Photoshop is a big and complex world that tends to scare new photographers away. This is understandable, and while it might not feel comforting, most professionals have felt the frustration of trying to “crack the code.”

While software such as Lightroom, DxO PhotoLab 7, or Luminar Neo are brilliant for image processing, there’s no getting around the fact that Photoshop offers more advanced tools that will impact your photo editing workflow.

Layers and Masks are two of Photoshop’s main advantages. Implementing them instantly gives you a huge leap forward in the digital darkroom.

But there’s another tool that will make an impact as well. One that tends to go under the radar more often among beginning photographers. I’m talking about Smart Objects.

Smart Objects in Photoshop have several benefits that allow for a higher-quality photo editing workflow.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll delve into the fundamentals of Smart Objects in Photoshop, explore practical applications for photography workflows, and provide actionable tips for best usage.    

Note: This article will focus on Smart Objects for Photographers. While the concept remains the same, there are other techniques and usages for graphic designers or other artists.

What Are Smart Objects in Photoshop?

At its core, a Smart Object is a container that holds multiple layers. Unlike regular layers in Photoshop, a Smart Object preserves the original content and allows for a non-destructive workflow.

This means you can apply adjustments, filters, and transformations without permanently altering the underlying image data.

Because they retain the original image data, you can resize Smart Objects multiple times without sacrificing clarity or sharpness. This is best shown with an example:

As you can see, when a Smart Object is downsized and upscaled again, there is no loss in image quality. The same cannot be said for a regular layer, where there’s a massive loss of quality. In this case, I downscaled the image to 10% before upscaling to the original size.

This is far from the only advantage. Whether adjusting exposure levels, applying artistic filters, or resizing elements within your composition, Smart Objects ensures that every modification remains reversible and editable.

How to Create Smart Objects in Photoshop

Creating Smart Objects in Photoshop is straightforward. All you need to do is select the layer or layers (hit Shift + click to select multiple layers), right-click on it, and choose “Convert to Smart Object” from the dropdown menu.

Alternatively, you can go to the “Layer” menu at the top of the screen, navigate to “Smart Objects,” and select “Convert to Smart Object.”

Smart Objects in Photoshop

You can also open an image as a Smart Object from Adobe Camera Raw and Adobe Lightroom. This allows you to return to either and adjust your settings later. This is a very useful feature for those who want the ultimate non-destructive workflow.

Opening an image as a Smart Object from Lightroom or Camera Raw is just as easy as creating one in Photoshop.

To open a Smart Object from Lightroom, right-click on the image and select Edit In -> Open as Smart Object in Photoshop from the dropdown menu. From Adobe Camera Raw, hold down Shift on your keyboard, and you’ll see that the Open button on the lower right changes to Open Object.

Smart Object Layer

As you can see, the image has now been converted to a Smart Object. By double-clicking on the layer, you’ll be redirected to Camera RAW, where you’ll find all the original RAW adjustments that have been applied.

Note: The image is also opened in Camera RAW when you originally opened it from Adobe Lightroom. Don’t worry, though; all your Lightroom adjustments are still there.

How to Use Smart Objects in Photoshop

If you’ve made it this far, you probably already have an idea of how to use Smart Objects in Photoshop. You know that you can use them to re-open Lightroom or Camera Raw to refine your settings, you know that you can use them to resize the image or elements within it without damaging the original data, and you know that you can use them for filters and other adjustments.

But let’s take a closer look at the benefits of Smart Objects and how you can implement them into your post-processing workflow.

Opening as Smart Object from Lightroom or Camera Raw

When opening an image from Lightroom or Camera Raw as a Smart Object in Photoshop, you’re effectively preserving the original raw data and maintaining a dynamic link between the two programs. This means that any adjustments made in Lightroom or Camera Raw are retained within the Smart Object, allowing for non-destructive editing without sacrificing image quality.

By double-clicking the Smart Object, you’re taken back into Camera Raw, where you can fine-tune exposure and color settings, apply lens corrections, or alter any other adjustment.

Any changes made in Camera Raw will be visible on the image when it’s opened back into Photoshop.

Using Smart Objects with Third-Party Plugins

Smart Objects can also be used in combination with third-party plugins such as Topaz or the Nik Collection. In fact, the Nik Collection allows you to convert to Smart Object from within their plugins.

Smart Objects with Nik Collection

As with the other methods, using it in this situation allows you to re-open the plugin and make changes to the adjustments you’ve applied.

When Smart Objects Don’t Work

The only situation where this will not work is when you have a Merged or Image layer (i.e., non-transparent layer) above the Smart Object in Photoshop’s layer hierarchy. In those cases, you’re no longer working with a non-destructive workflow.

That means that regardless of how many Adjustment Layers you use (such as Curves, Color Balance, or Photo Filter, you can always open your Smart Object to refine adjustments in Camera RAW.


After reading this article you might be tempted to immediately convert all your layers to Smart Objects. This isn’t necessary. While Smart Objects in Photoshop are a huge part of creating powerful, non-destructive editing workflows, they don’t need to, nor should they be used in every situation.

To begin with, I suggest opening your image as a Smart Object from Lightroom or Camera Raw. If you need to use a third-party plugin later in the workflow, this should also be converted to a Smart Object. Finally, any filters applied (such as Filter -> Sharpen -> Unsharp Mask or Filter -> Blur -> Gaussian Blur) should also always be converted, allowing you to fine-tune the settings at a later point.

Regular adjustment layers such as Curves, Levels, or Color Balance don’t need to be converted. There are no big benefits to having them as Smart Objects. In fact, too many Smart Objects will increase the file size and, ultimately, slow down Photoshop.

Are you ready to implement Smart Objects into your non-destructive Photoshop workflow?