Using Photoshop’s Smart Objects for a Non-Destructive Workflow

Layer Masks | Smart Objects | Advanced Masking | Image Sharpening | Burning and Dodging

Next to layer masks, Smart Objects is one of the most valuable tools for digital photographers. Combined with Layer Masks, Smart Objects, a Photoshop feature, allow you to perform virtually any type of image correction, from complex compositing to image sharpening without ever applying your changes to the original file. This non-destructive workflow gives you maximum flexibility and efficiency in processing your digital photos. To get you started, let’s take a moment to discuss the workings of Smart Objects.


What Are Smart Objects?

Smart Objects are a bit like the platypus, defying simple classification or description. Technically speaking, Smart Objects are placed versions of separate files combined and accessed within a single Photoshop document. Smart Objects were originally designed for Web designers who needed to be able to quickly update graphics on Web pages. They could place a color photo in their Web design as a Smart Object, then when the client decided they wanted a black- and-white photo instead of a color photo, the designer could double-click on the photo in their Web design to open it in Photoshop, make the change and the new black-and-white version would automatically update in their Web design program.


In Photoshop, Smart Objects work essentially the same way, by linking the original photo on disk with the adjusted version contained within a Photoshop document. This allows you to combine multiple photos into a single Photoshop document, or, combine multiple versions of a single file inside a Photoshop document. Here are three common scenarios that take advantage of Smart Objects.

  1. Combining multiple versions of a single raw file, each adjusted for a particular image area (e.g. shadows, midtones or highlights) in Photoshop and using layer masks to blend the three versions into a single composition.
  2. Combining two separate exposures (one exposed for shadows and a second for highlights), together in Photoshop as Smart Objects. This preserves the raw editing capabilities of each file while allowing you to use Layer Masks to blend the two images.
  3. Convert an existing pixel layer into a Smart Object to take advantage of Photoshop’s Smart Filters for non-destructive image sharpening or noise reduction.

For most photographers, these three examples can be difficult to conceptualize because they challenge our preconceptions of how Photoshop and raw files are supposed to work. To help clear the air, let’s begin using Smart Objects so you better understand how they can help your workflow.


Working With Smart Objects

Open Method (a): Smart Objects are only available for use in Photoshop. If you are working in Lightroom, open your raw files as Smart Objects in Photoshop using the Open in Photoshop As Smart Object command located in the same Photo > Edit In menu.


Open Method (b): If you’re working in an exclusively Photoshop workflow, open your raw file into Adobe Camera Raw and perform your adjustments normally. Instead of pressing Open to process the raw file and open it in Photoshop, hold the Shift key which changes the Open Image button to Open Object. This will open your raw photo as a Smart Object in Photoshop.

Either step opens your raw file into Photoshop, but instead of processing the raw file, Photoshop converts your photo to a Smart Object. In the Layers panel, you’ll notice your layer appears differently than before. In the lower right portion of the layer thumbnail, a Smart Object icon is applied (see image right).


This method gives you the primary advantage of using Photoshop’s selective editing capabilities (adjustment layers, layer masks, compositing tools) while still being able to return to the raw file to make additional corrections. Double-clicking on the Smart Object thumbnail in the Layers panel opens the Smart Object in Adobe Camera Raw, allowing you to perform adjustments with the raw processing tools. Pressing OK applies your changes to the image without processing the photo. This means you can convert your Smart Object from color to black and white, then change your mind and return to the color image. All the while, you’ll be working non-destructively using raw processing tools.

Since Smart Objects posses such unique characteristics, it should come as no surprise that they contain certain limitations. Because Smart Objects are placed versions of separate documents, you cannot modify the pixels on a Smart Object, only the appearance of the pixels in a Smart Object. Therefore, you cannot clone or erase pixels on a Smart Object.


I. Separating Foreground from Background with Smart Objects

These prohibitions are far outweighed by the advantages provided by Smart Objects. Let’s look at a practical example for a clearer illustration of Smart Objects’ benefits.

This photo, taken near dusk, has nice contrast overall, but the sky is too light and the flowers don’t separate well from the background. I’ll demonstrate how to correct each of these problems using Smart Objects.

Step 1: Let’s direct our attention to the flowers in the foreground. We could apply a Curves adjustment to lighten and boost the contrast on the flowers. We can do even better by creating a second version of the Smart Object and performing these corrections on the raw file.


Step 2: Create a second instance of the Smart Object under the Layer Menu > Smart Objects > New Smart Object via Copy. This creates a second, independent, version of the Smart Object. (With other methods e.g. Layer > Duplicate Layer, changes you make to one Smart Object layer are applied to both the original and the duplicate.)

Step 3: Double-click on the second Smart Object to open it in Camera Raw and make the necessary changes to the raw file. For this image, I boosted the Exposure, Brightness and Contrast to lighten the flowers. This will make them stand out when I merge the newly corrected layer with the original image.

Step 4: Next, add a layer mask to the second Smart Object, fill it with black (CMD/CTRL-I) and select an appropriate brush for painting on the layer mask. Using White as your foreground color, paint in the changes. I selected a soft brush with 40 percent opacity to brush in the correction onto the flowers, lightning them and helping them stand out from the ground.

Note: For more information on layer masking, refer to my previous article on Layer Masks.

Compare the before and after results.

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Lightened through the use of a Smart Object. Although the differences are subtle, they are important for achieving the best print quality.

While these results can be achieved through other methods, Smart Objects are more versatile and provide better image quality. Because you’re performing corrections directly on the unprocessed raw file, you’re working with the best information available and you have the luxury of knowing your changes are never permanently applied.

This method allows you to take a single exposure and, through the use of Smart Objects, perform targeted adjustments for the shadows, midtones and highlights, then blend them together using layer masks. It is an immensely powerful feature once you understand how it works.

II. Adjusting Exposure Range using Smart Objects

The second use of Smart Objects will help me address the most obvious problem with my sample picture; the sky’s brightness. The exposure range in the scene was larger than my camera could capture in a single shot. Fortunately for me, I anticipated this and bracketed my exposures. I have an image that is perfectly exposed for the sky. All I need to do now is blend the two images, much the same way we did in the previous chapter. Here too, Smart Objects make the process easier.

Step 1: The best method for adding a Smart Object to an existing document is through the Place command (File > Place). By placing the second photo instead of opening it, you’re telling Photoshop that you want the second image inserted as a Smart Object.


Tip: If you’re working in Photoshop CS3, you’ll need to be sure your entire photo is visible in the document window when you place the Smart Object, otherwise the newly placed Smart Object won’t align correctly with the original document. This was a problem in CS3 that is fixed with Photoshop CS4.

Step 2: When the Smart Object is first placed into your existing document, you’ll notice a thin X criss-crossing your photo. These are the guides for transforming, or scaling your photo. Since you’re most likely wanting to overlay two images shot on a tripod or shot close together, go ahead and dismiss the transform options by pressing “Enter” or “Return” on your keyboard.

Step 3: Your second image (see below) is inserted into your original document and is stored as a Smart Object layer in your Layers panel. You can use any of the masking techniques to blend the two images together. For this image, I’ll use a simple gradient to blend the sky with the foreground.

Step 4: At this point, the two images show approximately the correct tonal range and blend nicely, but the contrast differences between the two photos doesn’t match correctly. Double-clicking on the sky image opens it back in Adobe Camera Raw for additional corrections.

Step 5: After adding Contrast and Vibrance to the image in the basic panel, I jumped into the Hue/Saturation/Luminance panel to make the sky bluer and a little darker in tone.

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Step 6: This marries the two images together nicely, bringing the final image much closer to what I saw with my eye. The final step in the process, sharpening, allows us to take advantage of another method of using Smart Objects.

Smart Objects As Smart Filters for Sharpening, Noise Reduction, etc.

The previous examples demonstrate the versatility and power Smart Objects bring to your image editing, allowing you to perform difficult masking and composites entirely non-destructively. The final use of Smart Objects allows you to apply Sharpening, Noise Reduction and other filters non-destructively. When Smart Objects are used in this fashion, they are more commonly referred to as Smart Filters.

The main benefit of using Smart Filters for your sharpening or noise reduction lies in the difficulty predicting how sharpening or noise reduction will appear in a finished print. With so many variables (paper, printer, viewing distance), your sharpening settings are often nothing more than an educated guess. As you gain more experience with sharpening, your guesses become more accurate. Smart Filters give you the option to change your sharpening settings easily.


Step 1: Any pixel layer can be transformed into a Smart Filter by targeting the layer in the Layers palette, then selecting Convert for Smart Filters under the Filter menu (Filter > Convert for Smart Filters. This option will be grayed out if your active layer is already a Smart Object.

Tip: Don’t forget, you can merge all visible layers into a new layer by pressing CMD+Option+Shift+E (Mac) or CTRL+Alt+Shift+E (Win). This can then be converted to a Smart Filter for sharpening.


Step 2: Once you create your Smart Filter layer, you can use your sharpening tools normally. Here, I applied a light round of capture sharpening to bring out the details in the photo.

Step 3: After applying your sharpening, you’ll notice your Smart Filter displays two new pieces of information, the Smart Filter mask and a listing of the filter or filters applied to your layer.

Step 4: Adjusting your filter settings is easy. Double-click on the filter name in the Layers panel and the filter dialog box reopens with the last used settings. Select new settings and press Okay. Filters applied to Smart Filter layers are never permanent, so you can experiment and explore knowing you can always go back to the original.

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Step 5: Use the mask to restrict your filters to a selected portion of the image. Paint on the Smart Filter mask just as you would any other layer mask, only this time you’re not masking the pixels on the layer, but the effect of the filter. Here’s an example of an image with a heavy Gaussian blur to mimic a shallow depth of field. The effect is masked out of the center of the image to preserve the sharpness of the original.



Adding Smart Objects to your workflow is a way to bring versatility and non-destructive editing to your intermediate and advanced Photoshop corrections.


Color Management Primer by Jay Kinghorn

Prolific author, provocative speaker and Adobe Photoshop Certified Expert trainer, Jay Kinghorn uses his unique skills to help companies and organizations strengthen their workflow processes and envision creative uses for photography. His company, RGB Imaging, works with clients to develop automated workflows for print, Web and interactive marketing. As an Olympus Visionary photographer, Jay uses his unique eye to capture the ever-changing landscape of the West and sports like mountain biking and rock climbing. He also presents internationally to various universities, trade associations and will be the primary speaker for ASMP’s Preserving Digital Images Standards and Workflow Project. The second edition of his book, Perfect Digital Photography, which he co-authored with Pulitzer-prize winner Jay Dickman, will be released in June 2009. His blog,, discusses photography workflow, visual literacy and multimedia tools.

Text ©2009 Jay Kinghorn.

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