Digital Darkroom; Smart Objects in Photoshop

The Digital Darkroom is a series of posts aimed at beginners and those interested in Digital Photography and Editing. In previous weeks we have looked at basic adjustments, curves, editing colour with the HSL/Color panels, black and white toning, split toning, local adjustments, sharpening, noise reduction and Lens Correction and Camera Calibration in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw. Moving into Photoshop we have looked at the program’s layout,basic adjustments to light, basic adjustments to colour, basic black and white adjustments, Basic Sharpening, Basic Noise Reduction, Creating Presets and Actions, Basic Masks, Making Selections, Refining Selections, Using the Pen Tool, Clone Stamp, Heal Tool, Patch Tool, Content Aware and this week using Smart Objects
If you wish to check out previous posts in the series you can do here.

A few people have asked throughout the Digital Darkroom Series if I could explain smart objects, as I have mentioned them in passing quite a few times. I have held back going into detail so far because it really didn’t meld with other topics. Now as I approach filters in Photoshop it is a good time to give smart objects an overview.

A Smart Object is a container; it can contain one layer or multiple layers, it all depends what you put in it. Smart objects can be edited non-destructively; whatever changes you make to a smart object can be reversed or turned off. This means that if you add a filter and later if you don’t like it or you wish to change the settings. I have gone back to images I edited a few years ago and with a smart object I’ve managed to go back re-edit the image. However you cannot edit directly onto a smart object with the clone stamp, heal tool, patch and content aware fill this would need to be done on a separate layer. Also if you do use these tools on a separate layer and then adjust the smart object, the changes won’t take place on this separate layer and the cleaning will then stick out like a sore thumb.

Creating a Smart Object

You can create a Smart Object in a few ways. The first is opening an image as a smart object in Photoshop from Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. In Lightroom right lick and choose edit in – Open as a Smart Object in Photoshop and in Camera Raw by pressing shift as you click open. This has the benefits of taking your Lightroom or Camera Raw adjustments straight into the smart object. If you wanted to adjust those settings double click on the layer thumbnail and you go back to Camera Raw where you can adjust them; even if you edited the image first in Lightroom, the Smart Object will open Camera Raw and will not change you the original raw image in Lightroom.


Another option is to select a layer or a number of layers and right click and choose to create a Smart Object. All the selected layers will be bundled up into a single layer. If you need to get back to those layers individually you can by double clicking the Smart Object Thumbnail. By opening up the thumbnail it will open a new window in Photoshop with all the layers of the Smart Object. If you make changes you must save (Ctrl+S) before closing the smart object. As you save Photoshop will update the smart object at the same time.
This method is great if you have created a composite, panorama or stacked image.

Editing a Smart Object

Smart object editing is 100% non-destructive and there are a lot of ways you can take advantage of them. First you are able to turn on and off all adjustments and filters used on the smart object you can also open up an adjustment or filter minutes, days, weeks or years after it was made ( third party filters and plugins may not be re-editable if the filter is no longer installed or supported by adobe).


The picture above was opened in Photoshop as a Smart Object from Lightroom. I applied a Blur gallery filter to blur the image. In the layers pallet as part of the layer we can see the filter named with an eye symbol. The eye symbol allows us to turn off and on the visibility of the filter. If I was to add more filters they would be stacked on top.


If I wanted the filters to be selective I can use the Smart Filter Mask to hide the filter. Just like a layer mask, which we discussed a few weeks ago, Smart Filter Masks hide the filter effect with the colour black and reveals the effect with white. To have the filter effect the whole image except my cat I can make a section of my cat from the picture and add it to filters mask. This saves file size as I don’t have to create a new layer with the filter adjustment and then use a mask, I can have everything on one layer.


My cat looks a bit under exposed in this image; double clicking on the smart object thumbnail will take me to Camera Raw where I can make more adjustments.

NoiseAs I said earlier smart objects can be created from layers. This means you can create effects that normally you have the ability to adjust. Such an effect can be adding film grain to an image. This can be done by filling a layer with 50% Grey, setting the blending to overlay and applying the add grain filter. If you fill the layer with black and then create a smart object the filter adjustment can then be modified. This can be done with all sorts of filters in Photoshop to make for some creative adjustments.

A bonus for using smart objects.

If you ever use Edit -Image transforms (Something that will be covered in a later post) a smart filter has the added bonus of preserving the overall quality of the image. With a regular image the transformation process can change and pixelate the image, with a smart object it does not because you have not adjusted the image only the container.
Smart objects with text layers can also be advantageous as you can write the text and then Image transform and add filters but the text is still editable within the smart object.


Smart Objects do have some downsides one of them can be speed and performance of your computer. If you stack a lot of filters and adjustments onto a smart object then each time you adjust the object Photoshop must render the filters. This can be ok for small filter adjustments and average size images but the bigger the image and the more filters applied the longer the render time.

Why Use It? It Seems Like a Hassle.

Of course it seems like a hassle to use Smart Objects at first, but the advantages out way the extra work of clicking a different button. In being able to re-edit your work later down the line can be an amazing opportunity especially if you are just starting out. You can go back to images see mistakes or make changes to things you may never have thought about at the time.

Personally I use the smart objects to bundle up layers I have used to create a panorama or stitched, so they are in one layer that I can edit if I need to. I also use smart objects to apply filters to and most of the time will open an image as a Smart Object. Although I could make curves and other layer adjustments as part of the smart object by applying the regular adjustment, but I prefer to have them separate as each time I make an adjustment to a smart object I have to wait for it to render. My favourite reason for using smart objects is to help keep my layers panel organized.
Kryton Smart Filter Demo

If you have any questions or comments please use the comment box below, all are welcome as this series is designed to help people learn how to use Photoshop and Lightroom.

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