6 Little-Known Things Photographers Can Learn From the Crop Tool in Photoshop & Lightroom

Photoshop CS6 introduced the overlay options for the crop tool, and the same overlays are in the latest version of Photoshop & Lightroom. But the story behind the crop tool overlay options is as compelling and old as the Rule of Thirds. Yet, some photographers and designers seem to know little about this.

6 Overlay Options For the Crop Tool

To follow along launch Photoshop CS6, CC or Lightroom 5. Then open an image. In Photoshop, from the Tools menu select the Crop tool. Next, set the image ratio if necessary, then click on the overlay options from the Crop tool drop-down menu. Here you’ll see six overlay options from which you can choose. In Lightroom 5, under the Develop module, select the Crop overlay. Go to Tools > Crop Guide Overlay and make a selection from the 6 overlay options for the crop tool.

They are: Rule of Thirds, Grid, Diagonal, Triangle, Golden Ratio, Golden Spiral. Today you’ll find out what each of these overlays are. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Rule of Thirds, so that’s a good place to start.

Photoshop Overlay Crop Options

Revisiting the Rule of Thirds

The best known principle of composition is the Rule of Thirds. It’s one of the first photography principles that students of photography learn. The Rule of Thirds helps us compose images when we envision a grid that’s divided into nine equal parts. The grid is composed of two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines. Important elements in our scene should be placed along these lines or their intersections. In theory you’ll end up with a more balanced image.

Below you can see a picture I took in Switzerland. The live view, on the back of my camera, displays the Rule of Thirds grid. This allowed me to accurately compose the image the way I wanted. The trees are at the intersection of the top horizontal and the second vertical line. The second horizontal line is right above the wooden fence.

The Rule of Thirds principle was first mentioned in writing by painter John Thomas Smith in his 1797 book, Remarks on Rural Scenery.

The Rule of Thirds

Straightening It Out with the Grid

The Grid overlay is straight to the point. Combined with the Crop tool, it helps you straighten your images more accurately. This standard Grid is great for cropping architectural images. Notice how uneven my picture is. Here the Grid overlay allows me to match the horizontal and vertical lines to those found in the building. To re-crop and straighten the image, simply grab the image by its corners and rotate.

Cropping with Grid in Photoshop

Re-Cropping with the Diagonal Overlay

Here we see a diamond shape in the middle. I used it to help me recompose this image by placing the horse in the middle of the photograph. The Diagonal overlay helped me rotate and re-crop this image so that the man’s hand is on the same diagonal line as the horse’s shoe. I believe this created balance in the final composition.

Diagonal Lines in Photography

The Golden Triangle

The Golden Triangle, also known as the sublime triangle, is very similar to the Golden Spiral which we’ll discuss shortly. I found a wonderful explanation at the Crisp Photoworks blog that’ll help you visualize this rule.

Here is how it works. Imagine a central line cutting an image in half from one corner to another. Then imagine drawing a 90 degree line from each corner towards the central line that cuts your image in half. In the end you’ll have four triangles. The goal is to fill one of those triangles to create an interesting composition.

Below is an image by the legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. For the sake of demonstration I reversed his image. Sorry B. Notice how the shadow cuts the image in half. That was his central line. Bresson then placed his subject in the upper triangle. The Triangle overlay in Photoshop helps us achieve similar composition.

Golden Triangle

The Master of Golden Ratios

Cartier-Bresson was the master of implementing the golden ratio into his photography. If you can find any of his documentaries online, watch them. In the meantime here is a clip of Bresson talking about the Golden Ratio.

Bresson worked hard to implement the golden ratio, 1.618, into his photographs, also known as the Divine Proportion in the art world. According to the proponents of this technique, the Golden Ratio leads to harmonious proportions that can be found anywhere in nature, even on our faces.

I opened one of Bresson’s images in Photoshop and used the Golden Ratio crop overlay. The two vertical lines fit almost perfectly above the facing ends of the two walls. Notice how the girl is framed in the middle.


The Golden Spiral

You’ll find golden spirals in nature, such as in Nautilus seashells and spiral galaxies. And yes, you’ll find them in another example from Bresson’s photography. In photography, the spiral shape engages and leads the eye to a specific point. Recognizing it on the spot and photographing it produces playful results in the final photograph.

Golden Spiral

But Wait, There are NO Rules in Art!

I hear ya. But these are not rules. They’re simply guides that can improve composition in our photographs.  Many of us come from the style that is antithetical to such approaches. Photography isn’t formulaic, but awareness can be useful.

Cartier Henri-Bresson was a master of composition and he often seemed to have played by these rules. But he also broke them. Some say that to break the rules one has to know them. Cropping images in post-production with these six overlays can help us see the world differently when we are shooting on location

Have You Ever Used the Crop Tool Overlay Options?

Adobe introduced these overlays for a reason. We can use them to improve and understand composition. Or we can simply ignore them. There are many times when I re-cropped my images in Photoshop wishing that I could have shot it that way in the first place. This taught me a lot.

How about you? Have you ever used any of these crop tool overlay options in Photoshop or Lightroom? Let us know in the comments area below. Cheers

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