How And Why To Use Smart Objects For Image Editing In Photoshop

Did you know that you can edit a RAW file in Photoshop? Well….sort of. Photoshop has Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) built right into its interface. The only problem is when you use ACR on an image has been opened in Photoshop using one of the standard methods, the edits you perform are destructive. What if I told you that there was a way to perform nondestructive edits in Photoshop with ACR while maintaining access to your original Lightroom edits? Let me introduce to you the power of smart objects. This article will show you how and why to use Smart Objects for image editing in Photoshop.

How and why to use smart objects in photoshop

Benefits of using smart objects in photoshop

A smart object is a photoshop layer with special properties. They allow users to perform nondestructive edits in a variety of ways. Smart objects can utilize smart filters (nondestructive filters), be resized and transformed without losing quality and can retain RAW edits when an image is opened from Lightroom.

The Drawbacks of using Smart Objects in Photoshop

There are a few small drawbacks to using smart objects but the pros outweigh cons many times over. The biggest disadvantage to using smart objects is that they are more processor intensive which could cause Photoshop to slow down if you are working with a document that has many smart objects or you’re using an older computer. Using smart objects will also create larger files when saving a layered document such as a TIFF, PSD or PSB.

Some features of Photoshop will not be available when working with smart objects such as "auto-align layers" and content aware fill.

Lastly, certain tools cannot be used on a smart object. These tools include the brush tool, healing brush, clone stamp, dodge, burn, paint bucket tool, and any other tool that performs destructive edits. In most cases this will not be a problem since you can simply use most of these tools on a layer other than the smart object itself which is the best practice anyway.

How To Open An Image As A Smart Object From Lightroom

Whenever you’re opening an image from Lightroom into Photoshop you should always consider opening the image as a smart object. The process is nearly the same process as the traditional way of opening an image in Photoshop except the smart object will give you access to all of the edits that you have already performed in Lightroom while allowing you to make additional changes in Adobe Camera Raw. Pretty neat, huh?!


1. In Lightroom Classic, control click (Mac) or right click (PC) on the image that you’d like to open.

2. Choose “Edit In”

3. Choose “Open As Smart Object In Photoshop”

How to open a smart object in Photoshop from Lightroom Classic

How to open a smart object in Photoshop from Lightroom Classic

Once the Photoshop document opens, you’ll notice a small icon that looks like a piece of paper in the lower right-hand corner of the image thumbnail in the layers window. This icon lets you know that the layer is a smart object. When you double click on the paper icon, the image will open up in Adobe Camera Raw. If you made adjustments to the image in LR, you will see that the ACR sliders are in the exact same position that they were when you last edited in LR. Congratulations, you now have access to your RAW file in Photoshop!

Having access to RAW data in Photoshop gives photographers a powerful method of blending two RAW edits together to create a dynamic photo. Since Photoshop has more masking and selection capabilities, it can make sense to do complex blending in Photoshop rather than messing around with Lightroom’s masking tools which can be a little clunky.

How to Open Multiple Smart Objects Into A Single Photoshop Document

At the time of this writing, there’s no way to open multiple images as smart object layers in Photoshop from Lightroom. It is however possible to open multiple images as smart objects in individual documents and then then move them to a single document. There are two methods for moving a smart object from one document to another. The first and most convenient way is to simply duplicate the smart object layer to a new document.


1. Make sure that both documents are open in Photoshop.
2. Control click (Mac) or Right click (PC) on the smart object layer that you want to move to a different document.
3. Choose: Duplicate Layer
4. In the Duplicate Layer dialog box, choose the document where you’d like to copy to. (Notice that the document that you are copying from will have a check mark in the drop down menu. This will help prevent you from copying the smart object to the same document)

How to copy a smart object from one photoshop document to another

How to copy a smart object from one photoshop document to another


Another way to move a smart object from one document to another is to simply drag and drop the layer. To do this method, it is best if your PS window is consolidated to tabs.

1. Window > Arrange > Consolidate All To Tabs.
2. Drag the tab of the image you want to move to the lower corner of the screen so you can see both documents.
3. Make sure the document that you just dragged down is still selected and that you can still see the layers window.
4. Click on the layer (in the layers window) of the currently selected image and drag it over to the other document.

NOTE: When you move a smart object or any layer using the drag and drop method the two layers will not automatically align with one another. To align the layers, it is best to turn on snapping and then manually drag the imported layer so that it is aligned with the original.

To turn on snapping navigate to: View > Snap

How To Duplicate A Smart Object For Independent Editing

Duplicating a smart object in the same document is a little different than duplicating a normal Photoshop layer because smart objects are a little like voodoo dolls. Whatever you do to one layer you do to the duplicate. For this reason, you should avoid tradition copy methods when you’d like to create two different smart objects that are independent of one another in a single document.

1. Control click (Mac) or Right click (PC) on the original smart object layer in the layers window.
2. Choose, “New Smart Object Via Copy”

That it! Now you have two smart objects that can be independently edited from one another.

How to Convert A Normal Photoshop Layer Into A Smart Object.

You can create a smart object directly from Photoshop, but keep in mind the ACR edits will be destructive if you create the smart object from within PS. Yet, there are some reasons that you might want to do this. Which I’ll cover below.


1. Control Click (Mac) or Right Click (PC) on the layer you want to convert.
2. Choose “Convert to Smart Object”

How to duplicate a smart object in Photoshop

How to duplicate a smart object in Photoshop

Use Smart Filters With Smart Objects

Traditional Photoshop filters are destructive since they must be applied to a layer. Once a traditional filter has been applied, there is no way of turning it off or adjusting it. For this reason, it is best practice to only apply filters to smart objects since smart filters can be turned on or off and adjusted after they have been applied. The process of creating a smart filter is the same process as creating a traditional filter.

1. Navigate to the filter menu
2. Choose the filter you’d like to apply and make your desired adjustments.

When you apply a filter to a smart object it automatically becomes a smart filter. Once the filter is applied, you’ll see that a white mask comes attached to it. You can use a black brush to paint on the mask and remove the filter effect from a given area of the image. You’ll also notice a slider icon next to the filter’s name which is located directly underneath the smart object in the layers window. Double click on the slider icon to open the filter dialog box back up and make your desired adjustments to the filter.

TIP: You can invert a mask by clicking on it and hitting “Command I” (Mac) or Control I (PC). This will allow you to paint the effect into a small area of the image with a white brush.

Unlimited Resizing With Smart Objects

A normal pixel-based layer in photoshop will lose its integrity if its size has been reduced and then enlarged. As I mentioned above, you can change the size of a smart object as many times as you’d like without degrading the image. This is really useful for graphic designers who might not know the exact size a particular image or element needs to be for the final product. Each image below was scaled down from 8,300 pixels high to 100 and back again. Notice how pixelated the non-smart object image is.

Non destructive resizing with smart objects in photoshop

Non destructive resizing with smart objects in photoshop

How To Use Smart Objects To Create Fake Long Exposures

Photographers can create fake long exposures by combining a number of shorter exposures together. The end result is an image that has an apparent exposure time that is the sum of all of the images used to create it. For example, you could combine four shots that are a quarter of a second each to create a shot that looks like it was taken as a one-second-long exposure. The key to successful results is to take the photos in quick succession of one another since you’re trying to recreate a single moment in time.

In order to create a fake long exposure, you’ll need at least two images but using more will often produce better results. The exact number of images that you need will vary greatly depending on how long your initial exposure are and the desired effect that you’re after. For example, if your exposure time was a 30th of a second, you may need 20 or more shots to achieve the effect you’re looking for. If your exposure time was one minute, combining two to five images might be enough to achieve your desired results.


1. Select all of the images that you want combine together in Lightroom. You can do this by clicking the first image in the sequence and shift clicking on the last.
2. Control Click (Mac) or Right Click (PC) on any of the selected photos and choose: Edit In > Open As Layers In Photoshop. This will open all of the selected photos into a single Photoshop document.
3. Once all of the layers have loaded into Photoshop, select all of them by clicking on the top layer in the layers window and shift clicking on the bottom layer.
4. Control Click (Mac) or Right Click (PC) on any of the selected layers and choose “Convert To Smart Object”
5. Navigate to the top menu bar and choose: Layer > Smart Objects > Stack Mode > Mean. NOTE: You can also try using the median stack mode for slightly different results.

Fake long exposures using smart objects in photoshop

How To Use Smart Object To Reduce Noise

The same technique mentioned above can also be used to reduce noise, although any movement in the image will be averaged creating motion blur.


Using smart objects can open up a world of possibilities while improving your day-to-day photo editing workflow. When you have the opportunity to use smart objects it is best practice to do so. Once you get into the habit, the process will become second nature and you’ll be certain that you’re getting the best possible results out of your images. Having a RAW file concealed in a Tiff is never a thing.