How to edit and replace smart object contents in Photoshop

How To Edit Smart Objects In Photoshop

Learn how to edit a smart object in Photoshop, and how to easily replace its contents so you can use smart objects as reusable templates!

Written by Steve Patterson.

Two powerful advantages of using smart objects in Photoshop are that we can edit their contents, and we can even replace their contents, and have our changes instantly appear in the document. Editing the contents is great for when you want to keep the same image inside the smart object and just change its appearance. But we can also replace the contents with a completely new image, making smart objects perfect for creating reusable templates! Let's see how it works.

I'll be using Photoshop CC but everything is fully compatible with Photoshop CS6.

If you're not yet familiar with smart objects in Photoshop, you'll want to read through the first tutorial in this series where I cover what smart objects are and how to create them. And with that, let's get started!

Download this tutorial as a print-ready PDF!

What we'll be learning

To help us learn about editing and replacing a smart object's contents, we're going to convert an image into a smart object and then place it inside a frame. Once it's in the frame, we'll learn how to edit the image inside the smart object, and then how to replace it with a different image.

Here's the first image I have open in my document. I downloaded all of the images for this tutorial from Adobe Stock. This is the frame that I'll be placing the other image into:

An image of a photo frame

The first image. Photo credit: Adobe Stock.

If we look in the Layers panel, we see that I also have a second image sitting on a layer above it. I'll turn the second image on by clicking the top layer's visibility icon:

Turning on the second image in the Photoshop document

Turning on the second image in the document.

And now we see the second image. I'll convert this image into a smart object and then place it inside the frame:

The image that will be converted to a smart object

The second image. Photo credit: Adobe Stock.

Placing the image in the frame

Selecting the frame

To place the image into the frame, we first need to select the area inside the frame. I'll turn the top image off so we can see the frame by once again clicking the layer's visibility icon:

Turning the top image off in the document

Turning the top image off.

Then, I'll choose Photoshop's Polygonal Lasso Tool from the Toolbar. By default, the Polygonal Lasso Tool is nested behind the standard Lasso Tool, so I'll right-click (Win) / Control-click (Mac) on the Lasso Tool and choose the Polygonal Lasso Tool from the fly-out menu:

Selecting the Polygonal Lasso Tool from the Toolbar in Photoshop

Selecting the Polygonal Lasso Tool from the Toolbar.

To select the area inside the frame, all we need to do is click with the Polygonal Lasso Tool in each of the four corners, starting in the upper left, then the upper right, down to the bottom right, and then in the bottom left. To complete the selection, click again on the starting point in the upper left corner. A selection outline now appears around the inside of the frame:

Selecting the area inside the frame with the Polygonal Lasso Tool in Photoshop

Clicking in each corner with the Polygonal Lasso Tool to select the frame.

With the frame selected, I'll turn the top image back on:

Turning the top layer in the document back on in Photoshop

Turning the top image back on in the document.

And the same selection outline now appears in front of the second image. In a moment, we're going to place the top image into the selection using a layer mask. But before we do, we first need to convert the layer into a smart object:

The image will be placed into the selection of the frame.

The top image will be placed into the selection of the frame.

Converting the layer into a smart object

To convert the top layer into a smart object, right-click (Win) / Control-click (Mac) directly on the layer in the Layers panel:

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

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

Then choose Convert to Smart Object from the menu:

Choosing the Convert to Smart Object command

Choosing "Convert to Smart Object".

A smart object icon appears in the layer's preview thumbnail, telling us that the layer is now a smart object:

The smart object icon in the layer preview thumbnail in Photoshop

The smart object icon.

Related: How to create smart objects in Photoshop

Adding a layer mask

To place the smart object into the selection, we'll use a layer mask. Click the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel:

Clicking the Add Layer Mask icon in the Layers panel in Photoshop

Adding a layer mask.

Photoshop converts the selection into a layer mask, and now the image appears inside the frame:

The smart object appears inside the frame after adding the layer mask in Photoshop

The result after adding the layer mask.

And in the Layers panel, we see the new layer mask thumbnail beside the preview thumbnail. The reason we converted the layer into a smart object before adding the layer mask was to keep the smart object and the mask separate from each other. If we had added the mask and then converted the layer to a smart object, the mask would have become part of the smart object. We need to keep them separate, so we converted the layer to a smart object first and then added the mask:

The layer mask thumbnail for the smart object in the Layers panel

The layer mask thumbnail.

Resizing the smart object inside the frame

The reason we need to keep them separate is so we can resize and reposition the smart object within the mask, or within the frame. To do that, click the link icon between the smart object's preview thumbnail and the layer mask thumbnail. This unlinks the smart object from its mask so we can resize and reposition the smart object without affecting the size or position of the mask itself:

Unlinking the smart object from its layer mask in Photoshop

Unlinking the smart object from its layer mask.

Click the smart object's preview thumbnail to select the smart object:

Selecting the smart object in the Layers panel

Selecting the smart object.

Then go up to the Edit menu in the Menu Bar and choose Free Transform:

Selecting the Free Transform command from the Edit menu in Photoshop

Going to Edit > Free Transform.

To resize the image within the frame, press and hold the Shift key on your keyboard, and then click and drag any of the corner handles. The Shift key locks the aspect ratio of the image as you drag so you don't distort the original shape. If you need to move the image inside the frame, click anywhere inside the Free Transform box and drag the image into place:

Resizing and repositioning the smart object inside the layer mask in Photoshop

Resizing and repositioning the image inside the frame.

When you're done, press Enter (Win) / Return (Mac) on your keyboard to accept it:

The image inside the smart object now fits within the frame

The image now fits nicely within the frame.

Download this tutorial as a print-ready PDF!

How to edit the contents of a smart object

Now that we've placed the image into the frame as a smart object, let's learn how to edit the smart object's contents. Think of a smart object as a Photoshop document within your Photoshop document. And pretty much anything that we can do in the main document, we can do in a smart object.

To open a smart object and edit its contents, make sure your smart object is selected in the Layers panel. Then go up to the Layer menu in the Menu Bar, choose Smart Objects, and then choose Edit Contents:

Choosing Edit Contents from the Smart Objects menu in Photoshop

Going to Layer > Smart Objects > Edit Contents.

Or, a faster way to open a smart object is to simply double-click on its thumbnail in the Layers panel:

Double-clicking on the smart object thumbnail to edit its contents

Double-clicking on the smart object thumbnail.

The smart object document

The smart object opens in its own separate document:

The contents of the smart object open in a separate Photoshop document

The contents of the smart object open in a separate document.

If we look in the document tabs along the top, we see that the name of my smart object's document is "Photo.psb". Smart objects use a special type of document known as a PSB file, which stands for "Photoshop Big". The name of the document (in this case, "Photo") is based on the name of your layer before you converted it to a smart object, which is why it's a good idea to rename your layers before converting them:

The smart object open as a .psb, or Photoshop Big, file

Smart objects open as PSB (Photoshop Big) files.

Editing the contents

Since smart objects are actual Photoshop documents, there's really no limit to what we can do with them. All of Photoshop's tools, commands, filters, and other features, like layers and adjustment layers, are available to us for editing a smart object's contents. For this tutorial, we'll keep things simple and look at a few quick examples.

Let's say I want to flip the image inside the frame so that the woman is facing the opposite direction. I can do that by flipping the image in my smart object. I'll go up to the Edit menu, then I'll choose Transform, and then Flip Horizontal:

Choosing the Flip Horizontal command in Photoshop

Going to Edit > Transform > Flip Horizontal.

This flips the image horizontally:

The image in the smart object is now flipped horizontally

The image in the smart object is now flipped.

Saving the changes

To have our changes appear in the main document, we need to save and close the smart object's document. To save it, go up to the File menu and choose Save:

Saving the changes to the smart object contents

Going to File > Save.

Then to close the smart object, go back up to the File menu and choose Close:

Closing the smart object's document

Going to File > Close.

Back in the main document, the smart object in the frame updates to show the flipped version of the image inside it:

The result after flipping the contents of the smart object

The result after flipping the contents of the smart object.

Editing a smart object non-destructively

Just like when editing a normal Photoshop document, it's best to edit a smart object non-destructively and avoid making any permanent changes. One of the easiest ways to do that is by taking advantage of adjustment layers. I'll reopen my smart object by double-clicking on is thumbnail in the Layers panel:

Reopening the smart object's document in Photoshop

Reopening the smart object's document.

The contents reopen in the same "Photo.psb" document, and with the change that I made previously:

The smart object contents reopen in a separate document

The contents reopen with my previous edit.

I'll flip the image back to the way it was originally by once again going up to the Edit menu, choosing Transform, and then choosing Flip Horizontal:

Again choosing the Flip Horizontal command

Going back to Edit > Transform > Flip Horizontal.

This flips the image back to its original direction:

The image inside the smart object is back to its original orientation

The image is back to its original orientation.

Using a Black & White adjustment layer

Let's say I want to convert the image from color to black and white. Since smart objects are Photoshop documents, we can use adjustment layers inside them just like we can in a normal document. To convert the image to black and white, I'll click on the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel:

Clicking the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon in the Layers panel

Clicking the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon.

And then I'll choose Black & White from the list:

Adding a Black and White adjustment layer in the smart object

Adding a Black & White adjustment layer.

A Black & White adjustment layer appears above the photo:

The Layers panel in Photoshop showing the Black and White adjustment layer in the smart object

The Layers panel showing the adjustment layer.

And in the document. we see the image now in black and white. You can customize the black and white conversion using the sliders in the Properties panel, but for our purposes, I'll stick with the default settings:

Converting the image in the smart object to black and white

The image in the smart object has been converted to black and white.

To save my changes, I'll go up to the File menu and choose Save. And then to close the smart object, I'll go back up to the File menu and choose Close. And back in the main document, we see that the smart object in the frame has once again updated, this time showing my black and white version of the image:

The image inside the smart object now appears in black and white

The image in the frame now appears in black and white.

Using a Photo Filter adjustment layer

What if, instead of converting it to black and white, I just want to adjust the colors in the image to cool it down a bit? For that, we can use a Photo Filter adjustment layer. I'll once again reopen my smart object by double-clicking on its thumbnail:

Reopening the smart object to edit its contents in Photoshop

Reopening the smart object.

And then in the smart object's document, I'll delete my Black & White adjustment layer by dragging it down onto the Trash Bin at the bottom of the Layers panel:

Deleting the Black and White adjustment layer in the smart object

Deleting the Black & White adjustment layer.

Since adjustment layers are non-destructive, deleting the adjustment layer instantly restores the original colors in the image:

The color of the image in the smart object has been restored

Deleting the adjustment layer restored the colors.

To add a Photo Filter adjustment layer, I'll again click the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon:

Clicking the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon in the Layers panel

Clicking the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon.

And this time, I'll choose Photo Filter from the list:

Adding a Photo Filter adjustment layer in the smart object in Photoshop

Adding a Photo Filter adjustment layer.

The new adjustment layer appears above the image:

A Photo Filter adjustment layer is added to the smart object

A Photo Filter adjustment layer is added in the smart object.

In the Properties panel, I'll choose one of the cooling filters from the Filter menu:

Choosing a cooling filter in the Properties panel

Choosing a cooling filter in the Properties panel.

This cools down the image by adding more blue:

Applying the Photo Filter to the image in the smart object

The effect of the Photo Filter adjustment.

I'll save my changes by going up to the File menu and choosing Save. Then I'll close the smart object by going up to the File menu and choosing Close. Back in the main document, the image in the frame now appears with the Photo Filter applied. And that's how to edit the contents of a smart object:

HOw to edit the contents of a smart object in Photoshop

The smart object once again updates with the new changes.

How to replace the contents of a smart object

Now that we know how to edit the contents, let's learn how to replace the contents of a smart object. Replacing the contents means we can use smart objects as templates for different layouts or effects. We already have our smart object in the frame, so let's see how to replace the image inside the smart object with a different image.

First, make sure you have your smart object selected in the Layers panel. There's no need to open it. We just need to select it:

Selecting the smart object to replace its contents

Selecting the smart object.

To replace its contents, go up to the Layer menu, choose Smart Objects, and then choose Replace Contents:

Choosing Replace Contents for the smart object in Photoshop

Going to Layer > Smart Objects > Replace Contents.

Navigate to the image that you want to replace the contents with. Click on it to select it, and then click Place:

Selecting the new photo to replace the smart object contents

Selecting the new image to place in the smart object.

And instantly, the original image in the smart object is replaced with the new image. The only problem is that the new image is too big to fit in the frame, so we'll fix that next:

The contents of the smart object have been replaced in Photoshop

The previous image has been replaced with the new image. Photo credit: Adobe Stock.

Resizing the contents

To resize the new image, I'll do the same thing I did with my previous image by going up to the Edit menu and choosing Free Transform:

Selecting the Free Transform command from the Edit menu in Photoshop

Going to Edit > Free Transform.

Then, I'll press and hold my Shift key as I drag the corner handles to fit the new image into the frame. Again, the Shift key locks the aspect ratio of the image in place:

Resizing the image after replacing the smart object contents

Resizing the new image after replacing the smart object's contents.

To accept it, I'll press Enter (Win) / Return (Mac) on my keyboard. And now, after replacing the contents of the smart object, my new image fits perfectly in the frame:

How to replace the contents of a smart object in Photoshop

The result after replacing and resizing the smart object's contents.

And there we have it! That's how to edit and replace the contents of a smart object in Photoshop! For more on smart objects, learn how to open and place images as smart objects, how to scale and resize images without losing quality, how to use editable smart filters, or how smart objects make it easy to transform and distort type! You'll also find many more tutorials in our Photoshop Basics section.


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