What Is a Smart Object in Photoshop?

By David Weedmark

If you're new to Smart Objects in Adobe Photoshop CC, this primer will give you all the pointers you need to know.

Smart Objects are simply layers, like any other Adobe Photoshop CC layer, except they contain raster and vector image data. Additionally, they always retain the original data used to represent them, regardless of how you alter them. For example, if you shrink a high-definition photo embedded as a Smart Object down to a thumbnail size, you can enlarge it again later without losing its original quality.

Smart Objects can be embedded into a Photoshop file, or linked from an external file. Linked Smart Objects have all of the advantages of those that are embedded, plus a few additional benefits.

Advantages

Before Smart Objects were introduced to Photoshop, modifying an object would change the data used to render that object and often cause its quality to deteriorate. To make changes to vector objects -- like text layers and Adobe Illustrator designs -- you had to rasterize the vector first, transforming it to a pixel-based layer.

The Smart Objects available in Photoshop CC do away with these problems. The original data and image quality aren't lost when you manipulate Smart Objects, and they don't have to be rasterized to apply most effects to them.

Embedded Smart Objects

Benefits and Limitations of Smart Objects

Smart objects keep the original data intact, so the quality isn't diminished when you scale, rotate, warp, apply filters or layer masks or otherwise transform an object.

Vector objects, like those imported from Illustrator, can be changed without rasterizing.

Painting, burning or cloning, or any other operation that changes pixel data can't be applied to a Smart Object. If you need to perform such an operation, you can always make a duplicate of the Smart Object layer and rasterize the duplicate.

Using Embedded Smart Objects

Photoshop gives you several ways to create Smart Objects into a project.

  • Select Open As Smart Object from the File menu.

  • Select Place Embedded from the File menu.

  • Select Place from the File menu.

  • Drag a file onto the Photoshop canvas from File Explorer.

  • Copy and paste data from Illustrator directly into a Photoshop project.

  • Select Smart Object from the Layer menu and select Convert to Smart Object.

When you insert an object into a project, there will be two crossed lines over it. To resize the object, drag any corner while the crossed lines are still there. Holding down the Shift key locks the aspect ratios while you drag. When you press Enter to place the object, an Embed icon appears on the layer in the Layers panel.

This icon on the layer thumbnail indicates an embedded smart object.

Tip

If you import a a camera RAW file as a Smart Object, double-click its layer in the Layers panel to quickly access the Camera Raw settings menu.

Embedded Smart Objects work like any other object in a Photoshop file, occupying their own layer within the canvas. Embedded Smart Objects are often referred to simply as Smart Objects

Linked Smart Objects

Benefits of Linked Smart Objects

  • They reduce Photoshop file size since the linked object is in a separate file.
  • You can edit one Smart Object to automatically update all of its linked instances in your Photoshop projects.

  • You can use low-resolution images as placeholders on large projects. When your project is nearly complete, replace the low-resolution files with their high-resolution versions.

  • You can experiment with designs using different linked Smart Objects, replacing them until you find the object that works best.

Using Linked Smart Objects

To create a Linked Smart Object, select Place Linked from the File menu. When you select a file, the new layer is marked with a Link icon.

Right-clicking a Linked Smart Object's layer in the Layers panel, or clicking the Smart Objects option under the Layers menu allows you to select:

  • Update Modified Content to replace the Linked Smart Object with a new source file.

  • Resolve Broken Link to specify a new file path when the source file has been moved.

  • Embed Linked to transform the Linked Smart Object to an Embedded Smart Object.

This icon on the layer thumbnail indicates a Linked Smart Object.

Linked Smart Objects respond just like Embedded Smart Objects while you're working on them. The difference is that the image you see on the canvas is imported from an external file.

References & Resources