What Are Photoshop Smart Filters?

 In this tutorial we look at Photoshop Smart Filters to explain what they are and some of the confusing technical terms used. We also look at the question of why you might want to use Smart Filters and some limitations to be aware of.

What are Photoshop Smart Filters title image

What is a Photoshop Smart Filter?

When you use a filter in Photoshop to make changes to an image, those changes become permanent when you close the image. The filter directly changes the pixels in the image meaning it’s not possible to reopen the filter and see the adjustments used. We call this type of change a destructive edit which is something we usually want to avoid in photo editing. The only way back from a filter change like this is to use the undo command, or history list in photoshop. After removing the change, you need to start again.

Adobe didn’t like this scenario and so created the idea of Smart Filters to allow non-destructive editing with filters.

Unlike regular filters, Smart Filters retain their settings when you apply them to an image. This makes it possible to reopen the filter and see all the adjustment settings. You can then further refine the settings. Its even possible to close the image and Photoshop to return to the filter settings later. Photoshop saves all the settings and adjustments inside the Photoshop file.

When with Smart Filters be sure to save your work in one of the Photoshop file formats (PSD or Large Document format) to preserve the Smart Filters.

Adding a Smart Filter in Photoshop

You can add most filters in Photoshop as Smart Filters. To do this you first need to create something called a Smart Object. This sounds much worse than it is, and you can think of a Smart Object as being another type of image layer.

Smart Objects look just like regular image layers in the Photoshop Layers Window with one difference. They have a small icon in the lower right of their thumbnail. You can see an example here.

Smart Object layer in the Photoshop Layers Window

Creating a Smart Object

To create a Smart Object, you just need to convert an existing image layer. It’s best to use a new duplicate layer for this purpose and you have two options:

  1. Duplicate the existing image layer. This is a good option if your image only has one layer; usually called the “Background” layer. You can duplicate this by right clicking the layer in the Layers Window and selecting “Duplicate layer…” from the Photoshop popup menu. Alternatively, you can use the keyboard shortcut “Cmd + J” on a Mac, or “Ctrl + J” on a PC.
  2. Create a new Stamp Layer. This consolidates all the image layers into a new layer. Use this option if your image has more than one layer. You can create the Stamp Layer with the keyboard shortcut “Shift + Cmd + Option + E” on a Mac, or “Shift + Ctrl + Alt + E” on a PC.

After creating your new layer, click it in the Photoshop Layers Window to select it. You can then convert the layer to a Smart Object using the Photoshop menu command “Filter | Convert for Smart Filter”.

You may find Photoshop displays an information dialog about the Smart Filter. If this happens click the OK button to continue. After a few seconds, you will see the Smart Object icon appear on the thumbnail.

You are now ready to apply the Smart Filter to the layer or Smart Object.

Applying a Smart Filter

You can use most of Photoshop’s Filters as Smart Filters. If they don’t work as a Smart Filter Photoshop will disable or grey them out in the menu if you try to apply them to a Smart Object layer.

Photoshop menu showing disabled filters

To add a Smart Filter, first select the Smart Object layer o in the Photoshop Layers Window. You can then select the filter you want to use from the Photoshop Filter menu.

Photoshop then displays the filter dialog where you can apply your adjustments. The filters look the same and you don’t need to do anything different. Photoshop knows that you are working with a Smart Filter because you are applying it to a Smart Object layer rather than a regular layer.

After applying a Smart Filter, you will see it displayed in the Photoshop Layers Window.

Smart Filters in the Photoshop Layers Window

Here you can see the Smart Object at the top and below this is the Smart Filter.

The “Smart Filters” list has a Layer Mask attached to it which you can use to control where the filter effect appears on the image. There’s also a visibility icon to the left of this which you can use to hide all the Smart Filters. Be aware that these apply to all the Smart Filters attached to the same Smart Object.

Below the “Smart Filters” heading you can see the individual Smart Filters. In this example there is a single “Camera Raw Filter” but it’s possible to have multiple different Smart Filters in the same Smart Object. It’s also possible to move and copy Smart Filters as this tutorial explains.

Three Smart Filters applied to the same Photoshop Smart Object

Here you can see three different Smart Filters applied to the same Photoshop Smart Object.

It’s also possible to apply some third-party Photoshop plug-ins as Smart Filters. In this example the Nik Collection Viveza 2 plug-in appears as a Smart Filter. It’s a very good idea to use the Nik Collection as a Smart Filter because Photoshop retains the editing adjustments and Nik Control Points after the filter closes.

To adjust a Smart Filter’s settings, double click on the filter in the Layers Window. The filter then reopens, displaying the current settings.

Limitations using Smart Filter

Photoshop Smart Filters are extremely useful tools, allowing you to apply filters in a non-destructive way. There are however a few limitations worth mentioning:

  • Smart Filters are slower to use. How much you notice this, if at all, depends on your computer and what you are doing.
  • Copying and Duplicating. There are some differences when duplicating and copying Smart Objects that can cause problems. For example, you can end up with Smart Filters becoming linked, which can be confusing f you weren’t expecting it.
  • Filter Order when Editing. If you have multiple Smart Filters in the same Smart Object, their effects stack up on top of each other so that that top filter applies to the filter(s) below it. But when you open the top Smart Filter for editing you don’t see the effect of the layers below it.
  • Not all filters are Smart Filters. We mentioned this one earlier and said Photoshop will disable layers that wont work with Smart Objects, but it only does this for its own filters. If you are trying to use a third-party plug-in as a Smart Filter you may get an error message because it’s not compatible.
Photoshop error message advising the Perspective Effects plug-in can't be used with Smart Objects

Despite some limitations, Smart Objects are very flexible and help you edit in a non-destructive way. If you don’t already use them it’s a good idea to get into the habit now.

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Conclusion of Photoshop Smart Filters

In this tutorial, we have looked at Photoshop Smart Filters and Smart Objects to understand what they are and how you can use them in your photo editing work. Despite having a few limitations it’s recommended that you use Smart Filters when editing. They are especially useful with complex third-party plug-ins like the Nik Collection.

More Photoshop Tutorials

You’ll find more high quality, free tutorials on my Adobe Photoshop Tutorials page.

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