Three kinds of Smart Objects in Photoshop

I make mistakes in Photoshop, all the time. I’m also improving all the time, and sometimes what used to look great is no longer my best work. I’m guessing you probably do too. All of these reasons to make a change to your image make “non-destructive” workflows true life savers. Layers, layer masks, and adjustment layers are all critical aspects of such a workflow, but they are incomplete. They won’t let you reprocess the RAW image, edit something you did before warping the image, change the filters you applied to the image or anything else that would directly change the pixels themselves. At least not without starting over. But “Smart Objects” can do all of that and more.

At the same time, Smart Objects can be a little tricky to understand and use sometimes. One of the reasons for that is that there are multiple different kinds of Smart Objects, and they all look the same at first glance. But now with the Basics panel in Lumenzia v9.1, you can easily tell which is which.

The three kinds of Smart Objects you are likely to use or run into are:

Camera RAW Smart Objects

This is perhaps one of the most incredible tools Adobe offers. RAW Smart Objects give you full access to the RAW data right inside Photoshop. You can go back and make changes anytime. This gives you the full power of LR/ACR’s ability to extract the most from your RAW image and combines it with Photoshop’s ability to make intricate selections and masks to reveal those changes locally. This is a powerful way to enable multi-processing of a single RAW file, improve the quality of your exposure blends, apply RAW corrections with a level of precision that is not possible with the radial/gradient/brush tools in LR/ACR, as well as make any adjustment in LR/ACR locally (HSL, color grading, tone curves, camera calibration, etc). If you aren’t using Camera RAW Smart Objects routinely, you probably aren’t getting the most out of Photoshop.

Regular Smart Objects

Any Smart Object that isn’t a RAW Smart Object. While the value of RAW Smart Objects is that you can change the RAW processing at anytime, these regular Smart Objects have more general benefits. Typically, you would use them when you want to work non-destructively when adding adding a filter (Gaussian blur, Nik Color Efex Pro, etc) or warping the image (transform, perspective warp, etc). You’d probably put multiple layers into one Smart Object, but there may be times when you just want to apply a non-destructive change to one layer.

Dependent Smart Objects

This overlaps with the above categories, both RAW and regular Smart Objects can be either independent (unique) or dependent (not unique). A “dependent” Smart Object is 2 or more layers which contain the exact same contents. Not copies, but literally the same content. If you edit any one of them, then they will ALL update. You cannot change one without changing another. Why would you want to do that? Probably so that you could apply different filters to different parts of the same Smart Object, since you cannot create multiple Filter Masks on a single layer.

This isn’t something you are likely to use much, and possibly never, in photography. But it’s still important that you are aware of them, because you will almost certainly end up accidentally creating unwanted dependent Smart Objects at some point because the normal shortcut <ctrl/cmd>-J or Layer / New / Layer via Copy both create dependent Smart Objects. Whether you create them the right way or the wrong way, they will look exactly the same in Photoshop until you try to edit their inner contents (such as changing the sliders in a RAW Smart Object).

The way to get the preferred independent Smart Objects is by right-clicking and choosing “New Smart Object via Copy”. Or you can simply <shift>-click the “PreBlend” button in Lumenzia or use the “SmartObj” button in the Lumenzia Basics panel.

How to tell which kind of Smart Object you have?

With Lumenzia v9.1, just make the Smart Object active and then look at the color of the “RAW” button in the Basics panel. You’ll see one of the following:

  • “RAW” will be green if the active layer is an independent RAW Smart Object.
  • “RAW” will be yellow if the active layer is a dependent RAW Smart Object. This is generally unwanted and probably a sign that the active layer was not created correctly.
  • “RAW” will be red if the active layer is a regular Smart Object (not a RAW Smart Object, though it may still have one inside it).
    • This is normal if you intentionally put multiple layers into a Smart Object.
    • However, if your intention was to open the image as a RAW Smart Object to preserve the RAW data, this is probably a sign of trouble (ie, you may be seeing this because you opened the image and then converted it to a Smart Object, which does not preserve the RAW data).
  • The “RAW” button will not show any color if the active layer is not a Smart Object, there are multiple Smart Objects selected, or there are no layers selected.

If you don’t have Lumenzia, you can do the following tests:

  • If you double-click the Smart Object and it opens up like a new document, then it is a regular Smart Object.
  • If you double-click it and it opens the ACR interface, it is a RAW Smart Object.
  • Either one of these could be independent or dependent. The only way to know is to make a change and see what happens. A simple test is to make some dramatic change and close ACR or the newly opened tab (which saves the changes back to the parent document) and see if other layers changed or just the one. You can then undo this step and move forward now that you know what you are working with.

Learn more about Lumenzia v9 here.

Learn more about Smart Objects here.

Greg Benz Photography