Photoshop tip: Make your vertical photos fit Instagram better with Photoshop Content-Aware tools

Exactly one year ago this week, Instagram overhauled their app in a major way to allow non-square photos to be posted for the first time. With this new flexibility also came some new challenges for DSLR photographers, namely how they can squish their 3:2 ratio images into the 5:4 ratio space that Instagram provides. The solution? Adobe Photoshop Content-Aware tools, including Content-Aware Cropping and Content-Aware Fill.

First, some background. Instagram, since its inception, has limited photographers to posting square photos (a 1:1 ratio). When Instagram introduced non-square images last year, they still limited their new rectangular formats to very specific aspect ratios — horizontal photos can only be as skinny as 16:9 and vertical photos can only be as tall as 5:4. For DSLR photographers who shoot in the standard 3:2 ratio, this posed a huge problem when posting vertical photos, since their image would still have to be cropped (just like it was back in the good ol’ square days) to fit into Instagram’s 5:4 space.

The old solution to this was to use tools like Photoshop or very specific image-editing apps to shrink images without cropping them and then add white space around the image. This was fine, but not ideal, and made Instagram’s famous grid of square thumbnail images look a bit wonky with varying amounts of white space.

The new solution is Photoshop Content-Aware Cropping.

Photoshop Content-Aware Cropping

Photoshop Content-Aware tools have been around in some form or another since 2008, with the release of Photoshop CS4. Photoshop CS5 added Content-Aware Fill, and earlier this year Photoshop CC brought us Content-Aware Crop. Let’s dive right in. Take a look at this image of model Samantha, shot in studio with my Nikon DSLR, in the standard 3:2 ratio:

Model Samantha — shot at 3:2 ratio

Looks great! But if I want to post this to Instagram, I’ll be forced to crop it to a 5:4 ratio. Here’s what that looks like:

Model Samantha — image cropped to 5:4 ratio

Aww, crap. I’m going to lose a significant portion of the image. Both Sam’s feet and head are trimmed when I’m forced to crop to this ratio. I could move the cropping guide slightly so that all of Sam’s head will make it into the photo unscathed, at the expense of cropping off more of her legs at the bottom of the photo. Not cool. So we’ll use Photoshop Content-Aware Cropping to retain the entire image and meet the 5:4 ratio. All you have to do is expand your crop guides to the left and right (drag from the corner or the edges) so that the entire image is now within the boundaries of the crop guide. Then click the Content-Aware button in the toolbar and finalize your crop by hitting the checkmark button.

Photoshop Content-Aware Cropping tool

When you expand the cropping guide to encompass your entire image, Photoshop temporarily fills that empty space with the grey checkerboard pattern until you fill it with something. In this case, Photoshop Content-Aware Cropping is going to work its magic and intelligently fill that space by analyzing elements of the photo to determine what’s best. Here’s the result:

Model Samantha, after using Photoshop Content-Aware cropping

Volia! Photoshop Content-Aware Cropping has automagically extended the edges of my photo seamlessly, to make it look like it was shot this way all along. And it now fits the 5:4 ratio that Instagram needs! Note how well Photoshop has extended the shadows on the floor and the faux light leak at the top.

Another Example

Now lest you think that this is only good for photos shot in studios or photos that have simple backgrounds, check out this more complex example:


On the left is the original 3:2 shot from my DSLR. On the right is the 5:4 version created with Photoshop Content-Aware Cropping. Now don’t get me wrong — it ain’t perfect. But it’s still pretty darn good. The trees at the left side have been shamelessly repeated, as well as some of the debris on the ground in the lower left and lower right of the image. If you look closely on the right side, you can also see a seam where the original image ended and where the Content-Aware Cropping has tacked itself on. All that being said, a quick clean up with the cloning and healing tools will make these issues vanish and give a more natural result.

Check out my Instagram and see if you can figure out which images this technique was used on. Will you use this Photoshop technique for your own images?

If you found this tip useful, please consider sharing it on your favourite social network. To learn more about the tools I use to create my photos, check out my About Me page where you’ll find Amazon affiliate links to many of the fantastic photo products I use daily. Support this site by shopping Amazon via my links.

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