Smart Objects In Photoshop: What Are They And How To Use Them

If you’ve spent some time in Photoshop, then you probably know there are a lot of hidden features in the program. With so many different tools and options, there are a ton of valuable things you should know about in the program. One of the most important things being smart objects. So what is a smart object in Photoshop, and how can you start using them?

In this tutorial, you’ll learn what a smart object is and why they’re useful to you. They offer far more versatility than first meets the eye, and here you’ll discover all the best ways to use them. Let’s get started.

What Is A Smart Object In Photoshop?

A smart object is a type of layer that acts as a container, protecting all the original attributes of the source content. Unlike a regular layer, a smart object offers a way to edit layers non-destructively since you’re editing the ‘container’ instead of the source.

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For example, you can resize a smart object while the original layers remain untouched. If you resize this smart object on your canvas to look extremely large, you’re actually only resizing the container. When you double click on your smart object to reveal its contents, you can see the original layers remain untouched.

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Resized smart object

In a nutshell, smart objects are used to edit layers with more control and without the worry of making permanent changes.

How To Create Smart Objects In Photoshop

There’s no point in learning what a smart object is in Photoshop if you don’t know how to make one! Luckily there are a ton of different ways you can create smart objects. For the sake of ease and to prevent overwhelm, let’s focus on the main three.

– Right Click Method

The most basic way to create a smart object is to right-click and select ‘convert to smart object.’ This can be done to a single layer or used to merge multiple layers into a single smart object.

– Layer Panel Method

On the top right of your layer panel is a hamburger menu. With your layer(s) selected, click on this menu and select ‘convert to smart object.’

– Layer Menu Method

At the top of your screen is your menu bar. Go to Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object to create a smart object from your selected layers.

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3 Reasons Why Smart Objects Are Useful

To fully understand the question of ‘what is a smart object in Photoshop,’ these three reasons will offer more clarity.

#1. You Can Scale Images Without Quality Loss

One of the most significant advantages of smart objects comes with scaling. When you’ve cut out an image or created a shape, the last thing you want is to lose quality as you scale. Smart objects give you the most flexibility with this.

Let me show you exactly how this works.

Here I’ve created two circles. The red circle is a regular layer, while the blue circle is a smart object.

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I’ll grab my move tool and rescale both circles to a tiny size.

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At this point, both circles still look the same, just smaller. Now let’s scale them back up again.

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Now the difference between the regular layer and the smart object is glaring. The red circle has become pixelated while the blue circle still looks sharp. This is the power of a smart object at work.

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Since the smart object puts the blue circle in a ‘container,’ you never resize the actual shape. You’re just scaling the container. This means that no matter how many times you adjust this container, the contents will look the same.

With a regular layer, you’re directly editing the source content. In this case, the source content is the red circle. When you scale the circle down, it has to fit itself into a smaller number of pixels. Once you scale up this small circle, there isn’t enough information left to maintain a sharp edge like before. That’s why you end up with the fuzzy edges.

#2. You Can Edit Filter Adjustments

With a regular layer, filter adjustments such as blurs are directly applied to the image. This means that once you commit to the filter, you’re out of luck if you need to make adjustments.

That’s why a smart object is useful once again.

Smart objects give you the ability to edit filters after you’ve applied them. This way, you can further refine your filters as long as you need.

Let’s go through an example to highlight this point.

– Applying Filters To A Regular Layer

Let’s say you want to add a gaussian blur to a layer. In this first example, I’ll apply a gaussian blur to a regular layer.

To add the blur, I’ll select my layer and go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur.

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I’ll set a random blur radius and press ok to commit to my changes.

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Now my layer has become blurred, but there’s no way to re-edit my blur adjustments.

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If you were unhappy with the results, you’d need to undo with Command + Z (Mac) or Control + Z (PC) and start again.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty annoying and time-wasting.

– Applying Filters To A Smart Object

This time, I’ll convert my layer to a smart object before adding the gaussian blur.

With my layer selected, I’ll right-click and choose ‘convert to smart object.’ Now the layer will have a smart object icon beside the layer thumbnail.

From here, let’s repeat the same process.

First, go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur to apply the filter. Set the blur and click ok to commit to the changes.

At this point, the results look the same on the canvas. The image is still blurred, just like before. The real changes have been made in the layers panel.

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Under the smart object layer, you’ll now see a smart filters layer mask and a ‘Gaussian Blur.’ Now you can double click on the blur to reopen the dialogue box and adjust the blur as necessary!

Smart objects in Photoshop offer the highest level of customization possible to a layer. This is especially true with filters!

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#3. You Can Merge Layers Non-Destructively

When you are using smart objects in Photoshop, you can combine multiple layers into a single smart object.

All you need to do is select your desired layers, right-click, and select ‘convert to smart object.’ This will merge your layers into one and create a single, smart object layer.

Unlike merging layers in Photoshop, which is a permanent way of combining layers, smart objects do it non-destructively.

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When layers are combined into a smart object, they can all be accessed by double-clicking on the smart object layer thumbnail. This will open a new tab where all of the layers can be edited as necessary.

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In Photoshop CC 2020, smart objects can even be converted back to regular layers. Just right click on the smart object and select ‘convert to layers.’ With that said, it’s worth keeping in mind that your smart filters will not transfer over to your layers.

This option is not available in earlier versions of the program.

When To Use Smart Objects In Your Editing

There is no definitive answer to when you should use smart objects in Photoshop, but there are some suggestions. In any type of scenario where you might want extra control or the option to make adjustments, smart objects are a must.

Here are just a few times you should use smart objects:

  • Working with shape layers
  • When you’ve cut out something from an image
  • If you need to rescale something often to find the right position
  • When you need to apply a single filter to multiple layers
  • If you want to merge layers non-destructively
  • If you want the option to make changes to filter adjustments

How To Access Your Layers In A Smart Object

Like I discussed earlier, smart objects act as a container for your layers. It doesn’t matter whether you have one layer or ten layers in this container because it still operates the same.

When you have multiple layers combined into one smart object, you can still edit each one individually.

The easiest way is to double click on your smart object layer thumbnail. This will open your smart object in a new tab to reveal its contents.

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Alternatively, you can go to Layer > Smart Objects > Edit Contents. 

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In this new tab, you can edit the layers in any way you’d like. You can even create new layers if need be! Everything operates the same as normal; the only difference being that it’s all inside your smart object.

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How To Save Changes Made To A Smart Object

As you’ll quickly come to realize, the changes you make in a smart object won’t reflect in your actual project. You need to save the changes made in your smart object to see them in your original project.

Luckily this is extremely easy with a simple keyboard shortcut.

Once you’ve adjusted the contents of your smart object as needed, press Command + S (Mac) or Control + S (PC) to save your changes.

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Since it’s a smart object, it won’t save into a project file. Instead, it will save to the smart object container within your original project!

Can You Combine Smart Objects With Other Smart Objects?

Yes, it is possible to have a smart object within another smart object.

You can combine two or more smart objects into one by selecting both right-clicking and choosing convert to smart object. 

While you’re editing the contents of a smart object, you can do the same. By selecting the layers inside and creating a new smart object, you’ll now have a smart object within your smart object.

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It’s easy to start getting confused as you create this smart object matrix for yourself. When you’re merging these, be vigilant with renaming your layers, so things don’t get confusing!

When NOT To Use Smart Objects

It’s true; smart objects are downright awesome. In most cases, they’re the perfect solution to your Photoshop needs, but this comes with exceptions.

There is only one instance where you can’t use smart objects, and that’s when you want to edit a layer directly. 

For example, if you tried to use your brush tool directly on a smart object, you’d get an error. This happens because you’d be painting on the ‘container’ and not the actual layer(s) inside.

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A similar thing would happen if you wanted to make a clone stamp adjustment directly on your layer. Since you can’t adjust the smart object, you’d need to edit its contents and make your adjustments to the actual layers inside.

This is a small thing to remember as you begin to learn what a smart object is for. To avoid frustration and error messages, don’t use smart objects if you want to edit a layer directly.

 

Conclusion

Smart objects are one of the most valuable aspects of Photoshop. Now that you know what a smart object is in Photoshop, you can take advantage of added layer control. This type of layer isn’t always necessary for everything you do, but it’s worthwhile when you want to edit non-destructively. Especially when you’re scaling layers, there’s no better way to do it than with a smart object!

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– Brendan 🙂