Photoshop is a complicated beast and if used incorrectly, it can quickly become a tool to ruin your precious images. Smart Objects are a sophisticated tool of retouching in Photoshop which can yield some fantastic results, but like the program itself, they can also become a gigantic pain in the a**, and leave you wondering “was it even necessary for me to do this?”. In this article, you’ll learn what Smart Objects are, why they can be useful, and how they can become a hindrance.

What Is A Smart Object?

At a basic level, a Smart Object in Photoshop is a layer that contains image raster and vector data, and they always retain the original data used to represent them, regardless of any alterations you make. Essentially, they allow for non-destructive editing, but it goes quite deep. In this video from Phlearn, Aaron Nace does a wonderful job of explaining exactly what a Smart Object is, and also takes you through a couple useful ways in which Smart Objects can be used. If you’re already familiar with Smart Objects, skip this and head to the next section.


Non-Destructive VS Destructive Retouching

If you’re already doing lots of editing in Photoshop then hopefully this concept will be familiar to you. If not, pay close attention. This is important to understand. RAW editors like Lightroom, Camera RAW, and Capture One Pro, will allow you to apply a large number of adjustments and roll them back at any stage. The reason you can do this is that none of these adjustments are applied to the image in a permanent way. In Photoshop, if you don’t work in the correct way, you could apply a number of adjustments and then find that you were unable to roll things back as you had permanently altered your image.

So, in the most basic way, non-destructive editing means you can always roll your edits back, reverting to a previous point, or right back to the beginning where no edits had been applied. On the other hand, if you make destructive edits, you cannot turn back time and your image is forever altered, which poses a problem if you need to go back to change something.

image of the layers panel in Photoshop showing a smart object with filters applied


What Can You Use Smart Objects For?


The reason I talk about destructive and non-destructive editing is that Smart Objects are a tool which you can use to help you work in a non-destructive way; amongst other things. If you watched the Phlearn video, you’d have seen Aaron transforming an object and applying filters. As these adjustments have been made to a Smart Object, no permanent changes will have been made.

Any filter you use in Photoshop can be applied to a Smart Object and then edited again at a later stage. For example, if you used a Smart Sharpen filter, Gaussian Blur, Surface Blur, Camera RAW Filter, and so on, but then decided you wanted to alter your original adjustment, you can. All you have to do is double click on the filter. There are caveats of course, such as creating a stamped visible layer above your smart object, but that’s the general idea.

Another fantastic use for Smart Objects is the use of Linked Layers. In fact, this is how I use them most of all, as for the most part, I’ve gone off using Smart Objects in the more common way but I’ll go into that in a little more detail later.

If you look at the image above, you’ll see the Layers panel and a couple Linked Layers; “Clouds” and “Bottle Comp”. I also applied a few filters to the bottom Linked Layer “Clouds” so you can see how they look in Photoshop. Linked Layers allow you to combine multiple Photoshop documents into one. That may not sound particularly revolutionary but it can have a profound effect.

split image showing a product image of Baileys Cream on one side and it's corresponding layers on the other. Used to demonstrate Smart objects in photoshop


Why Smart Objects Can Be A Bad Thing

One word: Performance. I used to use Smart Objects constantly. They were worked into all of my actions, and I applied lots of them in one single document. As my edits became more and more complex, involving an ever-increasing number of layers, I found my beast of a computer slowing down. Painfully so. Every time I needed to save it would take a very long time. Worst of all, any time Photoshop automatically saved in the background my computer would grind to a halt. On second thought, even worse than that, anytime I would zoom in past 66.7% and Photoshop would need to render, it would become unusable. On the extreme end, I might have to wait 2 minutes before even being able to use the hand tool and pan across the document.

If you’re thinking I must have a slow computer, then you’d be wrong. I work on a PC with an i7 processor, 4.3 GHZ (I think), 32GB ram, solid state drives, Nvidia GTX 760 (could be better but more than adequate). Essentially, it is a capable computer, able to deal with almost anything I throw at it.

Smart Objects were the main culprit here and when I switched to using Linked Layers, everything changed. If you look at the photo above, you’ll see just some of the layers I used to create that image. Click on the Linked layers of “Clouds” or “Bottle Comp” and you’d see even more layers contained within those documents; easily as much as you can see above, if not more.

The process is very simple and I plan to write a more in-depth article on the topic. To give you a quick summary, I comped together all the images for the bottle and did all the cleaning and color correcting for the bottle in one document. I did the same for the clouds. Then, I’d create a new Photoshop document and go to File > Place Linked. I then select the Bottle Comp and Clouds documents and am presented with two layers inside Photoshop which link back to the other documents. If I click those layers, they open the other documents, I can make further adjustments if I wish and then those adjustments are applied to the linked layers in my new document. Pretty cool right?


Product photography image of Baileys Cream on a dark background surrounded by clouds of whisky and cream. Image used to demonstrate smart objects in Photoshop
Photo by Square Mountain Photography


So, in my current workflow I very rarely use smart objects, except when using Linked Layers to combine documents. Other than that, I avoid them like the plague. That’s not to say I’ll never use them but I have a far more cautious approach. Hence the title of this article and the question as to whether they are necessary at all.

I suppose necessary is a strong word, very little is actually necessary in Photoshop. Smart Objects are a tool like any other but they are a tool which can cause a great many headaches. In addition, as my workflow rarely utilizes them these days, I suppose the answer is no, they’re not necessary. However, if, like me, you opt to forego them where possible, you must have a solid grip on the techniques and methods of non-destructive editing. The last thing you want is to end up mid-way through retouching, realizing you made a mistake 30 steps ago and cannot undo it.

Photoshop is wonderful but it’s a complicated place. I always advise people to start out in Lightroom or other RAW editors and then move on to Photoshop. Do whatever you feel most comfortable with of course but Photoshop has a steep learning curve. If Lightroom is where you’re most happy right now, be sure to check out all the education on offer in the SLR Lounge Store, click here.