The Brilliance of Smart Objects

Pardon me for my impertinence, but I have an idea. I think the powerfully enabled but abysmally named Smart Objects ought to be called “Magic Wrappers.” Because, when you wrap a layer in a Smart Object, you can apply filters and other “destructive” edits to it without harm. Not to mention, change your mind later.

The Smart Object lets you adjust edits like Shadows/Highlights, Gaussian Blur, and even Puppet Warp as many times as you like without starting from scratch. Just double-click an item in the Layers panel to pick up where you left off. That alone makes these wonderful wrappers invaluable. But there’s a lot more that you can do with them, as I’m about to explain.

smart object lead image

Today’s tip hails from Chapter 29, “The Power of Smart Objects,” from the video course Photoshop CS5 One-on-One: Mastery on

As powerful as commands such as Puppet Warp, Shadows/Highlights, and other filters can be, they have a downside when you apply them directly to a layer: When you commit their settings, these commands permanently rewrite the pixels in the layer. In essence, such adjustments are “wet” while you work the controls, but as soon as you OK the changes, the adjustments “harden.” And unless you soon undo, the pixels are irreversibly altered. Once you save and close the file, you don’t even have your History panel as a fall-back. If you reopen the file and need to change the way you applied a command, your only option is to start over with a fresh copy of the layer—and this assumes you applied your changes to a copy in the first place!

Smart objects address these issues and more:

  • Adjustments remain “wet.” You can revise Puppet Warp or filter settings whenever you need to.
  • There is no incremental degradation from repeatedly applying new settings.
  • You can toggle the effect of filters via an eyeball icon, as with adjustment layers.
  • You can apply multiple filters to the same Smart Object.
  • Each applied filter in a smart object remains discrete, so it can be toggled on and off,  and you can revise the order in which filters are applied.
  • You can embed JPEG, TIFF or even raw files as Smart Objects in Photoshop. Double-click to edit those objects in Camera Raw.
  • You can embed files from Adobe Illustrator or other Creative Suite applications as Smart Objects. Double-click to edit the Smart Object contents in their originating application (e.g. an Illustrator Smart Object opens in Illustrator).

A Smart Object has two parts: its hidden contents, which hold an original version of your layer, and a a display version of the layer, to which edits have been applied. When you apply a filter to a Smart Object, it captures the filter’s settings and updates the display version of the layer, leaving the original contents pristene. In most cases, you can double-click in the layers panel to reveal the controls that created the effect you’re seeing (including Puppet Warp’s pins) and change the settings. When you commit the changes, the Smart Object will regenerate the display version from a fresh copy of its source. All of the following commands can be applied to a Smart object.

Edit menu:

  • Puppet Warp

Image > Adjustments menu:

  • Shadows/Highlights
  • HDR Toning

Filters menu:

  • Most filters work.
  • You can’t apply Liquify, Vanishing point, or Lens Blur.

It’s worth noting that even though you can use Free Transform with Smart Objects, it is a special case. Its control handles are not recorded in the Smart Object and it does not offer the full feature set described in this tip. It’s still useful, though; when you don’t know what size you need a graphic to be, you can convert it to a Smart Object and scale it repeatedly without fear that you’ll be progressively degrading the graphic.

Smart Objects combine traits from pixel layers and adjustment layers. For example, when you put vector graphics such as type, shape layers or paths from Illustrator into Smart Objects, you can apply pixel - based operations like Gaussian blur to them as if they’re made of pixels and avoid rasterizing the layer. The vectors are maintained inside the Smart Object’s source, so you can revise the vectors at any time and the blur effect will update. As with an adjustment layer, you can’t paint directly on a Smart Object, even if it started out as a pixel layer.

A Smart Object’s filter mask works like the mask on an adjustment layer and allows you to limit the application of filters to specific regions within the Smart Object, but it only affects where the filter is applied to the Smart Object. Because the filter mask can take up considerable space in the Layers panel, you can delete it if you’re not going to use it: Right-click (Mac: Control-click) on the filter mask and select Delete Filter Mask from the menu.

Like a pixel layer, you can also add a layer mask to the Smart Object to control which parts of the Smart Object are visible within the overall composition.

Creating Smart Objects

You can convert any Photoshop layer or group into a Smart Object via the Layers Panel. Right-click (Control-click on Mac) in the neutral area at the right side of the layer and select Convert to Smart Object from the menu that appears. When you convert a group to a Smart Object, any or all of its contents can be Smart Objects as well.

smart object 11

You can also drag images into Photoshop from Bridge,  Mini Bridge, Windows Explorer, or the Mac Finder. This process is called “placing” a file, and you can set a preference so that any raster files (i.e. JPEG, TIFF, PNG, and “bit-map”) that you place will be automatically converted into Smart Objects. Select Edit > Preferences > General (Mac: Photoshop > Preferences > General) from the menu bar and check the box labeled “Place or Drag Raster Images as Smart Objects” at the bottom of the Options section. Placing files embeds a copy inside the Photoshop document, rather than linking to them.

place smart object preference

Illustrator files are vector images (they are path-based), not raster images, and are always placed as Smart Objects in Photoshop, regardless of the setting described above. You can also copy paths from Illustrator and paste them into Photoshop. When you do that, you are presented with several options:

  • Pasting as pixels rasterizes the content, meaning that the resolution-independent flexibility of paths is lost.
  • Pasting as paths loses fills and strokes that were created in Illustrator.
  • Pasting as a Shape layer is sometimes useful. With Shape layers, the Transform Path command allows distort, perspective, and warp, three options not available with Illustrator smart objects. However, Puppet Warp is not available.
  • Pasting as a Smart Object provides the option to apply Puppet Warp,  but not distort, perspective, and warp (which are normally available with Smart Objects—Illustrator Smart Objects are a special type).

There are a few preparatory steps to take when you save files from Illustrator for use in Photoshop or other Creative Suite applications.

  • Use File > Save As and use .AI format. EPS is a vestige of the old days, and you don’t need it anymore.
  • Make sure the Create PDF Compatible File option is checked. (It’s on by default, but be sure not to turn it off.) That option embeds a PDF description into the file, which is what Photoshop, InDesign and other Adobe apps read when they import the file.
  • Also a good idea to embed the ICC profile.
  • Optional: Compression is lossless, so it’s OK to use.

One example in Deke’s video shows how you can use Puppet Warp to turn a flat Illustrator graphic into a tattoo on someone’s bicep. He points out that applying Puppet warp to paths can’t produce perfect results, and you shouldn’t try to make it perfect. It’s not a true 3D volumetric tool. One pitfall is placing too many pins, which can be as much of a problem as placing too few.

Embedding Camera Raw Smart Objects

Camera Raw isnt just for raw files. You can edit JPEGs and flat TIFF files with it, and any image that you edit in Camera Raw can be opened in Photoshop as a Smart Object. Once that Smart Object is in Photoshop, you can drag and drop it into other files, and double-clicking its thumbnail re-opens the file in Camera Raw so that you can revise its settings. Editing JPEG and TIFF files in Camera Raw does not turn them into raw files, but Camera Raw edits them non-destructively.

One of the easiest ways to edit JPEG and TIFF files in Camera Raw is to use Bridge: Select a file and use Ctrl/Command + R or Right-click/Control-click on the file and choose Open in Camera Raw from the contextual menu that appears. Once you adjust the image, you can click Done to save the file. Bridge will display an icon in the upper right corner of image thumbnail (circled in red) to indicate that it has been adjusted in Camera Raw and Photoshop will subsequently open the file in Camera Raw whenever you double-click on it in Bridge.

open in camera raw

If you accidentally alter a JPEG or TIFF file with Camera Raw, you can remove the settings to disassociate the file from Camera Raw. Right-click/Control-click on the file and choose Develop Settings > Clear Settings from the menu.

To move an adjusted image from Camera Raw into Photoshop as a Smart Object, hold the Shift key down to convert the Open Image button into an Open Object button. Click Open Object to save any adjustments, exit Camera Raw, and transfer the Smart Object to Photoshop.

camera raw open object

Editing, cloning and copying Smart Objects

To edit the contents of a Smart Object, double-click on its thumbnail in the Layers panel. The first time you do this, you’ll see a warning dialog telling you to use Save, not Save As, or you’ll break the link. You can check “Don’t show again” to keep from having to respond to the warning dialog every time you edit a Smart Object.

save same location

The contents of the Smart Object will temporarily open in a new window. If the contents are from Illustrator or another Creative Suite application, the file will open in the appropriate application. When you’re done editing, save the document and close the window. Nested Smart Objects need to be updated one level at a time until you get to the top level, starting at the innermost level.

You’ll notice that Photoshop trims the Smart Object’s canvas to fit the contents snugly. If you edit a Smart Object containing type, the new text may overflow the boundaries of the canvas and get clipped. To fix this, you can select Image > Reveal All from the menu bar before you save the file. You may have to reposition the new, larger Smart object within your composition.

overflow reveal all

One powerful option with Smart Objects is that you can clone them to create multiple copies that all update from a single common content source. To do this, duplicate the Smart Object by selecting it in the Layers panel and hitting Ctrl/Command + J, or by dragging it to the Create New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. You can edit the contents of any clone, and all of the clones that draw from the same source will be updated.

clone or copy smart object

You can also copy a Smart Object to create two independent Smart Objects that update from separate content sources. Right-Click (Mac: Control-click) in the neutral area on the right side of the Smart Object layer to display a menu and choose New Smart Object via Copy.

“Gluing” Complex Illustrator Paths

Puppet Warp sometimes loses pieces of complex Illustrator paths. They can literally vanish. You can “glue” all the pieces together with this technique:

  • Double-click on the Smart Object thumbnail to to open it in Illustrator
  • Drag out a white rectangle, no stroke, to cover the area.
  • Send the white layer to the background.
  • Save and close the file.

The resultant Smart Object will have a white background, instead of transparency. You can change the blend mode of the layer to Multiply to hide the white.

As you become familiar with Smart Objects and their capabilities, you’ll find a lot more applications for them. You’re likely to think of them as just an extension of making layers. Where you might have been tempted to simply duplicate a layer as a kind of internal back-up measure before, the added flexibility and functionality may make it worth your while to convert it to a Smart Object instead.

Next entry:dekeSpeak April 19, 2011

Previous entry:Yesterday, I Started Work on Photoshop CS5 Extended One-on-One: 3D Scenes


  • Ever since I I bought

    Ever since I I bought Photoshop Bible I have been hoping to run into in Boulder to thank you personally. I just appreciate you sharing your gifts with us Thank you DEKE!

  • Ah-HA!

    A big light bulb lit up over my head after I read this.  Finally, smart objects make sense! Thanks!

  • Smart Objects

    this i phone version of the layer, leaving the original contents pristine. In most cases all persons like it.

  • Oh this is robust

    I think its very useful, I can use it with my software soon!

    Gaultier Smith

  • Open as Smart Object from Lightroom

    Is another useful option because you can open Smart Object in Camera Raw from Photoshop and adjust settings if needed.

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