Although we should always try to get as much right in camera to save ourselves time in post production, sometimes cropping in Lightroom is the best option and is a great way to improve the impact of a photo.
Just be aware that when you nibble away at the size of the original image you cut away pixels.
The fewer pixels you have, the more it’ll affect the potential size of your photo for printing or posting online. Most of the time it won’t matter as most of us won’t print that big (we’re talking huge, billboard size prints), so a bit of cropping is fine.
However, if you crop an image down to a very small part of the original image, there’s a chance that it’ll affect the quality of your image and will restrict print size options. This also depends on your camera – top of the range cameras offer higher megapixels than entry level cameras, so produce images that can be cropped further.
That’s all the warnings finished. Now let’s get into the huge range of options for cropping photos in Lightroom.
Can you crop a photo in Lightroom?
You absolutely can crop photos in Lightroom. In fact, you’d be amazed at just how powerful the Lightroom cropping tool is, because there’s so much more to it than simply resizing an image.
Reasons to crop in Lightroom:
How to open the Lightroom crop tool
There are two ways to open the Lightroom crop tool:
- In the Develop module, select the crop tool by clicking on the frame icon just below the histogram on the right hand side of the screen
- In any module, press R on your keyboard to take you to the Develop module and open the crop tool at the same time
How to use the Lightroom crop tool to straighten photos
When you straighten a photo in Lightroom some of the edges will be cropped off as the photo rotates. How much gets cut off depends on how much you need to straighten the image.
If you’re not good at holding the camera straight, leave extra space around your subject when photographing, until you’re better at it, so that you don’t risk cropping off vital bits when you straighten the image in post production. (PS – I had that problem for ages when photographing in portrait orientation. I was always over rotating the camera.)
Although it’s not the only way to straighten a photo in Lightroom, the Lightroom cropping tool is great for straightening photos, and the one I use the most. You have four straightening options:
- Auto – one click and Lightroom will straighten your photo (but it might not always work perfectly)
- Angle – draw a horizontal line across the photo (click the ruler or hold down Ctrl or Cmd with your cursor over the photo, then click and drag to draw a line)
- Angle – move the slider left or right to rotate the image
- Manual (see below)
My preferred method is straightening the image manually. With the crop tool open:
- Position the cursor in the grey bit outside of the image
- You’ll see the cursor change to a double ended arrow
- Click and drag the mouse up or down to rotate the image (a grid will show to help you align your photo to straight horizontal or vertical lines in the image)
- Release when you’re happy with the image (the areas that are cropped out will be darker)
- When you close the crop tool the cropped off areas will not be visible.
Cropping in Lightroom for printing and resizing photos
Without getting deep into aspect ratio, which is essentially what we’re talking about when resizing photos for different print sizes, here’s a little intro to aspect ratio…
Most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras produce images with a ratio of 3:2 (as above), regardless of whether they’re crop sensor or full frame cameras. The camera’s sensor determines the image ratio based on the ratio of the sensor itself, which is 3:2.
A 3:2 ratio image has one side that is 1.5 times wider than the shorter side. Prints that are 6×4, 9×6 12×8 inches etc have a 3:2 ratio. So you can print photos from your DSLR or mirrorless camera at these sizes without having to crop them.
A 5:4 ratio (as above) is common for large and medium format film cameras, which ties in with the dimensions of the most popular print sizes and picture frames (e.g. 10×8, 20×16 etc). So for these print sizes you need to crop the image if using a camera with a 3:2 ratio sensor (unless you set it to shoot to a 5:4 ratio).
Further reading: What is aspect ratio in photography and why is it so important?
Have you noticed that if you post a portrait orientation photo to Instagram you either have to crop it yourself, or accept that not the whole photo will show in the feed?
That’s because for some reason or other Instagram has set the aspect ratio of portrait orientation images to 5:4. It doesn’t make sense in a world where most cameras have a 3:2 ratio (unlike phone cameras), but at least it’s better than when every image had to be square, which is a 1:1 ratio. Who are we to argue with Instagram?
Can you crop and keep aspect ratio in Lightroom?
Yes, if you want to.
Adobe Lightroom helps you to either maintain the aspect ratio of a photograph while cropping, or change it to whatever you want. It’s simply a matter of locking or unlocking the aspect ratio. There are three ways to do this:
- Click the lock
- Right click on the photo and click on “Constrain Aspect Ratio” in the drop down menu
- Shortcut key – press A on your keyboard
To maintain the aspect ratio when cropping in Lightroom, make sure that the lock is locked, then select one of the following:
- Original aspect ratio (this is the default)
- As shot ratio
To change the aspect ratio of a photo, for example to print a 10 x 8 inch photo, select from these two options:
- Preset aspect ratio
- Custom aspect ratio
How to use Lightroom aspect ratio presets
The most common crop sizes for photos are available as presets, making resizing images for print easy:
- Click on the text (As Shot, Original or Custom), depending on what’s showing
- Select the Lightroom crop preset you want
- Position your cursor on the image and click and drag to crop or grab one of the side or corner handles of the photo and drag it in to where you want to crop
TIP… To alter all 4 sides of the image equally at the same time, hold down Alt (PC) or Option (Mac) then click and drag.
How to set a custom aspect ratio
If you know the custom size you want for your image:
- Click on the text (As Shot, Original or Custom), depending on what’s showing
- Select “Enter Custom” from the drop down menu
- Enter the aspect ratio into the boxes provided (width x length)
How to use Lightroom to crop to any size
Of course, not every photo has to fit to a certain print size. Sometimes we just want a certain crop, because it looks best that way.
Lightroom has an answer for this too.
With the crop tool open your cursor changes to a crop icon as you mouse over your image.
To crop freehand:
- Unlock the aspect ratio lock (type A on the keyboard or click on the lock)
- Position your cursor on the image then click and drag to where you want to crop
- Or grab one of the handles at the edge of the photo and drag it to where you want to crop
- To alter 2 opposing sides of the image equally at the same time, hold down Alt (PC) or Option (Mac) while you click and drag
TIP… To alter all 4 sides of the image equally at the same time (ie maintain the crop aspect ratio) even when the lock is unlocked, hold down shift then click and drag.
Cropping in Lightroom to improve composition
If you can’t get close enough to a subject to fill the frame, cropping in Lightroom is an easy way to achieve the look you want.
Further reading: Cropping photos for maximum impact and better composition
But there’s more to cropping for better composition than filling the frame.
Lightroom crop overlay for composition
Lightroom crop overlays are ideal for precise crops that follow rules of composition. There are 8 overlays and the rule of thirds grid is the first.
To cycle through them click O on the keyboard. Every time you press the O key the crop overlay will change.
When you get to the golden triangle overlay (top right in the graphic above), if you hold down shift and click O the overlay flips horizontally.
Likewise for the golden spiral overlay, except there are a lot more options, as you can see below.
Further reading: The Golden Ratio and why what you’ve heard is wrong
There’s even an overlay to help you see how your image would look in three different aspect ratios at once, which is ideal for deciding on cropping for a particular print size. They are:
- 2 x 3
- 5 x 7
- 4 x 5
And there are two options:
As before, to cycle between the two, hold down shift and click O on the keyboard.
Further reading: Portrait vs landscape – which is better?
How do I copy a crop in Lightroom?
I’m always looking for faster ways of editing in Lightroom to speed up my post production workflow. Syncing adjustments is key to this.
If you have similar photos and you want them all to have the same crop, follow these steps in the Develop module:
- Click the photo you want to copy
- Hold down shift or Ctrl (PC) or Cmd (Mac) and select the photo/s you want to copy the crop to
- Click the “Sync” button
- Click the “Check None” button to ensure all options are deselected
- Select “Crop” (the two sub commands will automatically be selected too)
- Click the “Synchronize” button
Then check the positioning of the crop on the other photo/s to make sure that it’s where you want it.
If it’s not in quite the right place:
- Select the photo you want to change
- Open the crop tool
- Position your cursor anywhere within the cropped area
- Click and drag it to where you want it
- Release and close the crop tool
You can go back as many times as you like to change the crop.
To remove the crop, with the crop tool open, just click “Reset” in the Crop & Straighten tool panel.
Lightroom crop tool shortcuts
Here’s a quick summary of shortcuts to speed up your Lightroom workflow when cropping in Lightroom:
- R – open and close the crop tool from any module
- X – change the crop from landscape to portrait and vice versa
- A – unlock and lock the aspect ratio lock
- Shift – to maintain aspect ratio while cropping, even if the aspect ratio lock is unlocked, hold down shift then click and drag
- Alt/Option – to increase/decrease the crop on 2 opposing sides when aspect ratio is unlocked, hold down Alt (PC) or Option (Mac) then click and drag
- Ctrl/Cmd – hold down Ctrl (PC) or Cmd (Mac) to change the cursor to a ruler then click and drag to draw a line to straighten an image
- Esc – to close the crop tool
Further reading: 28 essential Lightroom shortcuts that will speed up your workflow
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