How to fix tilted photos without cropping in Photoshop

Have you ever tried straightening a tilted photo? Typically, you must crop the photo since it leaves empty space. However, Photoshop can fill in those empty spaces realistically. Here’s how to straighten the horizon without cropping.

Drummer of The Convertibles playing at a 4th of July concert at the Nora Ross Bandshell in Woodland Hills, California. I photographed this quickly. It was a little crooked. However, I was able to straighten it without losing the edges or empty spaces, keeping the crop the same.

Content-Aware Crop

Content-Aware Crop automates filling in empty space after cropping. This can occur when you are trying to fix a crooked horizon line in an image.

Ordinarily, you would straighten the horizon line by rotating the image while keeping the same crop. However, this leaves empty spaces. Often, you need to go in manually and fill in these empty spaces via cloning or a content-aware tool.

Content-Aware Crop alleviates that by automatically filling in the empty spaces in the image. This can be a minimal fill. However, if you pulled the edges out, you could fill in more room. More on that later.

Straightening an image using Content-Aware Crop

Step 1: Select the Crop Tool 

Selecting the Crop Tool at left.

The Crop Tool is located on the left side. Then click anywhere in the photo to enable the grid. It typically defaults to thirds, as shown below.

Clicking on the image to produce the grid.

Step 2: Select Content-Aware and Straighten

These are located in the Option menu on the top left corner. 

Step 3: Draw a line across the horizon you want straightened

Selecting the Straighten Icon, you can draw a line across the horizon to let Photoshop know how you want it straightened. It’s intuitive and easy.

Since you selected the Straighten icon, you can draw a line across the horizon. This will let Photoshop know what you want straightened.

Photoshop will straighten your photo. After a few seconds, it will also fill in any empty spaces.

Moments after I release the horizon line I’ve drawn, Photoshop straightens the horizon. A few seconds later, it will fill in the empty spaces as well!
Like magic! Photoshop’s Content-Aware Crop has now filled in the empty spaces. That looks realistic. I chose to clone out the leaves in the upper left corner but left everything else alone. I later decided that it looked good in black and white. Other than that, I was done. And it only took about 10 seconds to straighten the horizon and let Photoshop fill in the empty spaces!

Step 4: Fix anything in the filled areas that looks odd

Often, Photoshop will fill in the corners quite satisfactorily. However, sometimes, it will add something that you don’t want to have. Simply select the Lasso Tool. Draw a line around the area that you want changed. Then use the Clone Stamp or Content-Aware Fill to do the rest.

Bonus tip: Creating more space in a cramped image

If you want the Content-Aware Crop Tool to add a little more space to a cramped image, start out the same way as above. But this time, grab one of the corners or sides and drag it to where you want more space. The Content-Aware Crop Tool will attempt to fill in this space for you.

Remember that Photoshop is generating part of a new image to fill in these empty spaces. The more you drag out the border, the greater the chance that Photoshop begins generating odd graphics. As you might suspect, Photoshop is best when it works in corner areas with consistent colors or patterns. It generally does very well in filling in skies (with or without clouds), grass, sand or continuing patterns. 

Please let me know how this works for you in the comments section. Also, if you have developed a different workflow for straightening horizon lines while filling in the empty spaces, please share that as well!


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How We Got the Shots: Five Photographers, Five Stories – Night Photo Summit 2022


Ken Lee’s Abandoned Trains Planes and Automobiles with Tim Little of Cape Nights Photography
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols



Featured Photo: My Eyes Have Seen You, Let Them Photograph Your Soul

"Jim Morrison" with Break On Through, 17 December 2011

“Jim Morrison” with Break On Through, an amazing Doors tribute band, 17 December 2011. Nikon D90 with a 50mm Nikkor f1.8 lens, 1/100, f/2, 1250 ISO.

Break On Through to the Faster Side
There’s nothing like a nice fast lens.  I like shooting concert photos with natural light most of the time, and a fast lens always helps.  I’m using the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, which at $300, is a pretty good bargain.  There’s another 50mm lens, the f/1.8, for scarcely more than $100, which is a steal.  Dark light?  With a big aperture, I can still shoot at 1/100 and “freeze” the action without getting too much noise (grain).

I like to wander.  I took the above photo of “Jim Morrison”, singer of the Doors tribute band Break On Through”, while standing next to the drummer on stage.  I really like the look of someone who is backlit.

The Legendary Pharoah Sanders

Who is the Pharoah Of Them All? The legendary Pharoah Sanders at the Catalina, this one taken with the same Nikon D90, but with a much slower lens, an 18-200mm VR, shot with a rather “low tech” method of minimizing camera shake! 😀

Take It As It Comes
Sometimes, you don’t always have what you need.  Here at this gig with the legendary Pharoah Sanders at the Catalina, I didn’t own the faster lens, and had considerably slower 18-200mm VR Nikkor zoom lens.  I got away with less movement by using the VR (Vibration Reduction) technology AND by squeezing the camera tight against one of the posts to minimize camera shake while shooting.  I still picked up a bunch of noise from having to bump my ISO quite high, so I had to spend a little time in Photoshop cleaning that up.  But my philosophy is that I’d rather get the shot with a little noise than not get the shot at all.  And this photo has been one of my most popular concert photos, and something I personally treasure.

Equipment:  Nikon D90,  50mm f1/4 (first photo); 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens (2nd photo)