How to Crop a Single Layer in Photoshop
Learn two ways to crop a specific layer in Photoshop so you can crop the contents of one layer without cropping every layer at once. For Photoshop 2023 and earlier.
One question I’m asked a lot is,
How do you crop the contents of a single layer? We can’t use the Crop Tool because it crops all layers at once. So in this tutorial, I show you two ways to do it. The first way is the easiest way to crop a layer, but the easy way is not always the best. So I also show you a better way that's both flexible (you can go back and edit the crop) and non-destructive.
I'm using Photoshop 2023 but any version will work. You can get the latest Photoshop version here.
The document setup
Here I have a document with two layers, as we see in the Layers panel.
If I turn off the top layer by clicking its visibility icon:
We see the image on the bottom layer. Once I’ve cropped the other image, I’m going to move the cropped version into the center of this image (leaves photo from Adobe Stock).
The easy way to crop a single layer in Photoshop
Here’s the fastest and easiest way to crop a single layer in Photoshop.
Step 1: Select the layer you want to crop
In the Layers panel, make sure the layer you want to crop is selected.
Step 2: Choose the Rectangular Marquee Tool
Step 3: Select the area to keep
Drag a selection outline around the part of the image you want to keep. Everything outside the selection will be cropped away. Here I’m dragging my selection around the two people.
Step 4: Resize the selection with Transform Selection
If you need to resize your selection outline before cropping the layer, go up to the Select menu in the Menu Bar and choose Transform Selection.
In the Options Bar, unlink the Width and Height fields to unlock the aspect ratio of the selection.
Then drag any of the transform handles to resize the selection outline.
Click the checkmark in the Options Bar to accept it and close Transform Selection.
Step 5: Invert the selection
At the moment, everything on the layer that we want to keep is selected. But what we need is for everything we want to crop away to be selected. Which means we need to invert the selection.
So go up to the Select menu and choose Inverse.
Step 6: Crop the layer
Then to crop the layer, press the Delete key on your keyboard. Everything that was outside your initial selection gets cropped away.
Step 7: Remove the selection outline
To remove the selection outline, go back to the Select menu and choose Deselect.
And that’s the easiest way to crop a layer. If I turn off the Background layer:
We see that everything around my selection was cropped away and replaced with transparency (indicated by the checkerboard pattern).
Why the easy way to crop a layer is not always best
But here’s the problem. We have now permanently deleted the pixels we cropped away, which means there is no way to go back and edit the crop if we need to restore some of that missing area. At least, not without undoing the crop and starting over.
How to crop a layer using a layer mask
So let me show you a better way to crop a layer in Photoshop, one that is both editable and non-destructive. Instead of deleting the unwanted pixels, we’ll simply hide them using a layer mask.
Step 1: Select the area you want to keep
If you have not done so already, use the first 4 steps in the previous section to draw a selection outline around the part of the layer you want to keep.
In my case, I’m just going to undo my last few steps, by pressing Ctrl+Z on a Windows PC or Command+Z on a Mac a few times, to get back to my initial selection around the two people.
Step 2: Add a layer mask
In the Layers panel, click the Add Layer Mask icon.
Photoshop crops away everything on the layer that was outside the selection. But this time, those pixels are not gone. They’re just hidden from view.
Notice that we now have a layer mask on the layer, indicated by the mask thumbnail. The layer mask is hiding everything that was outside our selection. The white area on the mask is where the contents of the layer are still visible. And the black area is where the content is hidden.
How to toggle the layer mask on and off
You can toggle the layer mask on and off by holding Shift on your keyboard and clicking the layer mask thumbnail. With the mask turned off, the entire layer is once again visible. Click the mask thumbnail again to turn the layer mask back on.
How to view the layer mask on the canvas
And to view the layer mask on the canvas, hold the Alt key on a Windows PC or the Option key on a Mac and click the layer mask thumbnail.
Viewing the layer mask makes it easy to see where the layer is visible (the white area) and where it is hidden (the black area). Hold Alt or Option and click the mask thumbnail again to return to the main image view.
Step 3: Unlink the mask from the layer
Since we are just hiding pixels, not deleting them, we can edit the crop simply by resizing the visible area of the layer mask.
In the Layers panel, click the link icon between the layer thumbnail and the mask thumbnail to unlink the mask from the layer. This will let us resize the mask without resizing the layer contents.
Step 4: Select the layer mask
Then click on the mask thumbnail to select it if it is not selected already. You should see a white border around the thumbnail.
Step 5: Resize the layer mask with Free Transform
Go up to the Edit menu in the Menu Bar and choose Free Transform.
In the Options Bar, again make sure the link icon between the Width and Height fields is not selected so that the aspect ratio of the layer mask is unlocked.
Then drag any of the transform handles around the visible area of the layer mask to resize the crop.
When you’re done, click the checkmark in the Options Bar to accept it and close Free Transform.
Moving the cropped layer
Now that I have cropped the top layer using a layer mask, I want to move the cropped image into the center of the background image.
So in the toolbar, I’ll select the Move Tool.
But before I can move the image, I first need to relink the layer and the mask, otherwise I’ll end up moving one but not the other. So in the Layers panel, I’ll relink them by clicking in the empty space between the layer thumbnail and the mask thumbnail. The link icon reappears.
And now I can drag the cropped image into the center.
Adding layer effects to the cropped layer
I’ll quickly finish up by adding a stroke and drop shadow to the cropped image using layer effects.
In the Layers panel, I’ll click the fx icon.
Then I’ll choose Stroke.
In the Layer Style dialog box, I’ll set the stroke Color to white, the Position to Inside, and the Size to 29 pixels.
Then still in the Layer Style dialog box, I’ll select Drop Shadow from the column along the left.
And I can easily adjust the Angle and Distance of the shadow just by clicking and dragging on the image itself.
Then I’ll click OK to close the dialog box.
Here is the final result.
And there we have it! That’s two ways to crop a single layer in Photoshop. Be sure to check out my related tutorials where I cover how to crop images and how to use Transform Selection in much more detail.
Don't forget, all of my Photoshop tutorials are now available to download as PDFs!