Back to Basics: The Crop Tool

Tucked away in the Develop module is a seemingly innocuous little tool - the crop tool.  But, looks can be deceiving! There is quite a bit hidden away in the crop tool to help you find just the right image within your image.

While it is always a good idea to compose your shots and get it right in the camera there are still many instances where you will want to crop out some of the extraneous material from your image. Perhaps there is a trash can in the far right edge. Or your horizon splits the frame right across the middle and you'd like more sky than land. Crop tool to the rescue.

In addition to the usual uses for the crop tool, there is also an artistic aspect. Some shots can yield several final images. In fact, there is a whole world of cropping just waiting for you. Don't believe me? Just take a look at Rikk Flohr's excellent site all about cropping - Holy Crop!

OK. On to the crop tool. Just under the histogram in the Develop module you'll find the crop tool. Click it and its panel will appear.

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Hey! There's a lot here! Let's walk through it.

  1. This is the crop tool. Like other tools in Lightroom (such as the White Balance eyedropper) you can click on the circle to pick up the tool. However, in the case of the crop tool this really isn't necessary since it is the default tool once you open the panel.
  2. Here is a dropdown where you can choose the aspect ratio of your crop. This allows you to select an area of your image and keep the length and width of the crop area in a constant ratio. We'll look more at this in a bit.
  3. The aspect lock works in conjunction with the aspect ratio. When it's locked your aspect ratio remains fixed. If you unlock it you are free to crop in any ratio you like - a freeform crop.
  4. This is the straighten tool. It is also known as the level tool. When you have a crooked horizon or a not so perpendicular flagpole then this will help you automatically straighten that out and adjust the crop accordingly.
  5. If you prefer, you can adjust the angle of your image using this slider to achieve the same results as the straighten tool.
  6. The Constrain To Warp checkbox is perplexing to many users. It is tied to another checkbox down in the Lens Correction panel and we'll visit this later. The short description is that it assists you in making sure your crop has image data in it.
  7. Finally we have the Reset and Close buttons. These are fairly self-explanatory.

When you enter the crop tool a box showing the current crop appears on top of your image. If you haven't cropped the image yet the box is the same size as your image. There are eight handles you can drag to adjust the crop – one in each corner and one in the middle of each side. By default you will also see a rule of thirds overlay to assist you I'm composing your crop. (Actually, the handles are decorative since you can grab a side anywhere to move it.)

To crop the image you can grab a handle and move it. The area of your image outside the crop will appear darkened. Remember that Lightroom is a non-destructive environment so your "cropped off" areas will always remain so you can readjust the crop later. An alternative way to crop is simply drag out a rectangle on your image to define the crop. For an interesting way to crop tap the L key twice to enter full lights out mode. Now all you see is the cropped area of your image without other distractions.

If you move your cursor outside the cropped area the cursor will change to a curved double-arrow. Now dragging the cursor will rotate the crop and the overlay switched to a grid to assist you in lining things up. Move the cursor inside the cropped area and it changes to a hand. Now you can drag the image around to change which part falls into the crop.

One of the things new users of Lightroom need to get used to is that when you work with the crop tool the image moves around and the crop remains fixed on the screen. For some, that's backwards. But after a while it makes sense and seems right.

The aspect ratio and the aspect lock work hand in hand. Choose a ratio and the lock will prevent you from changing it. Lightroom has several default aspect ratios that translate to popular print sizes.

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You can define your own custom aspect ratios by clicking on the Enter Custom… choice at the bottom. You'll get a dialog where you can enter the ratio.

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You can enter as many as you like but only the most recent five will remain on the dropdown menu for later use.

If you unlock the aspect lock then you are free to crop at any ratio you like. Just crop away without regard to the aspect ratio.

In addition to rotating the image with the curved double-arrow cursor you can also use the angle slider or enter an exact number in the angle field just past the slider. To make things easier for you when you have a crooked horizon or a wall that's askew you can use the level or straighten tool. Pick up the tool by clicking on it (in the same way you pick up the spray can or white balance eyedropper) then drag a line along the part of the image that should be level (or perpendicular).

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A quick way to do this while you are cropping is to simply hold down the Command key (CTRL on a PC) and the crop tool switches to the level. Drag out the line and release. Either way, Lightroom will now level the image and crop it to fit leaving small parts outside the crop.

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That's one of the nice things about Lightroom's crop tool, it auto-adjusts so you can't crop the image beyond its own borders. That is if there isn't a warp involved. We'll talk about the Constrain to Warp checkbox in a little while.

If you get carried away and want to start the crop over just press the Reset button at the bottom of the dialog.

This tool comes with quite a few keyboard shortcuts! You can speed your editing up by learning these.

  • R selects the crop tool from any module
  • X will change the crop orientation from landscape to portrait and back again
  • A locks and unlocks the aspect lock
  • Shift A applies the most recently used crop. When you enter the tool you are usually at the original aspect ratio. This shortcut flips to the last aspect ratio you used. Useful for applying the same ratio to a series of images.
  • Option (ALT on a PC) hold this key down will crop from the center. That is, as you drag one side the other moves in the opposite direction to keep the center of the crop fixed.
  • Command Option R (CTRL ALT R) resets the crop.
  • O cycles through the overlay grids
  • Shift O changes the orientation of the overlays that have orientations

Wait. There's more than one overlay grid? Of course! In fact there are six basic overlays.

There is the default Rule of Thirds:

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Press O and you get the Golden Ratio:

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Next is the diagonal. The diagonal pairs merge when the crop is square.

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Another Golden overlay is next – the Golden Triangle and this is one of the overlays that has orientation which responds to the Shift O shortcut. This overlay also becomes simple diagonal lines in a square crop.

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We're not done yet! There is the Golden Spiral coming up next. This overlay has eight orientations!!! Use Shift O to access them.

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And finally, the grid.

Crop overlay grid thumb

There is also an overlay control button in the toolbar below the image.

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The default is Always which will show the overlay at all times. Never turns the overlay off. Auto only shows the overlay when you actively interact with the image. When this is set to Auto or Never then pressing the O key will switch it to Always.

Are you still with me? Good.

The last thing we'll discuss is that Constrain to Warp checkbox. This is useful when you have been making manual adjustments in the Lens Correction panel. This can lead to blank areas within the image borders after you warp the image.

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Rather than trying to figure out how to crop to keep pixel data within the crop, check the box and Lightroom automatically adjusts the crop keeping the edges within the pixel area.

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So there's a lot more to this little tool than meets the eye! If you'd like to see the crop tool in action David Marx of The Lightroom Lab has an excellent article (complete with some videos) called Preparing Files for Printing at a Photo Lab Using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom’s Export Module.

Now go and get your crop on and enhance your images in new ways!