Smarten Up!

Smart Objects are smart layers, and they have been in Photoshop for years. They have been evolving, but few people truly understand them and fewer still take full advantage of them. There are major benefits to learning what Smart Objects offer you and how they can change your workflow. Here are four things Smart Objects can do for you.

1) Lightroom to Smart Object

1. Change Or Update RAW Conversion Settings. This is perhaps the single biggest reason why everyone should seriously consider using Smart Objects. Whether you’re using Lightroom or Bridge/Photoshop, if, and only if, you acquire a RAW file as a Smart Object, by double-clicking it, you’ll be able to change conversion settings and even update the RAW-processing algorithms to the latest version. Forgot to adjust a setting? Found better settings? Want to take advantage of advances made in the latest process version of ACR? All of these are reasons to use Smart Objects.

To acquire a RAW file as a Smart Object in Lightroom, go to Photo > Edit In > Open As Smart Object In Photoshop. With Adobe Camera Raw, click the blue underlined line at the bottom of the window to access Workflow Options and check Open In Photoshop As Smart Objects, which will set this as a default for opening files. The Open Image button will change to Open Objects. Notice that in Photoshop the bottom layer uses the file name instead of Background, and it contains a small rectangular icon that indicates it’s a Smart Object.

Smart Objects offer two more valuable features, whether a Smart Object is created from a RAW file or from a rasterized layer.

2. Apply Filters Nondestructively. Smart Objects provide Smart Filters that can be reset anytime, offering a much easier way to make future adjustments and a much more flexible workflow. Filter, unfilter and refilter with no penalty; only the final results are applied. A Smart Object can have multiple Smart Filters applied to it. While there’s only one mask for all of them, each Smart Filter can have its own Opacity and Blend Mode setting. (Double-click the double arrow icon to the right of the Smart Filter to activate Blending Options.)

3) Adobe Camera Raw Workflow Options

3. Apply Nondestructive Scaling And Distortion To Layers. The full resolution a Smart Object was acquired in can always be reaccessed. So, unlike rasterized layers that suffer progressive degradation with each transformation, you can scale or distort a Smart Object in as many ways and as many times as you like with no additional loss in quality.

4. Blend Multiple Exposures Or Layers With Stack Modes. Smart Objects have Stack Modes (additional blending options above and beyond a layer’s Blend Mode), which can be used for a variety of functions, including reducing noise, eliminating moving objects, creating star trails and much more. While any Smart Object can use any Stack Mode, Stack Modes are particularly useful when multiple layers are combined into a single Smart Object. To do this, highlight the layers to be combined and go to Layer > Smart Objects > Convert To Smart Object. To change a Smart Object’s Stack Mode, go to Layer > Smart Objects > Stack Mode, and choose one of the 11 options. Median and Mean are the most commonly used.

If a Smart Object is created from multiple layers, those layers can be reaccessed by double-clicking the Smart Object. A new window will appear showing only those layers. After making changes to individual layers, close the window and hit Save to return to the original window with the combined Smart Object.

4) Smart Object layer stack

Things get really complicated and a layer stack unclear when you make a single Smart Object out of many Smart Objects. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, I suggest that you avoid this.

There’s More Than One Kind Of Smart Object

Perhaps some of the confusion surrounding Smart Objects stems from the fact that there are three ways to make them and that the way you make them affects the functionality.

1. You can create a Smart Object when you acquire a RAW file, which will allow you to change and/or update any applied RAW development settings at anytime.
2. You can create a Smart Object from a rasterized layer. It won’t be able to access the full shadow and highlight detail of the RAW file or undo any artifacts previously created during conversion; however, it will allow you to apply Smart Filters, including using Adobe Camera Raw as a Smart Filter, to achieve similar effects.
3. You can create a Smart Object from multiple rasterized layers, which will allow you to take full advantage of Stack Modes.

Two Ways To Duplicate Smart Objects

There are two ways to duplicate Smart Objects and the way you do this affects their functionality.

1. Use Layer > Duplicate Layer to make two linked Smart Objects. What’s done to one will happen to the other. Reset ACR settings on one and the same change will be made to both of them. This is useful when you want to keep multiple copies of one or more image elements in sync with one another.
2. Use Layer > New Layer Via Copy to make two unlinked Smart Objects. Individual adjustments can be made to each Smart Object. This is useful when double processing the same file; for instance, process one light and one dark version and mask one to create a combined effect that exceeds what can be achieved by processing a file once.

The Limits Of Smart Objects

Smart Objects have always had limitations, though the list of their limitations is steadily shrinking. Here’s their current status.

Files that require rasterizing while they’re being opened in Photoshop, such as HDR merges and panorama stitches, can’t be opened as RAW Smart Objects. You can convert the resulting rasterized layers into Smart Objects, but you won’t be able to reaccess RAW conversion settings without going back to the original files and merging them again. (Note: Apply Lens Corrections before merging. For panoramas, render full shadow and highlight detail before merging; this includes rendering HDR merges to separate cells of an HDR panorama.)

5) New Layer Via Copy Smart Object

New Layer) and place the retouching on this new layer instead of the Smart Object. Many brushes like the Spot Healing brush will simply work on the new layer. If a brush needs a source defined, like the Clone Stamp tool, first highlight the Smart Object, next click and define the source, then move to the new layer and finally paint the retouching on it. For retouching tools that won’t work on blank layers, like Content Aware Fill, duplicate the Smart Object (Layer > Duplicate Layer) and rasterize it (Layer > Smart Objects > Rasterize) before using the feature.

These two workarounds—make a new layer or duplicate and rasterize a Smart Object—are useful for most of the other features that won’t work on Smart Objects. This includes Fill, Stroke, Content Aware Scale, Auto-Align Layers and Auto-Blend Layers.

A constantly dwindling number of filters won’t work with Smart Objects: Filter Gallery, Vanishing Point, Lens Blur, Smart Blur, Lighting Effects, Extrude, Tiles and Wind. Note that only one mask is provided for all of the Smart Filters applied to one Smart Object.

With the exception of Shadows/Highlights and HDR Toning, most adjustments can’t be applied to Smart Objects directly; instead, apply them as adjustment layers, which are more flexible and more easily masked. For Auto-Tone, Auto-Color and Auto-Contrast, use the duplicate and rasterize Smart Object workaround. When making adjustments to Smart Objects, there will be instances when you can only preview the adjustments you’re making to a Smart Object instead of the combined effect of all other layers and adjustment layers.

Smart Objects come at a price; they increase file size quickly, so use them sparingly, but do use them. At a minimum, acquire all non-merged files as a RAW Smart Object so you can quickly change or update RAW conversion settings.

Smart Objects aren’t simple, but they’re extremely powerful and flexible. For this reason, I consider them essential components of an optimum Photoshop workflow. Exactly how and when you implement Smart Objects will depend on the specific challenges you face with a given image. An optimum Photoshop workflow is flexible and can accommodate both changing needs and changing technologies. While everyone needs to be aware of the possibilities Smart Objects offer, make your use of Smart Objects as simple as possible, but not simpler. You’ll find that even the most minimal implementation of Smart Objects will be extremely helpful.

John Paul Caponigro, author of Adobe Photoshop Master Class and the DVD series R/Evolution, is an internationally renowned fine artist, an authority on digital printing, and a respected lecturer and workshop leader. Get PDFs and his enews Insights free at his website,

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