In this technique, I’d like to show you how I use scanned
images or paint with artistic brushes to creatively crop
photographs. Warning: This technique is addictive. After
using this technique a few times, you might get bored with
1. Scan a high contrast image. You can use any image that
contains primarily black and white (and not many shades
in between). One way of making such an image is to spill
ink onto watercolor paper and then scan it. But for my
example, I used a large brush, dipped it in black ink
and then painted on watercolor paper to create the image.
Once the ink was completely dry, I scanned it as a grayscale
image. As an alternative, you can paint with one of the creative
brushes that appears at the bottom of the brushes palette in a
grayscale document instead of scanning an image (although I
think it turns out much better with scanned images).
2. Add a layer mask. Now we need to prepare the image we’d like to
crop. So, open any photograph you’d like to use, double-click on the
Background Layer to change its name and then choose Layer > Add Layer
Mask > Reveal All. The layer should now have two preview thumbnails
in the Layers palette. The one on the right is the Layer Mask you
3. Paste the image into mask. Now let’s get our scanned image into that
Layer Mask. Open the scanned or painted image, choose Select > All and
then Edit > Copy. Switch to the image you’d like to crop, Option-click
(Mac), or Alt-click (Windows) the Layer Mask preview image in the Layers
palette to make it ﬁll the main screen and then choose Edit > Paste.
If the pasted image is overly large or small compared to the document
you pasted it into, then you’ll want to choose Edit > Free Transform
and pull on the corners to scale the image.
4. Invert the mask. In a Layer Mask, black causes areas of the layer to become
hidden and white causes areas to show up, which means that what we have now
would hide the majority of our photo. So, choose Image > Adjustments > Invert
to make the image a negative, which should cause the layer to only be hidden
on the edges.
5. Adjust the mask. Next, lets make sure the primary areas of this image are
pure black and pure white, otherwise you’ll be able to see through the
image in the middle (grays=semi-transparent). To do that, choose
Image > Adjustments > Levels and pull in the upper left and upper right
sliders until the middle of the scan is solid white and the edge of the
image is solid black.
6. View the result. Now to see how all this has affected your image,
Option-click (Mac), or Alt-click (Windows) on the Layer Mask
preview image in the Layers palette to hide the mask and show
your image. It should be cropped so that it only shows up within
the shape of the ink that was in our scan.
7. Create texture. I think we could make it look even more interesting
by adding texture to the photograph. Since the last thing we copied
was the scan of that paint, you should be able to just choose
Edit > Paste to get a new layer that contains the original scan.
If you ended up scaling the image the ﬁrst time you pasted it in,
then you can choose Edit > Transform > Again to scale this version
the same amount. After doing that, choose Filter > Stylize > Emboss,
use the default settings, and click ok.
8. Apply texture. Now to apply the texture that the Emboss ﬁlter pulled
out of the image, change the blending mode menu at the top of the
Layers palette from Normal to Hard Light and then choose
Layer > Create Clipping Mask. If that doesn’t add enough texture,
then try choosing Filter > Texture > Texturizer to the layer you
9. Spice it up a bit. If you’re still hungry for more effects,
then click on the layer that contains the photo (not the texture)
and experiment with the choices found in the Layer > Styles menu
(I like Drop Shadow and Bevel and Emboss).
All it takes is about an hour of free time and a quick visit to the art
supply store to create literally dozens of creative crop shapes.
You don’t have to be an artist, heck, just spill paint on the paper—it
will look more interesting than a rectangular crop job. I can barely
draw a stick man and look what I came up with. And since the Photoshop
creative brushes can be used as a substitute for all those art supplies,
your possibilities are truly endless.