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This article is from February 13, 2008, and is no longer current.

How to Use Photoshop Smart Filters

You’ll walk away from this article knowing how to create Smart Objects and layers; how to apply Smart Filters; and how to use a Smart Layer Mask to make fine adjustments to your images. And you’ll do it all without losing any pixels!
Working with a Smart Object
Creating a Smart Object is easy. The most obvious way to do so is to choose File > Place, then locate the image you want to put inside your Photoshop document. You can also open an image as a Smart Object (File > Open as Smart Object). If you have an image on a separate layer, you can convert it into a smart object (Filter> Convert for Smart Filter). I explained in depth how to create a Smart Object in an earlier how-to, so if you’re rusty, check out that article.
For this how-to, however, I’ve done some of the work for you. Click on Figure 1 to download a file called photosafari.psd, which contains two Smart Objects, one visible, one not.
Figure 1. Click on the image below to download a Photoshop file with two Smart Objects.

Once you open photosafari.psd, take special note of the Layers palette (Figure 2). In it, you’ll see four separate layers, three of which contain images, and one text.
Figure 2. The Layers palette.

The TUSCANSTAMP layer is an Illustrator file, imported as a Smart Object. The layer named brunellobottles is a Photoshop file imported as a Smart Object. The small Smart Object icon in the lower right of the Layer thumbnail show you which layers are Smart Objects. To edit the smart object, double-click on the layer’s thumbnail (not the layer’s name), and the original image will open in an appropriate application.
Applying a Smart Filter
Applying Smart Filters feels like applying regular filters. It’s not the action of applying the filter that’s different; it’s what you can do after it’s applied to a Smart Layer.

  1. In the Layers palette, select the TUSCANSTAMP layer. You’ll note that it has a regular layer mask already applied to it, so that it looks like it’s sitting behind the hilltop town, rather than over it.
  2. From the Filter menu, select Artistic > Sponge. The preview will open (Figure 3).Figure 3. The Sponge Filter preview.
  3. Leave the settings as is and click OK.
  4. Now look at the Layers palette. It has a new sub-layer with a blank rectangle, and below that the sponge filter you applied (Figure 4).Figure 4. The Layers palette has changed.
  5. In the Layers palette, double-click on the word Sponge. The original filter controls open, and you can make adjustments to the Smart Object here. For this exercise, really exaggerate the filter. Set the Brush Size to 1, the Definition to 24, and the Smoothness to 2 (Figure 5).Figure 5. You can change Smart Object attributes after the fact.
  6. Next, note the small Slider icons to the right. These are the filter blending options, which will let you apply blend modes you’d find in the Layers palette, such as Multiply, Darken, Difference. But by adjusting them here, you’re applying directly to your Smart Object only. Double-click on the slider icons to the right and play around with the settings. I chose Dissolve, and pulled the opacity down to 52% (Figure 6).Figure 6. The Blending Options dialog box.
  7. Now select what looks like a blank rectangle just above the Sponge filter in the Layers palette (Figure 7). It’s not really just a blank rectangle — it’s a Smart Layer Mask.Figure 7. Click on the Smart Layer Mask.
  8. From the tool palette, select the Gradient tool. Using the default settings, drag from just below the word “MONTALCINO” to the top of the word “TUSCAN” (Figure 8). That tempers the sponge filter so that, with the help of the Smart Layer Mask, the filter only reaches halfway up the stamp.Figure 8. Use the Gradient tool to modify the Sponge filter.
  9. Make sure the TUSCANSTAMP layer is selected and choose the Filters menu again. This time, select Pixelate > Color Halftone (Figure 9).Figure 9. You’ve just applied the Color Halftone filter to part of your image.
  10. In the Layers palette, you’ll see the new filter appear above Sponge. Note that the filters only appear according to the Smart Layer Mask.
  11. Now for the real reason why this is such a great tool. Since these filters are all layer effects, you can use the layer controls to remove the filters, reapply them, and make them visible and invisible. And you won’t be touching the Undo command once — just click the eye icon to the left of each filter in the Layers palette.

Working with Smart Layer Masks
Now let’s take it one step further. If you recall, the photosafari.psd file has another Smart Layer with its visibility turned off.

  1. Make the brunellobottles layer visible by clicking its eye icon in the Layers palette.
  2. From the TUSCANSTAMP layer, select the Smart Layer Mask, which is now labeled as Smart Filters (Figure 10).Figure 10. Select the Smart Layer Mask labeled Smart Filters.
  3. Option + Command + Drag the Smart Layer Mask from the TUSCANSTAMP layer to the brunellobottles layer, in effect copying all the settings you made in the previous section onto the newly visible layer. This is how you can copy your settings from one layer to the next.Figure 11. All the tweaks you made earlier are now applied to the wine bottles.

While this may not be the prettiest image now, you can improve it with adjustments to the filters, masks, and blending modes. And more importantly, you can do it all day long, non-destructively, turning the effects on and off without worrying about making permanent changes to the original image files.

  • davidlynch says:

    I’d love to check out this tutorial, but the link to the sample file is broken!

    David Lynch
    Lynch Graphics, Inc.

  • Terri Stone says:

    Sorry about that, David. We’re still cleaning up a few broken links that cropped up when we switched from the old site design.

    You can now download the tutorial file.

    Terri Stone
    Editor in Chief, CreativePro.com

  • Anonymous says:

    nice tutorial

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