Smart objects are like that weird extra thing that someone throws out in a conversation that has everyone in the room like, “what?”. Both confusing and brilliant in equal measure, they’re scary yet awesome and we need to know why we would use them, how they work and, probably most importantly, how to get into them to make changes.

The video on this topic can be found here:

What is a Smart Object in Photoshop?

Smart Objects are a type of layer in Photoshop where the actual pixels are enclosed in a protective little wrapper, so you can add effects (filters) and transform them, without actually affecting the pixels in the layer at all.

Why are Smart Objects good?

I personally believe that Smart Objects are great for two specific reasons:

  1. You can add a filter, add an effect there, then come back to it at any time and edit the effect. You cannot do this on a normal layer. I used this most commonly in my full edits for Camera Raw Filters – the filter is applied to the smart object, but I can then go back in at any point in the edit to change the strength of this thing, or the colour of that thing. Awesome. Non-destructive editing at its best.
  2. You can transform the layer without affecting the resolution. With a normal layer, it’s rasterised which means that the pixels are what the pixels are. If you make the layer smaller and submit that transformation, your pixels are adjusted to suit. If you then go and enlarge that layer, you’ll be stretching your newly adjusted pixels and the resolution will be awful. A smart object resizes independently of the pixels, so you can transform here there and everywhere without affecting the resolution of the layer.

There are many more reasons why smart objects are awesome, but those two are the main two for sure!

How do you edit a Smart Object layer?

The biggest issue people have when working with a smart object is that they can’t effect the pixels on the layer (remember that little protective wrapper we mentioned?), so you can’t clone things, you can’t paint things, you cant do anything that effects the pixels themselves.

This can cause you a lot of issues and most people just right click, rasterise the smart object layer with all its adjustments, then make the changes. This means you lose your benefits of the smart object in that second, and you can’t get them back.

There is another way! To edit a smart object layer in photoshop all you need to do is right click on it, choose “Edit Contents”, then wait a second or two. This will open the contents in a new Photoshop document – you can make your changes and edits on this document just like you would on the normal layer, including adding layers, compositing, cleaning up and more. Then, when you’re happy, just click the X on the document tab to close the file. You’ll get a modal pop-up asking if you want to save it – choose Yes.

Next, Photoshop will connect the dots, close the document you’ve edited, push those new pixels back into the original document, into the protective little wrapper of the Smart Object in your layer stack, and you can continue onwards.

If you need to alter something you’ve altered, repeat the process as many times as required.

And just like that your non-destructive edit is protected, your layers are safe and you’ve got the result you wanted.