Photoshop Smart Objects: Everything You Want to Know
After nearly three decades, Photoshop remains the world’s most popular image editing software, thanks to its many tools for turning photographs and other graphics into eye-catching, magical images. Photoshop’s developers are constantly working on updating its image editing toolbox, and one of the best recent additions is the smart objects option.
Available in Photoshop’s newest version, Photoshop CC, the smart object feature allows you to non-destructively edit raw files from a variety of sources, even vector illustrations. Because the original image data isn’t affected, smart objects can make image manipulation faster, more flexible, and more fun.
Last Updated December 2023
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There’s a lot of information available on how to use Photoshop’s many tools, but much of it is incomplete, outdated, or incorrect – and that can be frustrating for a newcomer looking to master the software. This quick but comprehensive guide to smart objects will teach you why they’re one of Photoshop CC’s best features, and how to use them for all your photography or design projects.
Not sure you’re ready for this tutorial yet? You might want to try taking an introductory Photoshop course first. But if you’re familiar with the basics and know your way around the toolbar, let’s dive in.
What is a smart object?
When you import an object (a file that contains data from a raster or vector image) into Photoshop, you can transform it, apply filters, and make any other changes you like. But since those changes are applied directly to the pixels in the image file, they’re very hard to undo if you change your mind later.
Smart objects protect the original image file from whatever changes you make so that editing doesn’t permanently destroy or alter those original pixels or vectors. These non-destructive properties mean that while you’re editing, drawing, resizing, or changing the image in other ways, the object won’t lose its quality – and you can always revert back to the original.
You can also apply layer masks and Smart Filters to your smart object. Smart Filters can be lifted, changed, and applied even to duplicates of your smart object. Plus, one or more smart objects can be “nested” together in a new smart object for even more editing possibilities. This gives you, as the designer, ultimate flexibility in your workflow while keeping your original content intact and readily available. We’ll go over all these points in the tutorial, so let’s get started!
In Photoshop, go to File>Open and select the image you want to work with. For this tutorial, we will open two images. One will be the background, and the other will be the image that we are going to convert to a smart object. You can do this too, or just stick with one photo to practice on if you prefer. If you choose to open two images, you’ll have two layers in your layers palette. One will be for the background, and the other will be your first layer. That will look like this:
Right now, the image in Layer 1 is rasterized. That means if we shrank it to a very small size and then enlarged it back to normal size, we’d lose some valuable image data. That would make the picture look blurry and pixelated. But by converting the image to a smart object, it can undergo virtually infinite shrinkage or enlargement without sacrificing quality. In that way, it remains sharp and clear at any size. Now let’s create a smart object out of that image.
Make sure that the layer you want to convert is active, or highlighted, in your layers panel. Go to layer on the top menu bar and scroll down to find smart objects. Click to convert the layer to a smart object. Another way to do this is to right-click on the layer thumbnail in your layers panel. You’ll see the option for converting to a smart object there as well, so you can click on it that way too.
If you’ve correctly converted the image to a smart object, you’ll see a small square icon in the bottom right-hand corner of the layer thumbnail in the layers panel. That indicates that the layer is a smart object.
Now, let’s do some resizing of the images to show the difference between a smart object and a plain rasterized image. For this demo, we’ll make a duplicate of the rasterized orange cloud picture. To do this, right-click on the layer (as you did to make a smart object in Step 2) and select duplicate layer. You can also do this by going to the layers dropdown on the top menu bar and selecting duplicate layer. Another shortcut for duplicating layers is to hold down the ALT key, click on the layer you want to duplicate, and then drag the cursor away.
So now, we have two layers with orange clouds. The one on the right is the rasterized image, and the one on the left is the smart object. Notice the smart object icon on layer 1 in the layers panel, but no icon on “layer 1 copy,” which is the rasterized version. Note that you can use tools like the brush tool or eraser to draw on a rasterized layer, but not on a smart object. If you try, you’ll get a pop-up that says you must rasterize the object before proceeding – and then it loses its status as a smart object.
It’s time to shrink the images. We’ll shrink both of them to a very tiny size and then bring them back to their original size to see the difference in image quality. To shrink both images at once, make sure that both “layer 1” and “layer 1 copy” are highlighted in your layers panel by holding down CTRL while clicking on each one.
To resize an image, we’ll use the Free Transform tool, which lets us adjust both the size and the proportions of an image. To access the tool, open edit on the top toolbar, and select Transform> Free Transform from the dropdown options. You can also use the shortcut CTRL+T to do this.
When Free Transform is active, you’ll see anchor points appear around the image. Click on one of these points and drag toward the center of the image to decrease its size. To keep the image proportional while you’re resizing it, hold shift while dragging the cursor. When you reach the desired size, hit enter to apply the transformation. Because both the smart object and the raster image layers are active, both these images will be resized to the same dimensions.
Now that both images are very tiny, we can enlarge them using the same steps as above: Highlight both layers, apply Free Transform, and drag an anchor point outward. Constrain the proportions by holding down the shift key as you drag.
Can you see the difference between these two images? It’s quite obvious! The one on top is a smart object, and it’s as sharp and clear as it was before we resized it. But the rasterized image on the bottom is pixelated and has lost some detail and clarity. Overall, the smart object remains a high-quality image, but the quality of the raster version has dropped considerably.
Using masks with smart objects
Now that we’ve seen how converting to a smart object affects image quality, what else can we do with this feature? One option is to change the entire look and feel of an object by using masks to modify all objects at once.
Layer masks are another tool for non-destructive editing in Photoshop, and you can add them to any layer or image. A layer mask lets you control transparency on any layer, simply by painting on the layer with either black (to reveal the pixels underneath the mask) or white (to hide them). Masks can work with smart objects, too.
If you’re following along with the demo, go ahead and delete the rasterized image from the previous exercise, since we won’t need it now. But we will make a few more duplicates of your image (in this case, the orange clouds).
When you duplicate a smart object layer, the copies will also be smart objects. To be sure that they are, check for the smart object icon on the layer thumbnail. In the demo, all three alpacas are smart objects by double checking their layer icon status. So far, so good!
Let’s say we want to make the clouds of all three layers white. Since they’re all smart objects, we don’t need to make the change for every image. We can just change one, and all three alpacas will look the same. This is one of the best things about smart objects and masks. It saves so much time and effort. Let’s give it a try.
Choose one of the layers to work on. It doesn’t matter which one you choose. Double-click the layer. When you do this, you may get a message about saving your work when you’re done. Just click OK for now. You should see your source image (the alpaca) by itself, like this:
Notice that now, you only have one layer showing in the layers panel – the active layer you’ve just chosen to work with. This is the source image. All three of the smart objects you’ve created are now attached to that source file. And so, if you make any adjustments to the source file, all the attached smart objects will also change accordingly.
Let’s try changing our source file by making an adjustment. From the Adjustments tab on the main menu bar, let’s choose Hue/Saturation.
Now we’ll adjust the image to be all white by checking the colorize box and dragging the LIGHTNESS slider all the way to the right. That looks pretty strange, but don’t worry – it won’t stay that way for long.
With the image now all white, click on the layers tab to return to your layers panel. Currently, as you see above, you’re on the Properties tab. You should see a blank white square next to the words “Hue/Saturation” on your layer. Click on it, then click on the properties tab to return to it. Then click “Invert.”
With the Hue/Saturation mask inverted, your smart object should return to its original appearance. But we aren’t finished yet.
This tutorial shows you just one set of options, but there are plenty of other techniques for creating a masterpiece in Photoshop.
Get the brush tool from either the toolbar or by hitting the letter B on the keyboard. Make sure that the foreground color (the one you’ll be using to paint) is white. You can choose any brush you like for this part of the tutorial, but it’s a good idea to keep it simple with an ordinary soft brush that’s not too large.
Now use the brush to color over the part of the smart object that you want to change. Whatever areas you paint with this brush will become the color you chose in Step 3. For this demo, we opted to use white.
With a split-screen, you can see our changes to the Source file and how the images look before applying the changes. To split the screen like this, go to Window>Arrange>2Up Vertical.
Save your source file by going to File>Save. When you save this edited smart object, you’ll see that all the smart objects on the image you’re building have also been changed.
Your source file is now saved within Photoshop. By saving the source file like this, you aren’t overriding the original image source on your computer. That’s one of the many reasons smart objects are so smart.
Using Smart Filters with smart objects
Finally, Smart Filters are another way to non-destructively add special effects to any image in Photoshop, and they’re much easier to manage than the masks in the tutorial just above.
When you apply a filter in Photoshop, the filter effect directly changes the pixels in the image, and that change becomes permanent. You can’t reopen the filter and see what adjustments were used, or alter them. The only way out is to remove the filter entirely and try again. But Smart Filters change all that.
Like smart objects themselves, Smart Filters will keep their settings when they’re applied to an image, so you can reopen the filter and fine-tune the settings at any time. They’re all saved inside the Photoshop document.
Smart Filters only work with smart objects, and most Photoshop filters can be converted to Smart Filters. Filters that don’t work as Smart Filters are greyed out in the Filter menu when you try to apply them to a smart object.
Click on the smart object layer you want to work with. Go to the Filter menu on the top menu bar and select any filter you like from the ones that work with smart objects. For this example, let’s choose Filter>Distort>Ripple for the top right image and Filter>Oil Paint for the bottom middle one. Adjust the settings to suit and click OK. And that’s it – you’ve applied a Smart Filter to your smart object. The Smart Filter appears in its own box under the smart object layer.
The original smart object remains unchanged, so you can remove the filter entirely by dragging it to the trash, or clicking the eye icon to hide it from view as you continue working. If you want to change the filter settings again, simply click on the filter’s name to bring up the settings dialog box.
And that’s how to work with smart objects, layer masks, and Smart Filters. By working through this tutorial, you’ve learned what smart objects are, how to create and edit one, and how to add effects of all kinds with Smart Filters, masks, and adjustment layers.
Now let’s learn about grids and guides to take your Photoshop editing skills to the next level!
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