photoshop smart objectThere is an overwhelming amount of information on the web regarding Photoshop. Between written tutorials, videos, long guides’, webinars, the list goes on. I know how frustrating it can be coming across a guide that is incomplete or incorrect. Well, search no more. Here is a comprehensive, yet quick guide to teach you why smart objects rock how to use them for your design projects. Let’s get started. Totally not sure you’re ready for this? Try taking a Photoshop 101 course first.

What is a smart object?

A smart object has non-destructive properties. This means that while you’re editing, undoing, drawing, and resizing, the smart object won’t lose any quality and you can always revert back to the original. You can also apply smart filters to your smart object that can easily be lifted, changed and applied to duplicates of your smart object. This gives you, the designer, ultimate flexibility without damaging your original content. We’ll go over it all, so let’s get started.

Step 1

Open the file you would like to begin working with. You can do this by going to File–>Open and selecting your image. I’m going to open two images, one will be the background, and one will be the image I convert to a smart object. You can do this, or stick with one image if you’d like. If you are opening two images you will have two squares in your layers palette. One will be your background and one will be your first layer.  Like this:

Step 2

Right now the image in layer 1 is a rasterized image. This means if I were to take it and shrink it really small and then enlarge it back to its normal size I would lose valuable image data causing the picture to be blurry and pixelated. Of course we don’t want that so by converting the image to a smart object we can insure infinite shrinkage or enlargement without sacrificing quality. So let’s convert it. Make sure the layer you want to convert is highlighted in your layers panel. Go to Layer at the top of your screen and go down to Smart Objects and click convert to a smart object.

You can also right click on the layer you want to convert and select convert to a smart object there as well.

If you have correctly converted your image to a smart object you will notice a little icon on the bottom right hand corner of your layer on the layers panel. This means it’s a smart object.

Step 3

Now let’s do some resizing to see the difference between a smart object and a rasterized image. I’m going to go ahead and make a duplicate of my rasterized alpaca picture for this demo. You can do this too by right clicking on the layer (like above) and selecting duplicate layer. A shortcut to duplicating is to hold down ALT, click on the image you want to duplicate and then drag your cursor away.

So now I have two alpacas. The one to the right is my smart object, the one to the left is the rasterized image. Notice the icon (in the layer panel) on layer 1 (my smart object) and no icon on “layer 1 copy” (my rasterized). Note that you can use tools like brush to draw on a rasterized layer, but not on a smart object.

Step 4

Time to shrink. Let’s shrink both of these images to super tiny and then bring them back to their original size and see the difference. To shrink both images, make sure both your “layer 1” and “layer 1 copy” are highlighted in your layers panel. You can do this by holding down CTRL while clicking on each one.

To resize an image we will use the free transform tool. You can get to this by going to Tools–>Free Transform, or by hitting CTRL+T, which is the shortcut. Either way, you should see anchor points pop up around your two images. Click on one of these points and drag your cursor towards the center. This will decrease the size.

If you want the image to stay proportional while you’re resizing, hold down SHIFT while dragging. To apply the transformation (resize) hit enter.

Now that you’re images are super tiny, let’s follow the steps above and enlarge them to see the difference. Highlight both layers, free transform, and enlarge.

See the difference between the two? The one on the right is a smart object which has excellent quality, and the one on the left is the rasterized image which has poor quality. You did it!


Alright, so we know how the quality is affected with smart objects. Now what else can we do? We can change the whole feel of our object by using masks to change all of our objects at once. Master the fundamentals of Photoshop.

Step 1

Go ahead and delete the rasterized image from the above demo. We won’t need that. We are, however, going to make a few more duplicates of your image (my alpaca). When you duplicate a smart object layer, the copies will also be smart objects. If you’re not sure, double check for that icon on the layer panel.

I’ve got three alpacas that are all smart objects.

So now I want to make the necks of the alpaca’s white. I won’t have to do this for every image, I’ll only have to change one and all three of my alpacas will look the same. This is one of the best things about smart objects and masks – it saves you so much time and effort! Here we go.

Step 2

Choose one of your layers to work on, it doesn’t matter which one. Double click the layer. You may get a message about saving the work when you’re done, just click OK. You should see your source image (alpaca) by itself, like this:

Notice that you only have one layer showing in your layers panel now. This is your source image. All three of your smart objects you’ve created are “attached” to your source file. If you adjust the source file, all of our smart objects will change accordingly.

Step 3

Let’s select an adjustment to change our source file. I’m going to choose Hue/Saturation under the adjustments tab above your layers panel.

I’m going to go ahead and adjust the image to be all white by checking the colorize box and dragging the lightness slider all the way to the right. Don’t worry, it won’t stay like that for long.

Step 4

With your image all white, go back to your layers panel by clicking on the layers tab. Currently, as seen above, you are on the properties tab. You will see a blank white square next to the words “hue/saturation” in your layer. Click on it and then go back to the properties tab by clicking on it. Now click invert.


Step 5

Now that you’ve inverted your hue/saturation mask you’re smart object should look back to normal again. But we’re not done yet. (This tutorial is just one way to go… there are lots of techniques, do you want to create a masterpiece in Photoshop?)

Get your brush tool by hitting the letter B on your keyboard. Make sure your foreground color is white.

Now take your brush and color over the part of your image you want to change. Whatever you paint with your brush will become the color you chose during step 3. I chose white, so you won’t see much of a change on my alpaca.

I’ve split my screen so you can say my changes to the source file – smart object – and how my image looks before I apply the changes. If you want to split the screen like this, go to Window–>Arrange–>2up vertical.

Step 6

Save the source file! Go to File–>Save. When you save your edited smart object you will notice that all of your smart objects on the image your building will have changed, too!

By saving this source file, you aren’t overriding your original image source on your computer. It’s saved within Photoshop. That’s why using smart objects is so neat!

Smart Filters

Last but not least, smart filters. These are much easier than the above mask tutorial, so if you made it through that – this’ll be a breeze.

Step 1

Click on the smart object layer in your layers panel that you wish to apply a filter to. Go to Filter at the top of your screen and select your type of filter. I chose Filter–>Distort–>Ripple for the top right alpaca and Filter–>Oil Paint for the bottom middle. Adjust the settings to your liking and click OK. Voila! You have applied a smart filter to a smart object. Your original smart object is unchanged. You can remove this filter by deleting it from your layers panel, or clicking on the “eye” icon next to the layer to hide it while you continue working.

That’s it

You made it through! Now you not only know what smart objects are, but how to create and edit one, how to use smart filters and how to create a mask with an adjustment layer! You learned more than you thought you would coming into this, didn’t you?

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