How to Crop an Image in Photoshop

by Jan 27, 2022Photo Editing Tutorials

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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How to Crop an Image in Photoshop

In this tutorial, you will learn how to crop an image in Photoshop using the Crop Tool. We cover a common cause of problems people encounter when cropping photos to specific sizes. If you have tried to use the crop tool but find yourself scratching your head because of its behaviour, this is the tutorial to help you.

Let’s start by looking at the controls of the crop tool. Once you understand a couple of these you will find cropping images much easier.

Selecting the Crop Tool in Photoshop

Start by opening the image that you want to crop in Photoshop. You can then select the Crop Tool in the Photoshop Tools Palette which is usually on the left of the screen. You can the Crop Tool indicated in the following screenshot.

Selecting the Crop Tool in the Photoshop Tools Palette

After clicking the Crop Tool icon in the Tools Palette, you will see its controls appear in the context sensitive toolbar along the top of the interface. You will also notice a crop box appear over the image. This has resizing handles on each corner, and along each edge, which you can click and drag with your mouse. The size of this crop box is determined by the controls in the toolbar and so it may not cover the entire image.

Making the Image Crop

Let’s start by making an unconstrained crop of the image. An unconstrained crop is where we can set the height and width of the crop manually. If instead we were making a constrained crop, changing the height or width would also change the other dimension to maintain the ratio between the two.

In the toolbar on the left you will see a dropdown, and to the right of this, 2 or 3 text boxes (depending on the dropdown setting) where you can enter values. Then to the right of these is a button marked “Clear”.

Crop Tool settings in the Photoshop toolbar

These settings control the crop tool outline that appears on the image as well as the size of the crop that’s produced.

Click the clear button in the toolbar. This will reset any entered values, and the dropdown box will default back to the “Ratio” setting.

Now we can click and drag on the crop box to set the size and location of the image crop.

Making an unconstrained crop with the Photoshop Crop Tool

Click and drag the handles around the edges/corners of the crop box with your mouse to resize the image crop. As you do this you will see three new icons appear in the toolbar. You can use these to reset, cancel, or apply the crop.

Notice also that the area outside the crop box is now shaded. It’s then possible to click with your mouse inside the crop area to reposition the image inside the crop.

If you click on the image outside of the crop box you will see the crop area change to a detailed grid. It’s then possible to rotate the image by dragging left and right with the pointer. This allows you to straighten an image that might otherwise be crooked. The detailed grid is an aid to help you get the horizon (verticals) level. Whilst this might seem useful, there are possibly better ways to straighten an image in Photoshop.

When you’re happy with the position and size of the crop box, click the tick mark icon in the toolbar to apply the change. This crops the image, discarding the area outside of the crop box.

Using the Crop Tool Settings

Now that you know how to make an unconstrained crop of an image, let’s look at the options to make a constrained crop. The crop tool is extremely useful for this as it allows for both resizing images and changing their aspect ratio. This is done using the drop-down list of options in the toolbar when we have the crop tool selected. You can see a screenshot below of the different options in the Crop Tool dropdown.

Crop Tool dropdown list settings

At the top of the list are two options which are “Ratio” and “W x H x Resolution”.

When we select the ratio option, we can enter the aspect ratio of the crop we want to create. This is done using the two text boxes that appear in the toolbar to the right of the dropdown. You will also find a series of predefined common aspect ratio in the list (number 1).

Below the Ratio option we have the option “W x H x Resolution” which allows us to enter the width, height, and resolution for the crop. When selecting this option, you will see three boxes to the right of the dropdown where you can enter the values. There are also a series of common sizes in the list (number 2) which you can select.

Further down the list (number 3) we have any user-defined cropping presets that have been saved. If you find you are regularly using the same settings for your cropping, you can save them a preset in the list.

Making an Aspect Ratio Crop

Let’s look at an example where we crop an image using the “16 : 9” aspect ratio which is the same aspect ratio used for HD video. The image in the example was captured using an aspect ratio of 4 : 3 with a Micro Four Thirds camera and so is quite different.

To make this crop, select the Crop Tool and in the Photoshop toolbar, select the 16 : 9 option. You will then see a 16 by 9 ratio crop box appear on the image. Reposition the crop box on the area of the image that you want to crop.

Applying a 16 by 9 crop to an image

Notice that the values of 16 and 9 appear in the boxes in the toolbar. It’s possible to reverse these values by clicking the icon between the two boxes. You will then see the crop area rotate 90° to be vertical. Click the icon between the boxes again and it returns to its original orientation.

You can also resize the crop area by clicking and dragging one of the handles as you did previously. Notice that when you do this the dimensions of the crop area remain in the 16 : 9 ratio.

When cropping using a ratio, the image isn’t resized, other than by any areas that are cropped off. For example, if the image is 5,000 pixels across, making a crop of its full width would produce a cropped image 5,000 pixels across. If you want to change the size of the image you need to use one of the dimension options in the dropdown.

Cropping an Image by Dimension

Let’s look at an example of cropping the image to be the same size as the YouTube thumbnail. This has dimensions of 1920 pixels by 1080 pixels. We can define this crop area selecting the W x H x Resolution option in the toolbar drop-down.

After selecting this option, enter 1920px in the first box. Then click on the second box and enter 1080px. The px indicates the values are entered in pixels. You can also enter other units of measurement like cm for centimetres and in for inches.

Creating a crop for a YouTube Thumbnail

In addition to entering the width and height of the crop area, we can enter the resolution of the cropped image in the third text box. In this example it’s been set to 72 pixels per inch.

Now when we apply the crop to the image, the resulting crop has these measurements and resolution. As with the ratio crop, it’s also possible to resize the crop area. Again, this will maintain the same aspect ratio as defined in the toolbar. The only difference is that whatever area of the image chosen for the crop, it’s then resized to 1920 x 1080 pixels with a resolution of 72 pixels per inch.

This is an important difference between using a Ratio crop and defining a dimension crop. It’s also a large source of problems for people using the Crop Tool in Photoshop so make sure you understand the difference.

Saving Crop Settings as a Preset

The crop settings we’ve just applied are used regularly but they don’t appear as an item in the crop dropdown list. We might therefore want to save them as a new preset in the list. To do this, click the dropdown in the toolbar and select the “New crop preset…” option near the bottom. You will then see the “New Crop Preset” dialog appear where you can enter the preset name.

New Crop Preset dialog in Photoshop

After naming your preset and clicking the OK button, the preset is added to the dropdown list. Then whenever we want to crop an image to these dimensions, select that option in the dropdown.

Non-destructive Cropping

When cropping an image with the Photoshop Crop Tool, please be aware that this is a destructive edit. The only way to change the crop is to use the “Edit | Undo” menu command or the History window and then apply a new crop.

One method that partly overcomes this is to first convert the image to be a Smart Object. You can do this by clicking the image layer in the Photoshop Layers Window to select it. Then use the command “Convert for Smart Filters” in the Photoshop Filters menu. Once the layer is converted to a Smart Object you can use the crop tool as discussed above.

This still applies a destructive crop to the layers in the image, but you then have the option to reposition the image inside the crop. You can do this using the Move tool which is usually found at the top of the tools palette (it has an icon showing a four-way arrow).

After selecting the Move tool, click on the Smart Object in the layers window to select it. You then see an outline appear around the image layer which extends beyond the cropped area. It’s then possible to click and drag the image to reposition it within the crop.

You can learn more about working with Smart Objects in this tutorial.

Summary of How to Crop an Image in Photoshop

You should now have a good understanding of how to crop an image in Photoshop using the Crop Tool.

In this tutorial we covered three cropping options you can use with the Crop Tool:

  1. Unconstrained crop where you use the crop box to set the dimensions of the crop area independently. This option doesn’t affect the size of the cropped image.
  2. The Ratio crop where you define the aspect ratios of the crop to create. As with the unconstrained crop, this doesn’t change the size of the image.
  3. The W x H x Resolution crop where you define the width, height, and resolution of the cropped image. With this option, the cropped image is resized to match the defined size and resolution.

Whilst it’s possible to crop and resize an image, if you want to make a significant enlargement to an image it’s better to use the resizing options in Photoshop. If you’re not sure how best to resize an image in Photoshop, this tutorial will help you.

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