How to easily Crop a Layer in Photoshop

by Nov 22, 2020Free Tutorials, Resources

Boat near the coast cropped in

There are so many reasons for cropping photos – to remove someone or something, to make our portraits look better, or just to resize our photos so they can fit perfectly into our Instagram feed. In many cases, we are facing an issue when using the crop tool that doesn’t let us crop just one layer. Indeed, It will crop your entire document.

In this article, we will discuss two methods that let you crop a single layer in Photoshop. 
In the first one, we’ll simply make a copy of the layer in question, convert it to a Smart Layer and then use the free transform tool to crop it to our liking. The second method use a layer mask to hide the portion of the layer you don’t want to appear. 

Let’s have a look at the first method that allows you to resize and crop your layer without losing in quality. 

Let’s go!

By the way, if you’re looking for stock images for your work, you can check our 25 High Quality Stock Image Resources here.

First Method – Use Smart Layer

Step 1: Import your image in Photoshop

Import an image in Photoshop

In the File tab, click Open.

explorer window to import an image in photoshop

The explorer window will appear like in the screenshot above. Now select the image you want to work with and Click Open.

image of a boat opened in photoshop

Now, you imported your image into Photoshop.

In the next step, we will be working with Layers and Smart Objects.

Step 2: Making a copy of a Layer

Make a copy of a layer in adobe photoshop

Click on the Layer tab > New >  Layer Via Copy.

You can even do this by pressing CTRL+J on Windows or Command J if you are using a Mac.

Layer 1 selected in adobe photoshop

Now, we have created a Layer copy successfully.

Why are we making a Layer copy?

It’s because it makes the whole process easier and carefree. In case we make a mistake or when we’d like to start over just want to make another type of editing – we can just delete the Layer copy and create a new copy to work with – instead of importing the photo again or restarting the Photoshop.

Step 3: Converting a Layer into a Smart Object

Convert a layer into a smart object step 1

Make sure that your Layer copy is selected, just click on it and it will be selected. In this case, my Layer copy is called “Layer 1”.

convert a layer into a smart object in adobe photoshop

Right-click on the Layer copy and then select the option Convert to Smart Object.

smart object layer in adobe photoshop selected

The Layer copy will now have a small square-like thumbnail on it, which means it is now converted into a Smart Object.

Things to know about Smart Objects:

You have probably heard about Smart Objects in the past. This is actually one of the most powerful tools in Photoshop. It is like a container of image information that preserves all the data of an image and keeps it original shape.

Data such as Resolution, details, colors and many more. 

This tool is especially useful when you are cropping your images. 

In Steve Patterson’s video, you can see how well the Smart Objects tool actually performs in cropping. It’s not only a great way for keeping a good quality when cropping your layers but it lets you do many more different things that you’ll see in other tutorials.

Step 4: Using The Free Transform Tool

free transform tool in adobe photoshop

Go to Edit tab and then click on Free Transform.  You can also do this by pressing CTRL+T or Command + T on your keyboard.

free transform tool in action photoshop

This is how the Free Transform window looks like.

free transform tool in photoshop

You can resize your image by clicking and dragging the edges of it until you reach which is good for you. You can make it smaller or bigger.

There is another way to make your selection more accurate than just clicking and dragging.

free transform tool settings in photoshop

When the Free Transform Tool is selected, you have also more detailed settings in the upper right corner of Photoshop. Most important settings for cropping are W (width) and H (height).

Here you can make more precise measurements and be sure that your image has been cropped evenly on all sides.

photoshop free transform tool maintain aspect ratio

If you want to crop your image evenly on all sides, make sure that you click on the Maintain aspect ratio button. It looks like a small chain icon between the Width and Height. By doing this, the aspect ratio of the layer will stay the same and no matter how you change its Width, its Height will change accordingly.

You can play with this Maintain aspect ratio option by holding your MAJ key while changing the size of your image.

modify width free transform tool photoshop

It is going to look like this.

free transform tool commit transform

When you are satisfied with your selection and the new size of your image – click on the Commit transform button to confirm your Free Transform selection or just press Enter on your keyboard if you are using Windows or Return if you are using a Mac. 

Now you have made your Free Transform step and by doing that you have cropped your image.

Why don’t we use the Crop Tool instead?

It’s because the Crop Tool will just crop your picture and delete the parts we don’t need.

On the other hand, Free Transform in combination with Smart Objects tool – will keep all the details preserved as much as possible and it will retain a good image quality even after cropping.

Tip: For the best results, make sure that you take your photos in RAW. Every camera and even some smartphones can do it nowadays.

RAW files allows your camera to store all the data from an image. The files are much bigger in size than a normal jpg and lets you play a lot more in post production than any other format. You will have way more freedom while editing your images later.

One last step that will help you maintaining a good level of details in your images is called Sharpening

The Sharpening Tool can help you to fine tune your images after cropping in case you lost some details in the process or the image became a little bit blurry or too smooth.

Step 5: Fine Tune Your Cropped Image By Using The Sharpening Tool

Photoshop smart sharpen filter

Go to Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen.

adobe photoshop smart sharpen window opened

This is how the Smart Sharpen Tool looks like. Here you can adjust the Amount, Radius and Noise reduction of your image.

Adjust the Amount, Radius and Reduce Noise to your liking and then click OK. Don’t be afraid of playing with those settings in order to discover the best option for your image.

And you’re done. 

Here is my example of using this cropping technique:

before cropping a picture of a boat


after cropping a picture of a boat


Now you have learned the correct way to crop your images or layers in Photoshop without losing quality.



Second Method – Use Layer Mask

If you want to hide portions of your layer without resizing it you can use Layer Mask

Layer Masks are one of the most important tools in Photoshop. They allow you to decide which parts of a layer will be visible or not. For this tutorial, I’m using an image from Pexel that you can find here.

portait open in Photoshop

First, unlock the background layer by clicking on its little lock icon.

unlock background layer in photoshop

Now you want to select the area of your layer you want to keep. You can use whatever selection tool you want. In my case, I simply use the rectangle selection tool as follow:

rectangle selection tool

Now that you have the area you want to keep selected, we will simply hide the rest by applying a layer mask. You can do this by clicking the little rectangle icon in the layer panel. 

add a layer mask in photoshop

Once you click on the layer mask icon, you’ll see that everything but your selection just disappeared. That’s the magic of layer masks. You can edit them afterward without any limit, it’s a non-destructive method.

To resume how they work, what’s 100% black on a layer mask won’t appear, and what’s 100% white will. 

new layer mask applied

One really powerful feature of layer masks is that you can directly paint on them. You will use black color to hide everything you don’t want to appear from the layer. On the contrary, you will use a white color to paint the areas you want to keep from your layer. If you want to know more about Layer Mask, I recommend you to check this article by HowToGeek.

About the Author Betchphoto

Martin is an amateur photographer and digital marketer who has more than 15 years of experience with Adobe Photoshop. Check his about page here