select the Crop Tool   from the toolbar. 

Change the Crop Tool options to the settings you want.

You should see a grid over your image and a handle at each corner and in the middle of each side. Pull any of these handles to adjust your composition.

  • If you have set a Ratio then the crop selection will maintain the aspect ratio as you drag.
  • If no Ratio has been set, each handle can be adjusted independently. If you hold down SHIFT while dragging, the current aspect ratio will be maintained.

You can also move the image around by using the arrow keys. Hold down the SHIFT key for larger movements.

When you are happy with your crop you can either double-click the image or click the Tick icon to apply the crop. It is generally better to use the Tick icon as you can inadvertently move the crop when you double-click.

Example: Cropping to add content

In this example the image is cropped to add some more sky above the building. To maintain the aspect ratio of 3:2, a comparable area was cropped from the bottom of the image.

Step 1: The Crop tool icon was clicked.

Step 2: The Content-Aware checkbox was ticked in Toolbar Options.

Step 3: The image was clicked to add the grid overlay and make the Crop window the focus.

Step 4: The Crop window was moved up using SHIFT + Up Arrow key to create an area of blank canvas at the top of the image. This is indicated by the chequerboard pattern. The area  which will be cropped from the bottom of the image is dimmed. 

Step 5: The Tick icon was clicked to complete the crop. (You can also press RETURN to complete.)

The finished result now has more space above the building.


Have a Go - Crop an Image
  • Download this sample file.
  • Open it in Photoshop.
  • Select the Crop Tool.
  • Adjust the settings in the Tool Options bar as you wish.
  • Use the Crop Tool to straighten the horizon.
  • Experiment with a variety of different crops and different aspect ratios. (Use CTRL Z to undo each time so you can have another go.)
  • Using Content-Aware, add some more sky to the top of the image.

Which result did you like best?