Skip to main content

Foundations of Adobe Photoshop CC

Lesson 35 of 36

Editing Smart Objects

Dave Cross

Foundations of Adobe Photoshop CC

Dave Cross

Starting under


Get access to this class +2000 more taught by the world's top experts

  • 24/7 access via desktop, mobile, or TV
  • New classes added every month
  • Download lessons for offline viewing
  • Exclusive content for subscribers

Lesson Info

35. Editing Smart Objects

Lesson Info

Editing Smart Objects

The part that I'll tell you is the part that's the stumbling block for most people. Technically, it doesn't exist in this document right now. Meaning, if I want that heart not to be red, if I do anything to it, I'm going to get the symbol that's called the, "I'm sorry Dave; I can't let you do that" symbol. It's like, no you can't because technically it's inside that container; you can't touch it. So how do I edit that information if it's inside that protected container? In order to show that to you, let me just, first of all, close a couple of these things so it's easier to understand. So, there's my smart object layer with that little thumbnail. You may, hopefully, recall that when we did that camera RAW smart object thing, when I want to get back to camera RAW, I double clicked on the thumbnail of that smart object and it jumped back to camera RAW. So that's basically editing the contents, if you will, because those contents existed in camera RAW; in this case, when I double click on...

the smart object, it opens a separate window with the original information. This is the part that throws most people off because it's so different from most things in Photoshop but stick with it because once you get used to it, it really works well. So now I have two windows open: my actual document where the logo was embedded in there, placed in there, and so on and scaled, and then the second window, which is the contents window. So, in effect, this is the container, this is the contents. Now, the contents happen automatically. You never see it; there's not a separate file called something something dash contents, it's built inside this document. So when I save this document as a .PSD file, embedded inside it is the contents of that smart object; which means, your file size will be a little bit bigger because now we're adding more information which again, to me, the payoff is fine because for all the things it lets me do, I'd rather have that than the alternative of not being able to edit in any way. But the hardest part about smart objects initially, is getting used to this two window thing. When I go to edit the content, I go over to this window and here's where my content exists. For example, now I can take my quick selection tool, select the heart and I don't want to just change the color because even though this is now the contents of my smart objects, still want to apply the thoughts we've been doing before. I don't want to edit this permanently so I would probably add a hue/saturation adjustment layer; let's change the heart that way. And here's the other part that's kind of, you have to get your head around this part, so I have changed the contents, but as far as the container is concerned it doesn't know that yet because I have to save this to let the container know that my contents have changed. Right now, if I go back here, nothing looks any different. But if in my contents window, I hit save, then I come back here and now it's updated. The part that is confusing, and I get this at first, is that you see it on the document, but to edit, you have to go somewhere else. Once you get used to it, the benefits of this, there's so many, you didn't have before, it's worth getting used to this back and forth nature. Because now I can make this logo small again. Let me transform this down. I can do other Photoshop style things; I can add a drop-shadow, I can do whatever I want. But anytime I want to make any changes, I know I come back here and maybe hide this here again and save it then when I switch back here, it updates. I get the fact that at first, you're kind of like, "what, two documents?" but, again, I'm just scratching the surface, of smart objects, there's so many things that what this does for you, and we talk about non-destructive things is things where people would say, "I wish I could do that but I can't." Often the solution is but, if I made it a smart object, I could do this, this, this, and this. The thing we have to remember and part that- the two stumbling blocks for most people is when you have a smart object in your document, you have to realize that just about anything you want to do, like heal, clone, paint, you can't do here because technically it's inside that protective wrap that you can't access. The way you do it is you double click and it opens up a separate window; this is where the original information exists. This is where I would edit. However, I would still make every effort to edit as non-destructively as possible. Technically, this contents document is a Photoshop document so you can have layers and all that stuff, which is great, it just happens, if you look really closely, that it's called .PSB not .PSD. So if you're ever a little confused and going, "Wait a minute, I've got documents open, which one is which?" The document that's called either at this point, JPG because I haven't saved it or .PSD is my working document, the contents document is called whatever this layer is called .PSB. One of the ways people use this, for example, let me close this and get rid of this. In here, I actually have a couple of different versions of the logo. I have this color one but I also added in a group an adjustment layer to make it black and white and then a color layer to make the bottom part of the camera blue. So just by using this group, I have two different versions. One of the ways I could use this is decide, and let me actually just do one more thing. Take my type tool... I'm just going to add a couple of... Letters here so you can see there's something more to it. This is my logo as nice as it is because my name is Sally Smith, I have no idea what it is but anyway, I would want, I want to bring this into my other photo. I really want to bring five layers so drag those all in so if I go to move it, it's going to be like, remember, grab all of them so one of the other ways we can use a smart object- and hold onto your hat for this one- at first I was like, "What?" All I've been saying is, "Don't ever flatten. Don't ever merge." Still true. When I do, it's going to look like I've done that but I assure you that I haven't. If I take all of these layers and select them all and then choose convert to smart object. It looks like it's been flattened, doesn't it? But, inside of here are all the layers. That means now I have this nice, what looks like one layer, that I can easily use somewhere else and I drag it into this photograph again and I've got my one layer. But it's not really one layer, it's one smart object that contains all these different options. So I can turn this off, hide these, I can do whatever; I hit save and it's going to update over here. One of the reasons some people like smart objects is like well, "I just made this design that's made up of eight layers and I don't want to always have to remember to grab all eight of those to move it because I might miss one and it all goes out of whack." Instead, you take those eight objects, you don't merge them, you don't flatten them, you make it a smart object and it looks like it's flattened but that container is so smart inside of it that you can still have access to all these layers. This is a really interesting approach to take. It takes a little bit of getting used to. But what it does for people is it eliminates, the reason I always show this to people is even at a beginning level it's so powerful, is because so many of the questions I get is, "I ran into this, this, or this," and I'm thinking, "Boy, the solution is to make a smart object." What you're telling me, the problem you had, is because you copied over five layers but you forgot to move one of them or one was left behind or they fell apart. It doesn't always have to be multiple layers. I find it and take one layer and make it a smart object for scaling purposes. You can take multiple layers and make them a smart object- all things are possible. Knowing that anytime you make a smart object, you still have access to all of the information inside of it. Even though here, I've closed everything else. If I save this one as a PSD file, that means every time I open this from now on, even though it looks like I have two layers, remember that top layer is smart objects that actually contains more layers. Some people would say, "Why don't you just put them in a group?" Well, I could, but then I couldn't apply a filter to it. You can't apply a filter to a group. You can apply a filter to a smart object as we saw before with smart filters. Now on top of this, it's still a layer so I can add a drop shadow, a bevel, emboss, I can do all of the things you can do with layers, but I also have the added bonus of I can add a filter knowing that I still have access to all of the variations of this different logo. I have people that I've shown this to and they come back after a few months and go, "Wow, this has changed everything. Because I used to have five copies of my logo- 'Logo-Red', 'Logo-Blue'." Now you have one and they're just different layers and I just bring in a smart object, double click, hide the right layer, save, done. From a management standpoint, it is so much easier than going, "Which version was that? Where do I have that?" It's not for every situation and there are some drawbacks to that whole idea you can't edit directly but once you get around that, it opens up a lot of interesting possibilities. [Audience Member 1] If I take that smart object, with all those layers and put it in a Creative Cloud library, will it still come out the same way? Yes, good question. That's one of the interesting things is those libraries, when we talked about it previously, I dragged something into the library, it actually became smart just by doing that. As soon as I drag it from the library into another document, even if it didn't start out smart, it would be. Or, if it already is smart with multiple layers, that's still preserved. Basically, once you've made something that's a smart object that contains multiple information it will always stay that way unless, I can't even think of how, like rasterize it? It's going to stay that way because that's just the nature of the piece. Again, we're just touching the surface here. But people who watch that whole thing and went, "My brain hurts and I don't quite understand smart objects." Rewind to the part where it says 'Smart Filter' and start there because if nothing else, smart filters are the main reason to use smart objects because it's just an easier, more editable way but once you start exploring this, it takes awhile to get your head around this multiple-window thing. Let me show you a little exercise that I suggest you do if you're interested in smart objects and it will help cement how this works. You keep it as simple as possible. All you do is you make a new document that's, it doesn't matter, some size. In that document, you make a layer. And you put something on it, that you fill... With something, then you make another layer. And you make another shape that you fill with something different. I'm not kidding when I say, "Keep it simple." Because this is the whole point. Two simple layers, right? A rectangle and a circle. Take these two layers and I right click and choose 'Convert to Smart Object' which again, looks like I've merged them together, but remember, I haven't. If I want to edit the color of this, the positions, anything to do with those two, I can't do it here because they're not two separate things anymore, I need to find them and I find them by double clicking- there's the contents. See how it's kind of cropped, right? It doesn't need to be any bigger because that's the biggest of the two layers. Now I can hide this layer, save, it'll update over here. Go back, decide I actually want the order to be this way for some reason, hit save, and I'm back and it updated. Just do something simple and get used to the, I go here to edit, I save, update over here, as odd as it sounds at first, once you do it, again, anywhere from five to 108 times, you'll say, "Okay, this is going to work for me." Some people do that and go, "Nope." A friend of mine, who's a photographer, I showed him this 11 times and he's like, every time I show him, he's like, "Yeah, yeah!" And then he calls me- no. He's got a roadblock in his head and I get to a certain point and I'm like, it doesn't do that so I'll have to rasterize. No, don't rasterize; you've done it wrong somehow. So start simple; here's the other thing I'll say. If you're interested in smart objects, the time to learn it is not when your deadline is ten minutes from now. Don't try and do smart objects then. That's not the time to try it, the pressure's on, don't do it then. When you have some time on your hands, and you're like, "I'm going to experiment with this." That's when you go in and do a quick little test and get used to this idea and see how it works. It's not for every situation; I don't want anyone to think that. But what I've found is- Oh, let me show you another one. A really good example of a reason to use smart objects. I'm going to add some text. I almost forgot to show you this but this is really important. And I want to apply a filter to my type. So I go to filter and motion blur. It comes up with this dialog box and it says, "This type must be rasterized or converted to a smart object." Now I can't tell you how happy this made me because in the first two versions of Photoshop, the only message said, "The text must be rasterized." And it actually prompted people to rasterize. I was like, "No, don't tell them that!" Now it actually says, "Or convert to a smart object" and it's the big blue button saying, "Click me, click me!" So if you do, now I can do my motion blur and get this interesting effect. I'll come and lower the opacity a little bit and make it look cool. And then you say, "But oh wait, it's the wrong font!" So I'll just take my type tool and I can't because it's not here. It's over here in this other document. There's my type! So now, I can change it to something else. Hit save and it updates. In the past, people used to go through so many convoluted ways to do that because you had to. You had to duplicate the file layer, rasterize that, hope that no one ever changed their minds and now it's live. A type and anything that has to do with type has filters and they're a perfect reason to use smart objects slash smart filters because the type remains editable but you can add all these extra effects to it. Just to be clear, if all you're doing, is adding some type on a layer, period. There'd be no reason to make it a smart object. The only reason is if you say, "I want to be able to apply a filter to it." Then you have to make it a smart object. Remember, type is much more- you can scale it, you can do anything else. That happens by nature so I don't want everyone come out this thinking, "Well, I've got to make smart all the time." No, you don't have to but there are occasions where if you run into a, "Wait a minute, how do I do this?" Often, the solution is, convert it to a smart object then go from there. Understanding that, you're always going to be left with this situation where you save this document and you're going to see this layer with the thumbnail on it, or little icon, to show you it's smart and know, to be able to edit the contents, you have to double click to get to that contents window. Again, once you're in here, you can do any kind of editing you normally would- adjustments layers, whatever you want. It's still a layered document, there just happens to be a layer document that will ultimately be put back in that magical container. Again, if nothing else, I would urge you to explore the world of smart filters because then in most situations, it just gives you a little more control. There will always be occasions, and I don't want you to think this is not the case, you say, "You know what, I'm just going to open this photo, apply this filter, done." And not make it smart in any way- that's okay, too. But anytime there's the remotest possibility of I might want to change this, I might want to repurpose this, might want to go back later and remind myself how I did it, there's where any non-destructive slash smart way of working is going to help you. Again, understanding, this is just the little tiny tip of the iceberg of smart objects. There's a whole lot more to it but hopefully it gives you a bit of an idea and want to at least explore it a little further. Are there any questions about this aspect before we move on? There are; there's two from the internet. Debbie asks, "Is there a difference between saving in PSD or layered PDF; what's the difference there? Layered PDF, the only reason for saving in a layered PDF is a kind of sharable way to send someone a PDF file but that would be kind of an unusual circumstance. Generally speaking, PSD is your main format for day-to-day work. If someone said, "Can you please send me a PDF file?" Typically, I can't think of too many reasons I'd want to send a layered file, that's a little unusual, but that would be a case where someone specifically asked for their purpose otherwise PSD is the way to go. Cool, once the smart object is open, resulting in the PSB file, can it be saved as a PSD file copy, too? Yes, some people ask all the time where they've done something and they say, "I want to get back to my original contents and save it." When you double click to that contents document, at this point, I can just save as and they could just get back to a regular-old PSD file. It's kind of removing the contents out, if you wanted to, so it's possible to do that. It's one way because making it into a smart object is not terribly easy to get back out of it if you change your mind. It's probably the easiest way is to open the content and save as a PSD file to separate them that way. Just as an aside, since we're talking about these formats, PSB is the format you'll see for the contents. This format was invented for people who have created enormous files and they get an error message saying, "Can't save your file; it's too big." If that ever happens to you, it's pretty unusual, but if it does, keep saving it as PSB, which is a different file format that actually stands for, believe it or not, Photoshop Big. So it's meant for really big Photoshop files that can't be saved normally. This is your last-ditch effort if you've tried everything else and it will not save because it's so huge, try saving as a PSB and it might do it. If it doesn't work, you might have to do something else like separate the pieces or something but again, we're talking big files for that to happen in case you're wondering where that PSB came from, that's part of it. I would encourage you to continue to explore the smart object work but as I've said, take a look at how smart filters make life easier. There are some great benefits to that.

Class Description

Join Dave Cross in this beginner friendly class starting at the very basics with Adobe® Photoshop® CC. You’ll learn how to begin navigating the software and what the best practices and work habits are to approach different projects.

Dave will cover:

  • Working non destructively on your files
  • How to resize, crop, and straighten images
  • Using layers with basic layer examples
  • Adding text, color, and painting to images
  • How to retouch and adjust images using selections and masks
  • Learn how to use the tools you need to create the image you want. Dave will demonstrate using sample workflows that take you through projects from start to finish.

Don't have Adobe Photoshop yet? Get it now so you can follow along with the course!

Software Used: Adobe Photoshop CC 2017



I really like Dave's methodical teaching style. Step by step works best for my learning processes. He also has a lovely voice to listen to during his classes, that is important if you have to listen to someone talk for any length of time. I also like the "dance" he does by explaining what he is going to do, then does it, and then comes back to explaining the choices he made and why. Very, very easy to follow him in his straight forward explanations. He increased my understanding of so many tools I use and so many I have never used. Wow! Photoshop with Dave took away a lot of "fear"! (Wish I had a "happy face" to place here!) I bought this class today because I don't think I can get along without it!


A writer and an old person (over 60), I rarely use neat exaggerations like "great" or "fantastic," and never say "awesome" in the currently fashionable manner. However, I would call this class both great and excellently planned. Cross is well-spoken and a consummate teacher with a rarely non-irritating voice. It is information packed, clearly presented, well-organized, and extremely helpful. I wish I could afford his others.

Jim Bellomo

I was so lucky to get to attend this class in person here in Seattle. I have been a fan of Dave's for years and own a number of his courses from Creative Live. When this class was announced I almost decided to skip it since it was listed as a "beginners" class but decided that it "might" be worth it. One of the reasons I wanted to take it was that I am self-taught. I had started with Photoshop 5 (not CS5 but 5) about 15 years ago (at least). I figured it I took this class I might learn a little something that would help me in my work. Well, two days later I have 18 pages of handwritten notes, a whole new way to work and it has already paid off in a huge way in my daily workflow. I bill out my hours at around $100 an hour as a graphic designer and marketing person. That means in the two days that I spent 10 hours a day taking the class and commuting to it, it cost me about $2000 in working time. But it didn't. I can guarantee that I am way ahead on this one. I l learned so much. The real world things I learned will pay off for a very long time. Within one day after the class I had already started changing my workflow to be more non-destructive and faster. Dave is an awesome teacher and I can't say enough good things about this class. Even if you think you know Photoshop, you don't. I teach it in my small world but I learned so much.