In this article, we learn the easiest way to crop a layer in Photoshop. The crop tool in photoshop is confusing to new users because it crops the entire canvas instead of a single layer. If you want to crop a layer inside Photoshop, there are two ways of doing it – converting the layer to a smart object and using a layer mask.
In my years as a professional photographer, Photoshop has been a very important part of my workflow.
It is a versatile application that can be used for touching up your images, for simple post-processing of your RAW files, and also for creating creative collages and digital paintings that blend reality with imagination.
By cropping layers independently you can easily do things like create posters, replace parts of an image and design a layout for a photo story. So let’s jump right in and learn how to do it.
1. Change to Smart Object and Use the Crop Tool
Step 1: Open or create a multilayered project in Photoshop. When you open an image inside Photoshop, it will default to a background layer. Doubleclick this background layer to bring up the new layer dialogue box. Give this layer a name or just hit enter to accept the default name. Alternatively, you can drag all your images into an open project and they will each become a new layer. You will get the chance to resize each image before it is added.
Step 2: Now right-click on a layer that needs to be cropped. Make sure you right-click outside the thumbnail of the layer and a menu will pop up.
Step 3: Choose ‘Convert to Smart Object’ on this menu. As soon as you click on it, a new icon will appear in the lower right corner of the layer thumbnail. This shows that a layer is now a smart object.
Step 4: Double click on the layer thumbnail. A new tab will open with just that layer.
Step 5: Crop the image using the regular crop tool. The keyboard shortcut is C.
Step 6: Save with CTRL+S (Windows) or CMD+S on Mac, close the tab with CTRL+W (Windows) or CMD+W (Mac) and you will come back to the main project.
Step 7: In the main project, the smart object layer that you chose is now cropped to match what you did on the other tab.
Step 8: Repeat this for as many layers as you need to crop.
Tip: You can undo this move inside the main project but you cannot open the layer again to adjust the crop. Once you save, the crop effectively deletes the cropped-out area unless you undo the process.
2. Crop Using a Layer Mask
Step 1: Open or create a multilayer project as discussed earlier.
Step 2: Select the layer that needs cropping.
Step 3: Use a tool like the marquee or the lasso tool to create a selection around the area that you want to preserve.
Step 4: Make sure that the correct layer is still highlighted. Now click on the mask icon, the one that looks like a circle inside a rectangle. Everything outside the selection you made will be hidden by the mask. Now you can resize and reposition the cropped layer as needed.
Notes: Remember that you can always invert your selection before making it a mask by pressing SHIFT+CTRL+I on Windows or SHIFT+CMD+I on Mac. The resulting mask will end up hiding the area that you initially selected. You can also easily adjust the crop later by adjusting the selection itself. Here is how:
A: Select the mask you want to adjust. You can do this by clicking on the mask thumbnail that is placed beside your layer thumbnail.
B: Now click on the properties panel. If it is already open, you will see the options as soon as you select the mask. To add the properties panel to your workspace, go to Window>Properties on the menu bar.
C: The feather option adds soft edges to your mask. The density option adjusts the opacity of the hidden areas behind the mask. The refine option will open up a new dialogue box with more controls. It is useful if you have a complex selection and want to make fine adjustments. This last option is useful for complex areas like cutting out hair from a background.
Note: Before you apply the mask, the selection itself can also be edited to change the mask using any selection tool like lasso, polygon, or marquee. Here are the steps that you will need to follow:
A: Go to Select > Reselect on the menu bar or hit SHIFT+CTRL+D (Windows) SHIFT+CMD+D (Mac). This will activate the selection that is defining the shape of the mask. You will see the black and white alternating line of the selection. Fun fact: This line is called the ‘marching ants’ because that’s what it looks like as it moves!
B: Now you can use any selection tool mentioned earlier to add or subtract areas from your selection. You will see options for modifying the tool on the Options panel. This panel can be opened from the Window menu (Window > Options). You can choose to add to the existing selection, subtract from it, intersect it, or create a new selection. To change modes while using the tool, simply hold down SHIFT to add to the selection or hold down ALT (Windows) Option (Mac) to subtract from the selection. You will see a tiny x or + or – symbol around the tool to show what it is set to at the moment.
3. Crop Layer Into Pre-Made Shape
Step 1: Click and hold the shape tool and select custom shape or hit SHIFT+U on the keyboard till the custom shape tool is activated.
Step 2: In the Options panel, you will see a drop-down menu for selecting a custom shape. You can also import your own custom shapes from this menu by clicking on the small cog icon and selecting the ‘Import Shapes’ function.
Step 3: Click and drag to draw the selected shape onto your canvas. A new shape layer is created automatically to hold this shape.
Step 4: Now, in the layers panel, rearrange the layers so the picture layer is above the custom shape layer.
Step 5: Lastly, right-click on a layer that needs to be cropped. Make sure you right-click outside the thumbnail of the layer and a menu will pop up. Select ‘Create Clipping Mask’ to crop the image into the custom shape.
Tip: Note: This method will not work with smart objects. Rasterize your layer before applying the copied shape. To independently adjust masks and layers, click on the chainlink icon in between the layer and mask thumbnails. This will switch off the link between the mask and the layer itself, allowing you to freely move and transform each as required.
The easiest way to crop a layer in Photoshop, in my opinion, is by converting the layer to a smart object. By double-clicking on the layer to open it by itself in a tab, it can then be easily cropped using the Crop tool inside Photoshop.
Once the edit is saved, the new tab can be safely closed and the layer will be updated to show the new cropped version inside the original project.
However, if you want to create a custom crop shape for more complex tasks, using a layer mask is the best option to crop layers. It is also the quickest way to crop a layer in photoshop even for simple crops compared to the smart object based method. The layer mask option is also infinitely adjustable so you can tweak it to your satisfaction.
I hope this answers all your questions about cropping a layer in Photoshop.
I encourage you to play around with these techniques to get completely familiar with all the possibilities. If you have more questions, please do feel free to send me a message on Instagram or write a comment here. Rest assured that I will answer all questions sent to me to the best of my abilities.