What are Photoshop Smart Objects and How to Use Them?

by Jun 9, 2022Photo Editing Tutorials

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What are Photoshop Smart Objects and How to Use Them?

In this tutorial, we explore the Photoshop Smart Object. You will learn what Smart Objects are as well as how to use them for photo editing in Photoshop.

What is a Photoshop Smart Object?

Smart Objects in Photoshop act as a kind of special container for image documents. Imagine an image you’re editing together with all the layers you’ve created. Now wrap these up into a single layer without losing access to the individual layers. That’s like a Smart Object container but it can go much further as you will see.

It’s probably best to experience this by creating and editing a Smart Object.

Start by opening an image to work with in Photoshop. Any image will do but it’s best to start with one that doesn’t have any layers.

Add a Levels adjustment layer to the image. You can do this by clicking the “Create new fill or adjustment layer icon” at the bottom of the Photoshop Layers Window. You can see this indicated in the following screenshot.

Clicking the icon displays a list of Photoshop Adjustment Layers and you can choose a Levels adjustment. Don’t make any changes to the Levels yet though.

You should now see the original image in the Layers window along with the new Levels layer.

In the Layers window, select both layers. You can do this by clicking on both layers with your mouse whilst holding down the Shift key on your keyboard. The Layers window should now look like the following screenshot.

Notice that the layers are highlighted in grey to indicate they are selected.

With both layers selected we are ready to convert them into a Smart Object. You can do this in the Photoshop Filter menu by clicking the option “Filter | Convery for Smart Filters”. After a few seconds the two layers in the Layers window are replaced by a single layer, with the same name as one of the original layers.

It’s also possible to convert the selected layers into a Smart Object by right clicking on one of them in the Layers window. Then in the popup menu select the option “Convert to Smart Object”.

Here’s a screenshot of what you will see once the layers are converted.

Notice also that there is a small icon displayed to the bottom right of the layer thumbnail. This icon indicates that the layer is a Smart Object rather than a regular layer.

Opening the Smart Object

As mentioned earlier, the Smart Object is just a kind of container for image layers in Photoshop. If you open it, you will see the layers inside.

To open a Smart Object is easy. You just double click it in the Layers window using your mouse. Photoshop then opens the Smart Object and displays the contents, which in this example are the original image layer and Levels layer we added.

If you look to the area above the image preview, you will see that the Smart Object has been opened in a new document tab as shown here.

Notice that the Smart Object is in a new tab (1) called “Levels 1.psb” in this example. The original file remains open in a separate tab (2). You can even switch between the two documents by clicking the tab you want to view. Be careful if you try this because the images will look the same and you can easily find yourself working with the wrong one. You can only see the difference by checking the layers in the Layers window.

In the document with two layers, click the Levels layer and apply any adjustment. The Levels adjustment you apply is then visible in this image, but if you switch to the other image tab you don’t see the change.

Close the Smart Object now by clicking the small ‘X’ icon to the left of the tab. You can also select “File | Close” in the Photoshop menu. Photoshop then displays a dialog asking if you would like to save your changes. Click the save option.

The Smart Object then closes after saving the adjustment you made. You will see that the image containing the Smart Object is then also updated with the change.

How to use Photoshop Smart Objects

You may now be wondering how you can use Smart Objects in your Photoshop editing, so let’s look at that.

Embedding Documents

The first way is to use them as we did in the example above, as a container for your adjustments. This can be a great way to embed images inside other images but allow you to easily change them. Here’s we can see a photo of framed picture hanging on a wall. If we look in the Photoshop Layers window, this is what we see.

The bottom layer in the Layers window shows the background image of the wall and shelf with ornaments but no picture. Above this is a Smart Object which contains the picture. Then above this are the elements of the frame.

When we double click this smart object, it opens, and we can see its contents.

This allows us to replace the existing image with a new image. Then when we close and save the Smart Object, the mock-up changes so that we now have the new image hanging in the frame on the wall.

Using Smart Filters with Photoshop Smart Objects

Another way to use Photoshop Smart Objects when editing is to convert regular filters into Smart Filters. Let’s look at this using our example from earlier. If you followed along, you should have an image which contains a single Smart Object and inside that an image and Levels adjustment.

Let’s now apply a Gaussian Blur filter to the Smart Object. You can do this by clicking the Smart Object in the Layers window to select it. Then choose “Filter | Blur | Gaussian Blur…” in the Photoshop menu.

When the Gaussian Blur dialog opens, apply a blur Radius to make the image appear blurred. Then click the OK button.

Ordinarily, applying the Gaussian Blur filter to an image would produce a destructive blur. In other words, there is no way to change the level of blur without first using the “Edit | Undo” command to remove it. But when we apply this filter to a Smart Object, we see a new section appear below it in the Layers window.

This new section is where any Smart Filters you apply to the Smart Object appear. In this example, you can see the “Gaussian Blur” filter we applied. By double clicking the Gaussian Blur Smart Filter, you can reopen the filter and change the blur Radius setting to control the level of blur, even removing it.

This is an incredibly useful feature, especially when you realise that many otherwise destructive Photoshop filters and third-party plug-ins can work as Smart Filters. To find out more read my Smart Filters article.

Summary of Photoshop Smart Objects

As I hope you’ve seen in this tutorial, Photoshop Smart Objects sound complicated but can be straight forward. They allow you to wrap up various adjustments into a single container. But most importantly they allow you to attach filters to the container without damaging the contents.

If you decide to incorporate Smart Objects into your Photoshop editing, be sure to save your work in a file format that supports them. If you don’t, you will lose your work as the Smart Objects are converted to a regular image. Whilst the TIFF file format does support the saving of Smart Objects, the file sizes can quickly grow very large. For most people, the best format to use is the Photoshop PSD format. Alternatively, if you find your file sizes growing too large for the 2Gb limit, use the Photoshop “Large Document Format”.

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