Master the marvelous powers of Adobe Smart Objects

Jürgen Heiss

I’ve often found in talking to people, that many designers don’t actually know what Smart Objects are. But we’ve got to change that! In this tutorial you’ll learn the big benefits of Smart Objects — and by the end you’ll ask yourself why you never tried them before.

Smart Objects are layers that contain the raw information for your file, so you can take your image and transform it in whichever way you want without destroying the original. Confused? No worries, we’ll jump right into the tutorial and through the process, it’ll become easy to understand.

Power 1: Nondestructive transformations

The quality of an image can be changed with the simplest Photoshop steps:

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The image I used in this example is from dreamstime.com and you can freely download it if you register (for free). This is the link to the image.

Open the image of your choice and double-click the background layer, so that the layer is unlocked and you can work with it. Press Edit > Free Transform (CTRL+T) to resize the image so that it’s quite smaller than before.

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Press again Edit > Free Transform (CTRL+T) and resize it again to the document size. You see what happens? Take a look at the animated image below:

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You don’t need the eye of an eagle to see that the quality of the altered design is terrible. Depending on how small you made the image with the transformation, the result can be even worse.

This exercise brings us directly to Smart Objects. Smart Objects can be transformed in pretty much any way you can think of, without loosing quality.

Back to our image — undo the last steps, so that the image regains its original quality. Next, right-click on the original image’s layer (please note that you must right-click on the text from the image layer and NOT on the small thumbnail). From the menu which pops up, choose Convert to Smart Object.

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On the right bottom corner of your layer you can see a small icon, which shows you that this layer is a smart object now. That’s all? Yes! That was the magic. Try now to resize this layer, and you will see that the quality stays the same.

Power 2: Importing vector data

With the help of Smart Objects you can import vector files into Photoshop without rasterizing them.

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To import a vector file choose File> Place. In the dialog that appears, choose the vector file you want to import. As you can see in the layer pallete, the vector data will be directly imported as smart object.

Power 3: Smarter filters

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Let me pose a scenario: Say that today I used two filters to create the effect above. If you were to ask me a day from now, which filters I used, I will probably have forgotten. So if I wanted to apply this effect later on to another image, I would have to sit down again and play around with the filters. The same would happen if I decided later on that I want to make the effect more soft or bold, as well. Not a very productive workflow, especially since there is a much easier way to customize these filters.

You know what the way is already — Smart Objects.

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Smart object filters have three major benefits. You can:

  • Activate or deactivate a filter by simply clicking the eyeball icon
  • Modify the filter settings by clicking on the filter name, for example Gaussian Blur. This will open the Gaussian Blur filter dialog and allow me to make modifications.
  • Change the blend mode for each applied filter. You can do this by double clicking the icon on the right side from the filter name, which will open the Blending Mode dialog that looks like this:
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Here I changed the blend mode to Screen and the Opacity to 70%. The result is now totally different — instead of a quick draft look I now get the effect of a pencil drawing. All within a few seconds.

Not every filter is available as Smart Filter, but Photoshop is improving this with every new version. You definitely want to use Smart Filters when ever possible.

Power 4: Placeholding

Another example where I always use Smart Objects, is in designs that use stock imagery. I do this particularly when I design for a contest or for a client and still haven’t purchased the image, awaiting the client’s final proof. In situations like this I work with a comp version (watermarked image), as you can see in the example below. The layer with the image is a Smart Object:

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Once the design is approved and I want to switch to the bought hi-res image, I only have to select the Smart Object layer and choose Edit > Smart Object > Replace Contents. Then I choose the hi-res image file and I’m done.

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Power 5: Linking layers

The final trick we have for you in this tutorial is how to link layers.

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I created a very basic business card design, made it a Smart Object, then applied a drop shadow to it.

With the BizCard layer selected press CTRL+J to create a duplicate version of the layer. Press CTRL+T to switch to Transform mode. Rotate the layer in any direction you want, and repeat this step several times until the background is covered. The goal is to come up with something like this:

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This is a simple mockup that I can show off to my clients. I always want the background to be covered with lots of cards, with the front card centered so that the information can be read easily.

This is something I want to do with all of my business cards, so how can I use Smart Objects to make setting this mock-up much quicker?

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Double-click on the Smart Object layer (it doesn’t matter on which one) and the message above will pop up. Press “OK” and you will see the content from the Smart Object. Now, replace the image with another business card design.

Alternatively you can use also Layers > Smart Objects > Replace Content. In my case I used a simple example image to show you the result:

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When you copy a smart object as we did with your business card design, the layers are linked together. Whenever you change the content from one, the content of every version will also be changed.

Hopefully now you have a better idea of what Smart Objects are, and when and why you should use them. I hope you learned something new!

Let us know any questions you have on Smart Objects in the Comments!

Related articles:
Speed up your design process with Photoshop Actions
7 unbreakable laws of user interface design
Bring your designs to life: create professional mockups
3 common image licensing mistakes to avoid
How to use Adobe’s Adjustment Layers: Photoshop CS6

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