Much like the cropping tool, smart objects are one of the most misunderstood and misused tools in Photoshop. Stop for a moment and think about the last time you used one. If you haven’t ever used one before, don’t worry: the entire point of this post is to get you up to speed on what smart objects are and how people use them. Let’s start with the basics: what is a smart object?
What is a smart object?
At its most simple, a smart object in Photoshop is just another layer. However, unlike other layers, smart object layers can contain both vector and raster image data, meaning you can alter them as needed without worrying about sacrificing image quality. There are other benefits to using smart objects, too:
- You can perform transformations without irrevocably altering the content you’re working with. This means that you can distort, rotate, skew or scale a smart object layer without losing image data or quality.
- You can work with vector artwork in the original vector format – it won’t be rasterized.
- Perform filters in the same way that you do transformations, without any loss of image quality.
- Editing a single smart object means that you can automatically update any other smart objects linked to it.
However, there are some limitations to what you can do with smart objects, namely that any operation that changes the pixel data can’t be performed on or applied to a smart object: this means no painting, burning or cloning. If you need to do these types of operations, it’s always an option to duplicate the smart object layer and then rasterize it if needed.
Creating a smart object is pretty easy, but there are several different ways to do it, which we’ll explore in the next section.
Creating smart objects in Photoshop
There are several different ways to create smart objects in Adobe Photoshop® — we’ll take a look at the most common. You can use the Open As Smart Object command, place the file as an embedded object, paste in data from Illustrator, or just straight up convert a Photoshop layer to a smart object layer.
Opening a file as a smart object is pretty easy – here’s how you do it:
- From the default Photoshop start screen, navigate to the File menu.
- From the File menu, scroll down to Open As A Smart Object. Click on it.
- A file selection dialog will pop up. Select a file and click Open.
- The file you selected will now be opened as a smart object, and you can make any changes as needed.
Placing embedded files as smart objects can also be done from the File menu.
- With a Photoshop document open, navigate to the File menu.
- From the File menu, scroll down to Place Embedded and click on it.
- This will open a file import dialog. Select the files you wish to import and click Open/Import.
- The selected files will appear as smart object layers: you can then make any changes to them as needed.
Pasting in data from Illustrator is a little different – instead of relying on the File menu, pasting in data from Illustrator requires the use of the copy/paste functions of both Photoshop and Illustrator.
- First, open up the Illustrator document that you want to move over to Photoshop.
- Navigate to the Edit menu and then scroll down to Copy (or hit Ctrl-C on your keyboard).
- Open up the Photoshop document you’d like to add a smart object to (or even just a blank Photoshop document). Navigate to the Edit menu and then scroll down to Paste (or hit Ctrl-P on your keyboard).
- Photoshop will ask you how you want to paste in the data you’ve copied over from Illustrator. Choose Smart Object.
- Now you’re free to make edits to the smart object you created on an as-needed basis.
In addition to regular smart objects, Photoshop also allows you to create linked smart objects. A linked smart object is a smart object whose contents are updated when the original source file is changed or updated – particularly useful for teams or in projects where design assets must be reused across different sections or pieces of the project.
To create a linked smart object, navigate to the File menu, and choose the Place Linked option. A file selection dialog will pop up: select the file you want to place as a linked smart object and click Place. The linked smart object will then be placed in the Layers panel.
Fixing and updating object references
Smart objects are usually updated automatically if the source file that they’re referencing changes, but it’s also possible to force them to manually update if you find that the Photoshop document you’ve opened contains out-of-date or out-of-sync objects.
- Right-click on the linked object layer. Choose Update Modified Content from the context menu.
- Click on the Layer menu. Scroll down to Smart Objects and click on Update Modified Content.
To resolve location issues with object links that are missing their sources, do the following:
- Right-click on the object layer icon and choose Resolve Broken Link from the context menu that pops up.
- Navigate to the new location for the object’s reference.
- Click Place to connect the object in Photoshop with its location in the file directory.
Now you know the basics of how to create some of the different kinds of smart objects in Adobe Photoshop®, as well as how to fix them if things go a little wonky. If you want to work with smart objects in more depth, take a look at Adobe’s tutorial on smart objects on their website.