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Smart Objects, Raw Flexibility

Last week, we saw that Smart Object Layers are a special kind of layer within Photoshop, that actually encapsulate data so that you have a “document within a document,” and allow you access to the original unblemished data no matter how badly you warp, twist, bend, fold or mutilate the layer. One very practical use for this concept is to package Camera Raw files within a Photoshop document. By embedding a Camera Raw file as a Smart Object within Photoshop, you actually gain access to the Adobe Camera Raw dialog box at any time you have the Photoshop document open. This gives you tremendous flexibility!

Lightroom users, this applies to you, too. Read on and we’ll cover how to employ this is a Lightroom workflow, too.

Let’s see how this works. We’ll start in the Photoshop CS5 editor, in the mini-Bridge (if you have an earlier version of Photoshop, start with the regular Bridge window). Double click on the thumbnail of the raw file you want to open:


The file, being recognized as a Camera Raw file, opens into Photoshop and the Adobe Camera Raw dialog box is displayed. At this point, you can make any Camera Raw adjustments you please:


Now, you might be tempted to go ahead and click on “Open Image,” but let’s not get hasty! Hover your cursor over the “Open Image” button, and we get a tooltip with alternate instructions. Pressing the Shift Key, it says, will open as a Smart Object:


Note that when you hold the shift key down, the button legend changes to “Open Object.” Go ahead and choose this option:


In a few moments, we are in the Photoshop editor. Notice the Layers Panel – instead of a “Background” pixel layer, we have a layer named after our file, with the telltale “package” icon, indicating a Smart Object. Hovering our cursor over the thumbnail confirms this:


So, what does that buy us? Incredible power, as we’ll see in the next few lessons! For now, let’s try something simple: Double click the layer icon, and notice that you end up back in the Adobe Camera Raw dialog box… with all the earlier adjustments still intact! We can tweak any of the settings, even update the image crop size:


Now, notice the button at the bottom is labeled “OK,” You don’t have a choice this time. Go ahead and click it, and you’ll see the status dialog indicating the smart object is being updated. Then, we find ourselves back in the Photoshop editor. Note that changing the crop size of the Smart Object doesn’t change the PSD document size! We can simply use Edit > Trim… and leave the default settings as shown:


And now our image is ready for further creative work:


Are you a Lightroom user? No problem! This power is available to you, too. From within Lightroom, in the Library module, right-click (Mac: command-click) the image you want to open, choose “Edit In >” and notice the menu. Don’t choose “Edit in Photoshop CS5…” (or CS4, or CS3). Instead, look a little further down, and you’ll find “Open as Smart Object in Photoshop…”


Select that and we’re off to the Smart Object races, just as in the example above.

Stick around next week for more Smart Object goodness, as we explore the question, “When is a copy not a copy?” In the meantime, get out there and start experimenting with Smart Objects!

About Michael Hoffman (224 Articles)
Mike has been a photographer, artist, educator, and technophile for most of his life. Early in his career, he created technical illustrations and photographs for electronic equipment manufacturers, and taught classes in computer aided drafting and 3D modeling software. When digital cameras became widely available in the late 1990s, the move was a natural one, and has led to a happy combination of technology, software, photography and art. Mike is an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop and Acrobat, and is well versed in Lightroom and Photoshop Elements, as well as Illustrator and InDesign. He has also contributed his time and efforts to the excellent work being done by Operation Photo Rescue, in restoring photographs damaged by natural disasters. As an active member of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals, he continues his quest for excellence in art, excellence in design, and excellence in education.

2 Comments on Smart Objects, Raw Flexibility

  1. Great tip! So this has been possible before CS5? I can’t believe I never saw it. 😉 Thanks.

  2. Great tip. Thanks!

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