Tutorial: Smart object basics in Adobe Photoshop

15 July, 2013

Welcome to another Think Tank tutorial. Here I will be covering the basics of Smart Objects in Adobe Photoshop, what they are and how you can use them effectively.

What are smart objects?

"Smart Objects are layers that contain image data from raster or vector images, such as Photoshop or Illustrator files. Smart Objects preserve an image’s source content with all its original characteristics, enabling you to perform nondestructive editing to the layer."

What can Smart Objects be used for?

There are many great ways to use Smart Objects, here are a few examples:

  1. Non-destructive transforms. You can scale, rotate, distort, skew, warp & perspective transform without losing quality from the original image. (I will show an example of this later).
  2. Work with vector graphics taken from Adobe Illustrator files.
  3. Apply editable filters to smart objects, without altering the original pixels.
  4. Duplicate smart objects, editing one will update all of the linked instances.
  5. Apply layer masks to smart objects.

How to create a Smart Object

There are several ways to create Smart Objects, including:

  1. Open a file as a Smart Object (Choose File > Open As Smart Object, select a file, and click Open).
  2. Convert a layer, layer group or multiple layers to a smart object (Choose Layer > Smart Object > Convert to Smart Object. You can also do this by right clicking on the layer or layer group in the layers panel).
  3. Drag PDF or Adobe Illustrator layers or objects into a Photoshop document.
  4. Paste artwork from Illustrator into a Photoshop document (Select a graphic from in your illustrator file, copy it to your clipboard, then paste it into your photoshop file. Make sure you choose Smart Object in the Paste dialog box).

I will now show a step by step example of how to create a Smart Object and complete a non-destructive transform. I will also show you how to apply a filter to a smart object and how to edit your smart object.

Step 1

Create a new photoshop document and add an image to it (This can be anything you like, here I'm using an image of my dog Bruce). Now duplicate that layer so you have 2 copies of the same image side by side.

Smart object basics

Step 2

Right click on the one of your layers and click "Convert to Smart Object".

Smart object basics

Step 3

You have now created a Smart Object, which you can identify with the Smart Object icon. This layer will now preserve all of its original qualities.

Smart object basics

Step 4

We now have 2 layers that appear the same, however one of them is a Smart Object and the other is a standard layer. Now we will perform a free transform on both layers too see the difference. Press Control + T (cmd + T on a mac) and scale your layer down to a small size, make sure you hold shift to retain the correct image proportions. Do this for both layers.

Smart object basics

We now have 2 very small images.

Step 5

We will now, scale both of these back up to their original size & see the difference. Again, press control + T to scale each image back to its original size.

Smart object basics

As you can see, the Smart Object layer looks sharp, while the standard image layer looks pixelated. This is an example of a non-destructive transform. This can be very useful as you can make as many adjustments as you like to your Smart Object without loosing its original properties.

Step 6

I will now show you how you can use filters with a Smart Object (You can now delete your pixelated layer). Select your Smart Object in the layers panel and the go to the top menu in Photoshop. Here you can select any filter to apply, I have chosen Gaussian Blur for this example.

Smart object basics

Notice that the layers panel now has an area for "Smart Filters".  This allows you to edit your filters at any time, simply by double clicking on them. To give this a try, double click on "Gaussian Blur" and edit the settings.

Step 7

We will now move on the editing your Smart Object. Just to help illustrate the possibilities, I will make 2 copies of the smart object layer. I have kept the Gaussian Blur filter on one layer and removed it from the other layers. I then added a "Chalk & Charcoal" filter to the third layer. Now double click on one of the Smart Object icons in the layers panel.

Smart object basics

Step 8

You will then be prompted with a dialog box, that explains making any changes to the Smart Object will be reflected when you return to your original file, Click "OK". You now have your smart object open. It will have just 1 layer in the layers panel & look exactly as it did when you created it in step 2. Here you can make any changes you wish, in this example I have created a new layer and drawn a red squiggle with the airbrush tool.

Smart object basics

Now, to apply any changes that you have made, you need to save them. You can do this with Control + S or File > Save in the top menu. Now you can close your smart object & see your changes get applied to your photoshop file.

Smart object basics

You can see that the changes you have made (in this case the red squiggle) have been applied to all instances of the Smart Object and that the editable filters have updated too!

Obviously that's just a basic example of using a Smart Object. But I hope that you have found it useful and that it gives you a good starting point to begin using Smart Objects.

Written by Will

Creative Director Will has been with Evoluted since 2009. In his role leading the design team, he continues put his extensive experience to use on an impressively-diverse array of websites.. Will’s core skills include UX design, creative direction and responsive web design; whilst he’s also earned a renowned reputation as Evoluted’s chief provider of internal, novelty animated gifs.

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Nikhil Tewari
16th October 2017 at 9:16am

Extremely helpful article on smart objects. Thanks a lot.

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Kory Hubright
16th October 2017 at 9:16am

Right here is the right web site for anyone who hopes to understand this topic. You realize a whole lot its almost hard to argue with you (not that I actually would want laugh out loud). You definitely put a brand new spin on a subject which has been written about for ages. Excellent stuff, just great!

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