Friday Fundamentals: Cropping a Photo in Photoshop

Inspired by the release of the latest CC update to Deke’s Photoshop One-on-One: Fundamentals course at and realizing Deke’s has been covering the basics all the way back to CS3, I’ve decided to launch a new feature here at dekeOnline: Friday Fundamentals.

Unfortunately, today is Saturday. Well, actually it could technically be Sunday by the time I get this post up. But hey, if you’re one of those healthy folk who unplug for the weekend, you won’t even see this until Monday. So, I’m going to indulge my fatal love of aliteration and just stick with Friday. As far as you know, that’s when I wrote it. Plus any day is really a good day to get your foundational bearings. Right?

So here’s the idea, every Friday (or in this case faux-Friday), I’m going to take a dekeInfused look at some foundational feature of Photoshop, InDesign, or Illustrator. Because sometimes, as awesome as Deke’s inspired techniques are, he’s also great at teaching the basics. Stuff this info into the storage banks at the back of your mind so you can use the front of your mind for the wildly interesting stuff. And today’s (OK, yesterday’s, or possibly the day before’s) topic is cropping a photo in Photoshop.

Friday Fundamentals: The Crop Tool

Cropping a photograph gives you the opportunity to rethink your composition, hone in on what is important to you, remove distracting peripheral elements, change the angle, and generally, better tell the story you want your photograph to tell. Photoshop’s Crop tool has changed for the better over the last few versions, and straightening has gone from a notorious secret handshake to a simple-to-use feature of the crop environment. Here are the fundamental things to know about this foundational feature:

For this exploration, I’m using an ordinary vacation snapshot I like to call Deke and a tree in New Mexico that I took with my iPhone. When you’re driving on deserted roads with Deke, or any road with Deke, you have to be prepared to amuse yourself when he pulls over to examine something that catches his graphical eye. And in truth, the fact that Deke and the trees are the only thing around caught my graphical eye, and inspired me to document the moment. I can use a creative bit of cropping in Photoshop to tell myself this charming visual anecdote even more powerfully.

1. Enter Photoshop crop mode by clicking on the Crop tool in the toolbar.

Apparently, the Crop tool icon in the Photoshop toolbar looks like a real-world crop tool. Also apparent is the fact that these tools are so rare nowadays that I can’t confirm this via my second favorite educational tool: a Google image search. So I illustrated things below in case you, like me, have never seen a real crop tool. Click the icon to enter the Crop mode.

Evoking the Crop tool in Photoshop

Immediately, you’ll see a an outline with handles at the corners and side-midpoints of your image. You can grab any of these and move them to start changing the visible area of your image. You can also click and hold out beyond any of the corners, wait for a curved double-headed arrow, and use that to change the rotation. But before you do that...

2. Hide rather than delete unwanted pixels for a non-destructive, editable crop.

Photoshop allows you to merely hide the pixels you crop away (rather than delete them entirely), so that you can revisit your cropping decisions later on. To make sure this happens in a post-CS6 Photoshop, make sure the Delete Cropped Pixels checkbox is turned off (“turned off” is dekeSpeak for unchecked).

Turn the Delete Cropped Pixels checkbox off

This got me thinking about how it works in earlier versions of Photoshop, so I went off and watched a bit of Deke’s Photoshop CS5 One-on-One: Fundamentals version of the Photoshop cropping chapter. If you’re working with a pre-CS6 version, make your image is an independent layer (not the background), then choose to Hide (rather than Delete) the Cropped Area in the options bar for the same preservative effect.

Note: Deke’s been covering the crop tool for so long, you can find Crop advice for your version of Photoshop in Chapter 6 or 7 of any of these versions of the Fundamentals course.

3. Straighten early, straighten once.

As I mentioned, you can straighten an image manually in the Crop mode by clicking and holding outside one of the corners and waiting for the curved double-arrow cursor to appear, then dragging to rotate your image. In a post-CS6 world, you can also grab the Straighten tool from the options bar. Then click and drag across your desired plumb line…

Straightening an image within the Crop environment

... and let go. Photoshop will rotate your image in the window so that the line you drew becomes the new horizon (or whatever the vertical equivalent of a horizon is if you’re dragging closer to 9 degrees). As you can see, you’re going to crop away any outer edges that extend beyond your new boundaries. This the the reasons you want to straighten early, before cropping for composition, because you are going to loose some edges based on how far you rotate.

The outcome of using Photohsop's Straighten tool

Whatever method you use to straighten a photo, be sure to do it only once, because every time you straighten, Photoshop has to rewrite the file. The pixels that make up your photo are a) square and b) exactly upright. So if you rotate them (as you’re doing when you straighten), Photoshop has to reassign every pixel reinterpreted for that rotation. 

4. Further refine your crop to change composition and remove unwanted elements.

Cropping may seem mundane, but it’s actually an opportunity for great expression. You can exclude elements from a scene or purposely place things in the frame to enhance or decrease attention to them.

The default helper grid on the Crop tool’s overlay is the Rule of Thirds. This compositional guideline asserts that the key elements in your image should be somewhere around the cross-sections of those one-third lines. I generally find the Rule of Thirds to be a useful structure to mildly butt my aesthetic opinion up against.

At this point in the cropping, I’m manually moving each of these sides to remove things I don’t want at the edges (a fence post, some uninteresting shrubbery) and to set tiny Deke in the center of the frame so that he becomes an interesting if small figure rather than an inexplicable speck. I have caved to convention and put the trees at the lower right crossroads. And I also made set the landscape at exactly the lower third, because one way to chafe against convention is to embrace it literally.

Adjusting a crop in Photoshop

Obviously, when you’re cropping, you can see the parts that you’ve abandoned behind a “shield.” You can change the color and opacity of that shield in the options bar. Mine’s set to black and 4 percent opacity.

Note, that your cropped image now extends beyond the document’s canvas size (the “shielded parts,” that is). This means that you can drag the image within the visible area to change which parts of the photo are visible.

Bonus Tip: Consider your composition in black and white.

Deke’s colleague at, Ben Long, has an excellent course on photographic composition, aptly entitled Foundations of Photography: Composition. In it, Ben points out that, often, viewing your image in black and white allows you to consider geometry and tone without the distraction of color. For this image, the arrangement of tonal elements (darker bit of sky, light grey road, white clouds, dark trees, dark Deke) pleases me.

Black and white allows you to consider composition without distraction

5. Consider the story you’re telling.

The final cropped image definitely tells the story I was trying to document. I like the way the sky goes on forever vertically and the road visually expands the virtual Z-axis. It also nicely conveys that a visual person like Deke can find a compelling subject when there seems to be nothing around for miles along any axis.

Cropping a Photo in Photoshop to improve storytelling

As I mentioned, the Photoshop’s Crop tool underwent some fairly substantive changes with CS6. But there are Cropping and Straightening chapters in Deke’s Photoshop One-on-One: Fundamentals courses going back to CS3. You can choose the course you need from this list. And if you need a free week’s trial at to check it out, go to and sign right up.

Next entry:Deke’s Techniques 236: Shading an Image with Shapes and Layer Masks in Photoshop

Previous entry:Photoshop One-on-One: Fundamentals updated for Photoshop CC (and long live CS6, CS5, CS4, and CS3)

  • added tip

    When in B&W mode to get a sense of image balance…suggest you also add/try various levels of gaussian blur to further remove details and get a view of how the dark/light “weight” is distributed to get a reasonably balanced pictures . . .

    and also use a variety of crop tool overlays other than “rule of thirds” etc.

    These views may change your crop choices…or open up ideas for more than one image result.

  • Thanks, Doug. Good ideas.

    I appreciate your adding to the conversation, Doug!

  • photoshop help have been trying to contact you

    I know that this is not the way to ask my question, but your contact page is not working.
    I have owned your Photoshop cs 1-1 book for several years, but decided that as I recover from hip replacement, it was time to go through the lessons and
    the cd.
    I cannot make a few things work: the installation of the “gray”
    Install Deke’s Preferences button gives a message that it cannot be
    loaded. There is no Bestworkflow in the color settings, and the shortcut
    keys will not load.
    I am using a MacBook w 10.6.8.
    I do hope that you can help. There are a few folders on the cd that say
    MAC, but I can’t work them out.
    Thank you.
    margiehill (my user name on your site)

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