Catch-Up: Working Smarter (Part One)

Before The Main Feature…

A short time ago, I did an event where—for a couple of reasons, maybe the foremost of which was that I was asked to do it at the last minute—rather than doing a show that was all about the latest and greatest new CC features alone, included some good-old fundamentals and best-practice techniques. It’s something that I come across as lacking in many places, and is a hindrance to embracing all that modern design workflows could be.

The basic underlying message is that as much as possible, you should try to use the features—both old and new, and I presented a broad mix of both—in Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign to make all of your work:

  • In an environment tailored to workflow and purpose, with workspaces and shortcuts
  • Non-destructive, and as editable as possible, at any point, by employing adjustment layers, masks and smart objects
  • Repeatable (by implementing styles, templates, presets, objects) and
  • Automated, where possible utilising features, scripts and actions

The feedback from that event was mixed, but positive in the main and I’m mentioning this because it was at that time when I was concluding pulling together my case and arguments for having this blog, which—if you have read the first post or the about page—is aimed primarily at those who have just been so busy they’ve been “left behind” somewhat.

One of the few negative comments I read homed in on one point in particular from my presentation; it was along the lines of suggesting that everyone who uses Photoshop already knows what an adjustment layer is. You would think that were true—of course, it isn’t—and this can be easily illustrated if you read some of the tutorials out there (printed or posted) where you’ll still find lots of reference to destructive adjustments in popular circulation. I still meet a significant number of people that duplicate layers and fire up ⌘-M to make a curves adjustment in a RGB or CMYK (we’ll go to that topic another day) document, for example. They even use the eraser on the duplicated layer! Insert image of horrified, screaming person here—ok, maybe not—but all joking aside it is so in more places than you’d think.

Adjustment layers, however are not the main feature of this article—although they may be involved in a supporting role; the main event here is something that debuted back in CS2 (May 2005) and has recently had a major power-up in Photoshop CC: Smart Objects.

Smart Objects, eh?

Although we are talking about Photoshop Smart Objects here, it may be probably easiest to explain using InDesign as an example.

With InDesign—which, in the unlikely event you don’t know, is a page-layout program—you can place image and graphic files onto pages or into layouts (to-may-toe/toe-mah-to) and then apply various effects to them, such as a drop-shadow, maybe. You’re not actually changing the data of the files themselves, just the appearance of those instances within the layout—it is just an InDesign effect.

Smart objects kind of work like that in Photoshop, except it is a layer that contains the instance, rather than part of a page. That instance can be created in several different ways: from a layer, or layer group within the Photoshop file itself (don’t freak out: an explanation will follow!) from an external Photoshop or Illustrator file, or from pasted data.

Why Should I Care?

Time is money? The Advantages of Smart Objects are many, and to name but a few (from Photoshop online help) with Smart Objects you can:

  • Perform nondestructive transforms. You can scale, rotate, skew, distort, perspective transform, or warp a layer without losing original image data or quality because the transforms don’t affect the original data.
  • Work with vector data, such as vector artwork from Illustrator, that otherwise would be rasterized in Photoshop.
  • Perform nondestructive filtering. You can edit filters applied to Smart Objects at any time.
  • Edit one Smart Object and automatically update all its linked instances.
  • Apply a layer mask that’s either linked or unlinked to the Smart Object layer.
  • Try various designs with low-resolution placeholder images that you later replace with final versions.

For Starters, A simple Technique.

Now you know what a Smart Object is, and what some of the advantages are, let’s just try one simple, five-minute technique to give you an immediate illustration of part of the first point in the advantages we just looked at.

I’ve made a file available for you to download, if you want to, or you could use any of your own files. The file is at:

Step 1

Step One: When you get the file open in Photoshop, the rasterTree layer should be active. Go to Edit > Free Transform or use the shortcut ⌘-T (Ctrl-T on Windows). Scale the tree down until it is quite tiny, as shown below (or even smaller if you like).

Smart Objects 02Step Two: Apply the transformation, by either hitting Enter or Return or by clicking the Tick mark in the Control Strip.

Step Three: Choose Free Transform again, and this time scale the tree back up to approximately the original size.

Step 3

You can see that when you downsized the tree, Photoshop had to throw some information away and now that you have made the tree larger again, Photoshop has had to make an educated guess and introduce information. It doesn’t look great though does it?

Step 4

Now turn off that layer, make the rasterTree Smart Object layer visible and active, and repeat the steps you made with the first layer. Compare the results! Photoshop only changed your view of the file, it didn’t have to modify any of the information. You could transform this is many ways—infinitely—for as long as it remained a smart object.

That’s it for this week—in next week’s post we will look at the ways you can make smart objects, and a couple of useful techniques we can employ. We’ll also see how

If you just can’t wait until next Friday to get stuck in, then here are some resources for you to get your teeth into.


There’s a video available on the learn and support tab of the Photoshop section on

On Adobe TV:

Applying Filters nondestructively using Smart Filters

Opening an image as a Smart Object

In The Family:

My good friend and colleague Richard Curtis, has plenty of Smart Object goodness on his Imaging/Photography blog, the most recent of which being: #CreativeFriday – Photoshop 2014 – Deep Dive on Linked Smart Objects and Layer Comps

More resources and more Smart Objects next Friday!

Thought for the Week: Now is the time to get stuck in!

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