How to create smart objects in Photoshop

How To Create Smart Objects In Photoshop

Written by Steve Patterson.

In this tutorial, I show you how to create smart objects in Photoshop! You'll learn how to open a new image into Photoshop as a smart object, how to convert an existing layer into a smart object, and how to place an image as a smart object into your Photoshop document. We'll also look at how to open raw files as smart objects, both from within Photoshop's Camera Raw plugin and from Adobe Lightroom. And we'll even learn how to place Adobe Illustrator files directly into Photoshop as smart objects!

What are smart objects?

A smart object is a container that holds the contents of a layer. The container protects the contents inside it from harm. We can scale and resize the container, apply transformations, warps and distortions, and even apply Photoshop's filters to a smart object, all without any loss in quality and without making a single permanent change to the layer inside it. We can make multiple copies of a smart object, all displaying the same content, and then edit or even replace the content and have our changes instantly appear in each and every copy. This makes smart objects perfect for creating reusable templates! We'll look at different ways to use smart objects throughout this series of tutorials.

In this first tutorial, we'll learn how to create smart objects in Photoshop. I'll be using Photoshop CC but you can also follow along with Photoshop CS6. Let's get started!

How To Convert A Layer Into A Smart Object

Let's start by learning how to convert an existing layer into a smart object. Here's an image I currently have open in Photoshop:

The original image that will be converted into a smart object

The original image. Photo credit: Adobe Stock.

In the Layers panel, we see the image on the Background layer:

The image on the Background layer in the Layers panel in Photoshop

The Layers panel showing the image on the Background layer.

Method 1: The Layer menu

There's a few ways that we can convert a layer into a smart object. One way is by going up to the Layer menu in the Menu Bar, choosing Smart Objects, and choosing Convert to Smart Object:

Choosing the Convert to Smart Object command from the Layer menu in Photoshop

Going to Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object.

It won't look like anything has happened to the image. But if we look again in the Layers panel, we now see a smart object icon in the lower right of the layer's preview thumbnail. This is how Photoshop tells us that the layer is now a smart object. I've enlarged it here to make the icon easier to see:

The smart object icon in the layer preview thumbnail in Photoshop

The smart object icon.

Method 2: The Layers panel menu

Another way to convert a layer into a smart object is from the Layers panel menu. Click the menu icon in the upper right corner of the Layers panel:

Opening the Layers panel menu in Photoshop

Clicking the menu icon.

Then choose Convert to Smart Object from the list:

Choosing Convert to Smart Object in the Layers panel menu in Photoshop

Choosing "Convert to Smart Object" in the Layers panel menu.

Method 3: From the layer itself

A third way is to right-click (Win) / Control-click (Mac) directly on the layer in the Layers panel:

Right-clicking (Win) / Control-clicking (Mac) on the layer in the Layers panel

Right-click (Win) / Control-click (Mac) on the layer.

And then choose Convert to Smart Object from the menu:

Choosing Convert to Smart Object from the list

Choose "Convert to Smart Object" from the list.

Method 4: With a selection tool active

And finally, if you have any of Photoshop's selection tools active in the Toolbar (the Marquee Tools, the Lasso Tools or the Quick Selection Tool):

The selection tools in the Toolbar in Photoshop

Make sure you have a selection tool active.

You can right-click (Win) / Control-click (Mac) directly on the image in the document and choose Convert to Smart Object from the menu. The only selection tool where the Convert to Smart Object command is not available is the Magic Wand Tool:

Choosing the Convert to Smart Object command from the document

Right-click (Win) / Control-click (Mac) and choose "Convert to Smart Object".

How To Open An Image As A Smart Object

So far, we've learned how to convert an existing layer into a smart object. But we can also open a new image as a smart object in Photoshop. Go up to the File menu in the Menu Bar and choose Open as Smart Object:

Choosing the Open as Smart Object command from the File menu in Photoshop

Going to File > Open as Smart Object

Navigate to the image on your computer that you want to open. Click on it to select it, and then click Open:

Selecting the photo to open as a smart object in Photoshop

Selecting the photo to open as a smart object.

The image opens in its own separate document:

The selected image opens in Photoshop. Photo credit: Adobe Stock

Opening an image creates a new Photoshop document. Photo credit: Adobe Stock.

And in the Layers panel, we see the same smart object icon in the lower right of the layer's preview thumbnail, telling us that Photoshop has automatically converted the image into a smart object for us:

The Layers panel showing the image already converted into a smart object

The image opens as a smart object.

How To Open Raw Files As Smart Objects

Along with opening standard image files like JPEGs, we can also open raw files into Photoshop as smart objects. The benefit of opening a raw file as a smart object is that a copy of the raw file itself will be embedded into the Photoshop file, allowing us to reopen it in Camera Raw, edit it as much as we need, and have our changes instantly reflected in the document. To open a raw file as a smart object, go up to the File menu in the Menu Bar and choose Open:

Choosing the Open command from the File menu in Photoshop

Going to File > Open.

Navigate to a raw file on your computer. Click on the file to select it, and then click Open. I'll open my "flower.dng" file:

Selecting a raw file to open as a smart object in Photoshop

Selecting a raw file.

This opens the image into Photoshop's Camera Raw plugin:

The raw file opens in Camera Raw

The raw file opens in Camera Raw.

Turning "Open Image" into "Open Object"

If we look down in the bottom right corner, we see the Open Image button. But clicking Open Image will open the file into Photoshop as a normal layer, not as a smart object, and we'll lose all the benefits of having the raw file to work with:

The Open Image button in Camera Raw

The standard Open Image button. Don't click this.

To open the raw file as an editable smart object, press and hold the Shift key on your keyboard. This turns the Open Image button into an Open Object button:

Clicking the Open Object button in the Camera Raw plugin in Photoshop

Hold Shift to turn the Open Image button into Open Object.

Click on Open Object to open the image into a new Photoshop document:

The raw file opened in Photoshop as a smart object

The raw file opens in Photoshop.

In the Layers panel, we see the now-familiar smart object icon in the lower right of the layer's preview thumbnail, telling us that the image was opened as a smart object:

The Layers panel showing the raw file as a smart object

The Layers panel showing the image as a smart object.

Editing a raw file opened as a smart object

As I mentioned, the main benefit of opening a raw file as a smart object is that the raw file itself is now embedded in the document. To reopen the raw file for further editing, double-click on its thumbnail in the Layer's panel:

Double-clicking on the smart object thumbnail

Double-clicking on the smart object thumbnail.

This reopens the image in Camera Raw. Make any edits you need, and then click OK to accept them. The changes will instantly appear in your Photoshop document. You can edit the Camera Raw settings as many times as you like with no loss in image quality:

Re-editing the raw file in Camera Raw

The full power of Camera Raw is always available with the raw file opened as a smart object.

Opening raw files as smart objects from Lightroom

You can also open a raw file as a smart object in Photoshop directly from Adobe Lightroom. In Lightroom, go up to the Photo menu, choose Edit In, and then choose Open as Smart Object in Photoshop. Note, though, that once the image is open in Photoshop, double-clicking on its thumbnail in the Layers panel will open the raw file in Camera Raw, not in Lightroom. However, the editing options in both Camera Raw and Lightroom are exactly the same:

The Open as Smart Object in Photoshop command in Adobe Lightroom

In Lightroom, go to Photo > Edit In > Open as Smart Object in Photoshop

How To Place An Image As A Smart Object

Instead of opening an image into a brand new Photoshop document, we can also place an image into an existing document as a smart object. In Photoshop CC, go up to the File menu and choose Place Embedded. In Photoshop CS6, go to the File menu and choose Place. Note that in Photoshop CC, there's also an option called Place Linked. We'll look at the difference between Place Embedded and Place Linked in a separate tutorial:

Choosing the Place Embedded command in Photoshop CC

Go to File > Place Embedded (CC) or Place (CS6).

Navigate to the image that you want to place into your document. Click on it to select it, and then click Place. I'll choose my "texture.jpeg" image:

Selecting the image to place into the document in Photoshop

Selecting the image to place into the document.

Resizing the placed image

Photoshop places the texture image into the flower document that I opened a moment ago. Before committing the placed image to the document, Photoshop first gives us the chance to scale and transform it. I want to blend my texture image into the flower photo. But because the texture and the photo are using different aspect ratios, some of the flower image is sticking out on the sides:

Selecting the image to place into the document in Photoshop

The texture image doesn't completely cover the flower image below it.

To scale the texture so it covers the entire image below it, I'll press and hold the Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) on my keyboard as I click on one of the side handles and drag it outward. Holding Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) tells Photoshop to resize the image from its center:

Resizing the placed image.

Holding Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and dragging the side handles outward.

To accept it, I'll press Enter (Win) / Return (Mac) on my keyboard. And now, looking in the Layers panel, we see that my texture image has been placed into the document as a smart object. We also see the photo below it, also a smart object. The photo was opened as a smart object, which created the document, and the texture was then placed as a smart object into the same document:

The Layers panel showing two smart objects

The texture and the photo below it are both smart objects.

Related tutorial: Photoshop's Free Transform essential skills

Using blend modes with smart objects

To blend the texture in with the photo, all I need to do is change the blend mode of the texture image. We can use blend modes with smart objects just like we can with normal layers. I'll change its blend mode from Normal to Soft Light:

Changing the blend mode of a smart object in Photoshop

Changing the blend mode of the texture smart object.

And now the texture is blending in nicely with the photo below it:

How to blend smart objects with blend modes in Photoshop

The result after changing the blend mode of the texture smart object.

Applying Camera Raw as a smart filter (Photoshop CC)

Let's say that I like the texture itself but I don't like its color. I'd rather have a grayscale version of the texture so I can keep the original colors in the photo below it. The best way to convert a color image to grayscale (black and white) in Photoshop is by using Camera Raw. But because my texture smart object is holding a JPEG image, not a raw file, I can't just double-click on its thumbnail to open it in Camera Raw.

In Photoshop CC, what I can do is apply Camera Raw to the texture as a filter. And since we'll be applying the filter to a smart object, it will automatically become an editable smart filter! To use the Camera Raw Filter, I'll make sure my texture smart object is selected in the Layers panel. Then I'll go up to the Filter menu in the Menu Bar and choose Camera Raw Filter. Note that the Camera Raw Filter is only available in Photoshop CC:

Opening the Camera Raw Filter in Photoshop CC

Going to Filter > Camera Raw Filter.

This opens the Camera Raw Filter dialog box, which gives us the same image editing features as the main Camera Raw plugin:

The Camera Raw Filter in Photoshop CC

The Camera Raw Filter.

Converting the texture to grayscale

To convert the texture to grayscale, I'll open the HSL / Grayscale panel on the right of the dialog box by clicking its tab, and then I'll select the Convert to Grayscale option:

How to convert color images to grayscale in the Camera Raw Filter in Photoshop

Choosing "Convert to Grayscale".

The preview area on the left shows the texture converted to grayscale. I'll click OK to accept it and close the dialog box:

The Camera Raw Filter dialog box showing a preview of the grayscale conversion

The preview of what the grayscale version looks like.

And just like that, I now have a grayscale version of my texture blending in with the photo's original colors:

The result with the texture converted to grayscale using the Camera Raw Filter in Photoshop CC

The result after converting the texture to grayscale.

Working with smart filters

The advantage of applying a filter to a smart object is that Photoshop applies it as a smart filter. Smart filters are non-destructive, meaning that they won't make any permanent changes to the image. We can change a smart filter's settings at any time, and we can even turn smart filters on and off. In the Layers panel, we see the Camera Raw Filter listed as a smart filter below the texture:

The Layers panel showing the Camera Raw Filter smart object in Photoshop

Smart filters are listed below the smart object.

If I want to revert back to the color version of my texture, all I need to do is turn off the Camera Raw smart filter. And I can do that just by clicking on the visibility icon beside the filter's name:

Turning off the Camera Raw smart filter in the Layers panel in Photoshop

Clicking the visibility icon to turn the Camera Raw Filter off.

With the filter turned off, the color version of the texture is instantly restored, and I'm back to blending both the texture itself and its color in with the photo. We'll be learning all about smart filters in a separate tutorial:

Turning the smart filter off instantly restored the texture's original color

Turning the smart filter off instantly restored the texture's original color.

How To Paste Adobe Illustrator Files As Smart Objects

Finally, let's learn how to paste an Adobe Illustrator file into a Photoshop document as a smart object. This will not only keep the original vector shapes intact, but it will also allow us to reopen the file back into Illustrator if we need to make changes, and then have those changes instantly update in Photoshop.

Step 1: Open the artwork in Illustrator

I'll switch over to Illustrator where I've opened a vector illustration of a hummingbird. I downloaded this file from Adobe Stock:

The vector art in Illustrator that will be pasted as a smart object into Photoshop

Vector artwork open in Illustrator. Credit: Adobe Stock.

Step 2: Select and copy the artwork

To move artwork from Illustrator into Photoshop, go up to the Select menu (in Illustrator) and choose All:

Choosing Select All in Adobe Illustrator

In Illustrator, going to Select > All.

With the artwork selected, go up to the Edit menu and choose Copy. This copies the artwork to the clipboard:

Choosing the Copy command in Adobe Illustrator

Going to Edit > Copy.

Step 3: Switch over to Photoshop

Switch over to your document in Photoshop. I've opened this image of flowers that I'm going to paste the hummingbird into:

The Photoshop document that the Illustrator file will be pasted into

The Photoshop document where the Illustrator file is headed. Photo credit: Adobe Stock.

Step 4: Paste the Illustrator artwork as a smart object

To paste the artwork from Illustrator into the Photoshop document, go up to the Edit menu (in Photoshop) and choose Paste:

Choosing the Paste command in Photoshop

In Photoshop, going to Edit > Paste.

Photoshop will ask how you want to paste the artwork. Choose Smart Object from the list:

Choosing the Paste command in Photoshop

In Photoshop, going to Edit > Paste.

Scaling and positioning the artwork

Just as we saw earlier when placing a JPEG file into a document, Photoshop will first give you the chance to scale the artwork using the Free Transform handles. You can also drag inside the Free Transform box to move the artwork into position. In my case, I'll simply drag the hummingbird up a little bit higher into the sky above the flowers:

Scaling and positioning the Illustrator artwork in the Photoshop document

Scale and position the artwork if needed.

When you're ready, press Enter (Win) / Return (Mac) on your keyboard to place the vector art into your document:

How to place an Illustrator file into Photoshop as a smart object

The vector art has been placed into the Photoshop document.

If we look in the Layers panel, we see the artwork on a new vector smart object above the image, with the smart object icon in the lower right of its preview thumbnail. Since the smart object is holding the original vector art, you can scale and resize it as much as you need without any loss in quality. And if you double-click on the smart object's thumbnail, you'll open the artwork back into Illustrator where you can make any changes you need. When you save the file in Illustrator, the changes will be instantly updated in Photoshop:

The vector smart object holding the Illustrator artwork in Photoshop

The Illustrator artwork appears in a vector smart object.

And there we have it! That's how to open, convert and place your images, raw files and even Illustrator files into Photoshop as editable, non-destructive smart objects! For more on smart objects, learn how to scale and resize images without losing quality, and how smart objects make it easy to transform and distort type! Or visit our Photoshop Basics section for more tutorials!