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Smart Objects in Photoshop – Everything You Need to Know

Smart Objects in Photoshop – Everything You Need to Know

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Smart Objects in Photoshop – Everything You Need to Know

Back when I was starting out as a graphic designer, I was considering using GIMP instead of Photoshop. Well, GIMP is a pretty awesome piece of software, and it’s 100% free; to be honest, that’s the main reason I was considering it. But, in the end I decided to go with Photoshop despite the fact that it is a paid tool. Why? There were several reasons, but mainly because of smart objects – GIMP doesn’t have them, and they were an absolute necessity for the kind of work I was doing.

So, in this post I wanna talk a bit about these mega-lifesavers and how they work. First, let’s start with a bit of history – not much, just a bit for formality’s sake. Smart objects came about back in 2005 with the release of Photoshop CS2, and I have no idea how we ever used Photoshop before that! There. That was the history of smart objects in a very small nutshell (must have been a peanut). Now let’s talk about what they are and how to use them.

What are Smart Objects?

A really basic definition of smart objects is that they are layers with more layers or even whole documents inside them – kind of like a group but not exactly. And what’s so special about that? Well, now that we’ve got a layer with another document inside it, we can do all sorts of crazy stuff to that layer without ever hurting the document that lives in it. And not only that, but now we can even bring in documents from other programs and use them in our Photoshop project without having to rasterize them or anything like that – kind of like a document in a document. Pretty crazy, huh? Well, wait till you hear about the project that had a smart object with a smart object inside a smart object – a document in a document that was in a document in another document. Yeah, I actually do that… quite often too.

There are two kinds of smart objects – linked and embedded. Linked smart objects don’t actually live inside your project. If you were to delete the original file from your computer, the smart object would stop working. What’s in you project is basically a snapshot of the original document. On the other hand, embedded smart objects are permanent residents. They are a copy of a document that has been stored directly in your Photoshop project. You can do whatever you want with your original file, and nothing will happen to the embedded smart object.

The main difference between embedded and linked smart objects is file size. They both work just about the same, but embedded smart objects can make your Photoshop document a whole lot bigger than is convenient. Linked smart objects, on the other hand, don’t really affect the size of your project in any noticeable way. So, if you’re working in an already large document or if the smart object is a large document, you may want to consider going with a linked smart object.

How Do You Use Smart Objects?

Let’s take a look at some of the cool things you can do with smart objects. Now, to be honest, most of the things I’m about to share basically amount to “you can beat them up all you want, and they won’t come out the worse for it” – it’s called lossless and non-destructive editing. In fact, that’s probably the whole reason that smart object were invented in the first place.

But before we talk about all those cool features, let’s find out how to create a smart object in the first place. There are two ways to do it. The first way is to import new elements into an existing project. To do this, we just need to head up to the Menu Bar and navigate to File>Place Embedded or Place Linked depending on which kind of smart object you need.

importing a smart object into an existing project
File>Place Embedded or Place Linked

For example, if I made a logo in Illustrator and wanted to use it in a Photoshop project, normally I would have to rasterize the logo – never a good idea. But with smart objects, I could either link or embed the whole Illustrator file into my project, and it would still be vector. To top that off, I can even still edit my Illustrator file in Illustrator and have the changes automatically update in Photoshop. It doesn’t just work with Illustrator files either. You can import most Adobe files into Photoshop as smart objects.

The other way to create a smart object is with layers or groups that are already inside your project. In order to do this, you just select one or several layers or groups in the Layers Panel, right click on one of them, and select Convert to Smart Object from the dropdown menu that appears. All those layers or groups are now happily living together in their very own smart object. One important thing to remember is that this method always creates embedded smart objects.

right click>Convert to Smart Object

For example, say you had built up an element in a Photoshop project, and the element had 10 layers. If you were to put all those layers into one smart object, they would become just like one layer. Now you can treat them as one layer in your main project but still edit them individually in your smart object. All you would have to do is double-click on the smart object in the Layers Panel, and it will open in a new tab. This is basically what I was talking about earlier with that whole nonsensical ‘document in a document’ thing.

Lossless Transform Controls

Now let’s look at some of the crazy stuff you can get away with when you work with smart objects. We’ve actually already seen two of the cool ways you can use smart objects by importing other documents into Photoshop or merging layers together without actually merging them. Another awesome feature is the ability to transform and resize raster elements losslessly (without losing quality).

Let’s say you import an image into a Photoshop project and make it really small. Later, you want to make it really big for some strange reason. However, when you make it bigger, it is all pixelated, and the original quality is lost. The same thing happens when you distort or skew an element. This doesn’t happen with smart objects though – their quality always stays the same no matter what you do. Take a look at the images below to see what I’m talking about. The one on the left is a normal, raster layer after being blown up and shrunk back down a few times. The one on the right is a smart object after going through the same treatment.

normal Photoshop layer vs. Smart Object
normal layer vs. Smart Object

Multiple Linked Instances in Different Projects

Another cool thing about smart objects is that you can have the same object in multiple projects but edit all the instances from one place. For example, take a UI design project in which a designer has to create several screenshots of an application. Each of his screenshots is a separate document, but he uses the same logo in each one. The logo is a linked smart object that is connected to an Illustrator file. Now, assuming that his client wants the logo edited in some way (which they always do), he could just edit the Illustrator file, and it would automatically update in all of the different Photoshop files. In case you didn’t notice… that’s cool.

This trick does only work with linked smart objects though. You can accomplish something similar with embedded smart objects, but that only works if you have multiple instances of an object in the same project file.

Infinite Filter Fun

Here’s the last cool feature I’m gonna share in this post… and it’s my favorite too. Smart objects come with a particularly handy trick up their tiny sleeves – smart filters. When you apply a filter to a smart object, you don’t actually apply the filter to the smart object at all. Filters are applied non-destructively – more like adjustment layers actually.

What I mean by non-destructive is this: since the filter is not actually applied to the layer, you can get rid of it at any time without having to undo a million other steps in the process. This is super cool because, if you’re like me, you know that more often than not applying filters is a definitely destructive operation. Well, with smart objects, you don’t have to worry about that anymore.

When you apply a filter to a smart object, you’ll notice that the filters are all sort of grouped under a new layer kind of thing called Smart Filters (you can see this below). You’ll also notice that the Smart Filters layer has a mask which means that you can even mask out the filter effects. The one downside is that each filter doesn’t have its own, individual mask. But never mind. There are plenty of other cool things to make up for that.

smart filters
a couple of smart filters hanging out

Once you’ve applied several filters to your smart object, you’ll be able to rearrange the order in which they are applied. This all doesn’t sound very impressive in writing, but in reality it’s huge! This is a really amazing feature, and it’s super convenient especially when you’re not entirely sure what you’re doing. Now come on. You have to admit that, when it comes to filters, there’s usually no set way of doing things – often (most often) it’s just trial and error. So, being able to reorder effects is a real timesaver. And, as if that weren’t enough, you can also adjust the blending options and transparency for each effect.

Now, before I let you go and unload every filter in your arsenal on some poor, unsuspecting, undeserving smart object, I’m going to have to put a disclaimer on this. I know that not everyone has a super computer at their disposal, and smart filters are kind of hard on most computers. If you use way too many, Photoshop is going to start going apoplectic on you. How many smart filters you can apply before this happens really depends on your computer, but you can literally apply so many that you crash Photoshop and possibly lose your project. I have a theory that enough smart filters could crash your whole computer, but I really wouldn’t recommend testing that one.

However, let it be said in the favor of smart objects that, even if you did crash your project with a smart filter overdose, the smart object itself would remain unscathed… well… unless you do actually crash your whole computer. That’ll hurt.

Well, thanks for hanging around and listening to me rattle off about smart objects. You have hereby proven your worth as well as the fact that you have nothing better to do with your time. No really… you don’t. Can you think of anything better to do than reading my blog? No, I didn’t think so. That’s exactly why I’ve positioned a button right below that will lead you to the next article. So, have fun and laugh at a joke when you see one – you never know when it will be your last.

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