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Using Smart Object Layers in Photoshop CS4

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Photoshop Smart Object layers save time in multiple ways; for example, by replicating edits automatically to all instances, or allowing you to manipulate an image without destroying the original. Elaine Weinmann and Peter Lourekas take a tour through the basics of how to work with Smart Object layers.
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A Smart Object layer is created manually when you convert one or more layers in a Photoshop image into a Smart Object, or automatically when you place an Adobe Illustrator, Acrobat, or Camera Raw file (or another Photoshop file) into a Photoshop document. If you double-click the thumbnail for a Smart Object made from Photoshop layers, a separate document window or tab opens in Photoshop, containing the embedded layers. If you double-click the thumbnail for a Smart Object made from imported contents, the embedded file opens in the creator application. In either case, when you edit, save, and close the window for the embedded file, the original Photoshop document updates automatically to reflect your edits.

To create a Smart Object, do one of the following:

  • Select one or more layers—for example, image, type, shape, or Fill layers—on the Layers panel (see Figure 1). Right-click (Mac: Ctrl-click) the panel and choose Convert to Smart Object, or choose the command from the panel menu. The layers are converted into a Smart Object. (Notice the icon in the Growing layer's thumbnail in Figure 2.)
    Figure 1

    Figure 1 Select one or more layers to be converted into a Smart Object.

    Figure 2

    Figure 2 The layers were converted into one Smart Object (notice the icon in the layer thumbnail).You can apply filters, layer effects, and transformations to a Smart Object layer. The individual layers will remain accessible in the embedded file.

  • Via the File > Place command in Photoshop or Bridge, import a raw photo, another Photoshop file, or a file from another application into the current document. Scale and position the bounding box as needed, and then press Enter (Mac: Return). The file is now embedded in the document as a new Smart Object layer.
  • Open a photo into Camera Raw, apply adjustments (if desired), and then hold down Shift and click Open Object.
  • Use File > Open as Smart Object to open a file as a Smart Object layer in a separate document.

To edit a Smart Object, follow these steps:

  1. On the Layers panel, double-click the Smart Object layer thumbnail; then click OK when the alert dialog box appears (see Figure 3).
    Figure 3

    Figure 3 This alert dialog box appears if you double-click a Smart Object layer thumbnail. Click OK.

    If the Smart Object layer contains Photoshop layers, a separate document will open in Photoshop, containing those layers. If the Smart Object layer contains imported content (imagery or graphics), that content will appear in a document window in the creator application.

  2. Edit the document.
  3. Save and close the file—without changing the filename or location. You'll return to the Photoshop document automatically, and your edits will be displayed on the Smart Object layer. Only the embedded copy of the object—not the original file used to create it—is affected by the edits.

The Replace Contents command lets you swap existing Smart Object content with a replacement file. If you edit the original file from which a Smart Object was created, you can use this command afterward to update the content of the Smart Object.

To replace the contents of a Smart Object with another file, follow these steps:

  1. Right-click (Mac: Ctrl-click) a Smart Object layer (not the thumbnail) and choose Replace Contents. The Place dialog box opens.
  2. Locate the replacement file (one you've edited or an altogether new file), and then click Place. The Smart Object updates with the new image (see Figures 4–6).
    Figure 4

    Figure 4 We applied layer effects to this Smart Object layer.

    Figure 5

    Figure 5 We edited the original file from which the Smart Object originated, adding the three solid-color squares.

    Figure 6

    Figure 6 The Replace Contents command replaced the contents of the Smart Object with the edited file. Notice that the layer effects were preserved.

Photoshop layers that are converted into a Smart Object become part of an embedded file, but you can put any of those layers back into your Photoshop file. To reclaim Photoshop layers from a Smart Object, follow these steps:

  1. On the Layers panel, double-click the thumbnail for a Smart Object layer, and then click OK if an alert dialog box appears.
  2. The embedded file will open in a separate document tab or floating window. For tabbed windows, click a 2-Up button on the Arrange Documents menu, drag the layers into the original document, and then click the Consolidate All button on the Arrange Documents menu. For a floating window, click in the window, and then drag the layers you want to reclaim from the Layers panel into the original document window.
  3. Close the window for the embedded file.

Note that Smart Filters, transformations, and layer effects from the original Smart Object layer won't be present in the reclaimed layers.

If you rasterize a Smart Object layer (to make it a standard image layer), the contents of the embedded file become inaccessible, so we recommend first copying the file by using File > Save As to preserve a copy with Smart Objects.

To rasterize a Smart Object layer, simply right-click (Mac: Ctrl-click) the Smart Object layer and choose Rasterize Layer.

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