Smart Objects in Photoshop are wrappers that can contain layers or an original RAW file made with a camera. They are non-destructive. They support Smart Filters (allowing unlimited reworking of even stacked filter settings until the perfect state is achieved.) They can be transformed smaller then enlarged back to the original size without quality loss. Their contents can be replaced (perfect for working in templates.) They support stacked modes for amazing effects. And more.

This post shows both methods for duplicating Smart Objects in the Photoshop Layer stack, how they differ and when to use each one.

Workflow Options

Opening a RAW file as a Smart Object is done in Lightroom by right clicking a thumbnail then choosing Edit In > Open in Photoshop as Smart Object. Open a RAW File in Camera Raw called either from Photoshop (double click a RAW file) or from Bridge (Command (PC: Control) + R.) Once the dialog opens, hold down the Shift key to change Open Image to Open Object. Open Object can be made the default by clicking on the Workflow Options link at the bottom of the Camera Raw dialog. Check the box at the bottom labeled “Open in Photoshop as Smart Objects.” Image changes to Objects.
2014-09-11-003To change Objects to Image temporarily, hold down the Shift key.

New Layer Via Copy

Duplicating a layer in Photoshop is easy. From the Layer menu choose New > Layer Via Copy, drag the layer to be copied to the New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel, With the Move tool active; Option (PC: Alt) drag it above itself in the Layers panel or simply highlight it then press Command (PC: Control) then tap the J key. Presto a new duplicate layer!
With Smart Objects, this form of duplication links them together. A change to one results in exactly the same change to the other. For example: Here’s a Photoshop file with the original RAW file at the bottom of the layer stack. The layer is automatically labeled with the RAW photos file name 2843-008. I’ll duplicate this Smart Object of Amy with the keyboard shortcut Command (PC: Control) + J. The duplicate has the same name with “copy” added. It has a special badge in the lower right corner of the layer thumbnail telling that it is a Smart Object.

Color to Black & White

Double click on the layer thumbnail. The Smart Object layer of the camera’s original photo opens in Camera Raw. Next I’ll choose the HSL / Grayscale tab then check Convert to Grayscale then click OK. The expected behavior is that the top layer would be black & white and the bottom one remains in color.
2014-09-11-008That’s not the case with Smart Objects duplicated using standard methods in Photoshop. They are linked. Change one copy and all of the copies including the original gets the same changes. There are times when this is quite useful. My upcoming post on “Smart Object Color Change” will demonstrate this feature’s usefulness.

New Smart Object Via Copy

Duplicating a Smart Object in the layer stack so they are not linked is easy. There are two ways to do it. First (the long way) is from Photoshop’s menu bar. Choose Layer > Smart Object > New Smart Object via Copy. The short way is to right click next to the layer’s name then choose “New Smart Object via Copy.” The Smart Objects are now completely separate from one another.
Separate RAW Smart Objects allow using Photoshop’s layer masks to get much more color and detail. The photograph below was made from the twentieth floor of an apartment building in New York City with a Sigma 15mm f/2.8mm fisheye lens. The trees in Washington Square Park look lifeless. A final version would want them to be a more vibrant green. Behind them is the NYU Library building. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center stood behind the library. The sky is almost completely without detail or color.

Multiple Smart Objects in the Layer Stack

Duplicate the layer twice each time using New Smart Object via Copy. The first copy is for the trees. Open it up in Camera Raw then use the HSL / Grayscale tab to manipulate the hue of the Yellows and the Greens. Then click OK. Add a black layer mask (Option (PC: Alt)) click the layer mask icon. Paint with 100% white over the trees to reveal their new colorful liveliness. On Copy 2, lower both the temperature (make the sky more blue) and exposure (bring back detail.) Then in HSL / Grayscale adjust the oranges, yellows and blues. Finally make a selection of the sky with the Quick Selection tool then click the new layer mask icon. That’s it.


Here are screenshots of the settings I used in Camera Raw for the sky Smart Object Layer.

Finally here is the combined finished photograph made from three separate copies of the original capture. This is merely one of the many uses for Smart Objects in Photoshop.


Keep checking back to Photofocus for more Smart Object tutorials.