Add a Mat Frame to a Photo with Photoshop or Elements

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Increase the Canvas

Increase the Canvas
Extend the canvas area using the crop tool, by dragging the crop area outside of the document border. © Sue Chastain

Sometimes a certain photo just needs an extra special treatment to make it pop. One simple way to make a photo pop is to add a matted frame to it. This tutorial shows you how to add a matted frame with Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. This tutorial will show you a new way of using the crop tool, and you'll also work with layers, layer styles, and the trim command. Photoshop Elements users will learn an alternative to the trim command.

I've used Photoshop CS5 Extended for my screen shots, but you should be able to follow the tutorial in older versions of Photoshop and Photoshop Elements. Differences in Photoshop Elements are also noted where appropriate.

First open the photo you want to work with. I will assume you have already cropped and performed any desired touch-ups on the photo.

If the layers palette only shows a background layer, you will need to promote the background to a layer. To do this, double click on the word "Background" on the layer in the Layers palette, then in the New Layer dialog, name the layer "Photo."

Before creating the mat effect, you will need to increase the canvas area around the photo. We can do this with the crop tool. Select the crop tool and drag a crop area that covers the whole photo. Then drag the corner handles of the crop area outside of the photo's boundaries. You do not have to be exact at this stage, but you should allow enough room for your mat effect and a drop shadow.

When you commit the crop, the canvas will expand around the photo to create extra space.

If you've never used the crop tool in this way and are having trouble, see the following lessons:
Photoshop Crop Tool Lesson | Practice Exercises
• Photoshop Elements Crop Tool Lesson | Practice Exercises

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Add a Rectangle for your Mat

Add a Rectangle for your Mat
Select both layers and align them using the options bar for the move tool. © Sue Chastain

Now select the rectangle shape tool--not to be confused with the rectangle selection tool. The rectangle shape tool is down in the toolbar with the other vector tools. In the options bar, set the fill color to white, or the color you want for your mat. (I'll show you how to experiment with changing the color later, so what you choose now is not that important.)

Now click and drag out a rectangle that is larger than your picture, to create the mat. You can eyeball the alignment for now, and I'll show you how to perfect it later.

When you release the mouse button, the rectangle will be covering your picture, so go to the layers palette and drag the "Shape 1" layer below the photo layer.

Now select both layers in the layers palette by clicking one and then shift-clicking on the other. Active the move tool, and in the options bar, press the buttons to align horizontal and vertical centers. In Photoshop Elements, you will choose "Vertical Centers" and then "Horizontal Centers" from the Align drop-down menu.

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Add Layer Effects

Add Layer Effects
Add stroke and drop shadow layer effects. © Sue Chastain

Now you have a mat frame, but it doesn't really pop that much. We'll give it that pop with a stroke and drop shadow effect.

In Photoshop:

Double click a blank area of the "Shape 1" layer in the layers palette.

In the Layer Style dialog, select to stroke and set it to a size of 5 pixels, position inside, and color black. Adjust the size if you prefer a thicker or thinner outline.

Next go to drop shadow and adjust the settings to your liking. The settings I used were angle 145°, distance 5, spread 0, and size 10 for a subtle drop shadow.

I think it looks nice to have a black border around the photo layer also. To ensure it matches the other stroke, we can copy the layer style from the shape to the photo. Right click on the shape layer, choose "Copy layer style," then right click on the photo layer and choose "Paste layer style." Since it copies all the effects, we can take away the drop shadow from the photo layer by clicking the eye icon next to drop shadow to hide it.

In Photoshop Elements:

Switch to the effects palette, click the button for layer styles, then choose "Show all" from the filter menu. Double click on "Black Stroke 05px.," then on the drop shadow titled "Low." Switch back to the layers palette, and double click the FX icon to open the Style settings. Change the lighting angle to 145°.

Now choose the "Photo" layer from the layers palette, and apply the "Black Stroke 05px." effect to this layer.

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Change the Mat Color

Change the Mat Color
Change the mat color. © Sue Chastain

To experiment with different mat colors, double-click the color indicator on the shape layer in the layers palette, which will bring up the color picker. You can choose a color directly from the color picker, or move your cursor over your photo where it will change to an eyedropper, allowing you to pick a color from within the photo. I changed the mat to the tan color from my husband's shirt. Click OK when you like the color.

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Trim and Save the Photo

Trim and Save the Photo
The trim command will give you a perfect crop without clipping the drop shadow. © Sue Chastain

Lastly, we will trim and save the photo. In Photoshop, go to Image > Trim… and set it to trim transparent pixels from all four borders.

Photoshop Elements does not have the Trim command, so you can work around this in one of two ways.

  1. Install the Trim action for Elements from this site.
  2. Use the magic wand tool. Select the magic wand and enable "Sample all layers" in the options bar. Click in the transparent area outside of the frame, go to Select > Inverse, then Image > Crop.

If you think you'll want to make changes to your project later, be sure to save a PSD version of the file, then save a copy as JPEG or whatever format you may need for your desired output.