Photoshop Tutorial: Create a Smart Object Photo Template

The late (great!) sci-fi author Douglas Adams once said, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” Sadly, that “whooshing noise” is far too familiar, and in today’s economically stressed world deadlines are mission critical. After all, to get money in your pocket you have to get projects out the door! Unfortunately for most creatives, the sun rises each day only to illuminate a mile-long to-do list and mountains of email. Heck, it’s a wonder we’re able to get out of bed at all!

Thankfully, Photoshop’s Smart Objects make it easy for you to work smarter instead of harder, saving tons of time. In this tutorial you’ll learn what a Smart Object is, why they’re useful, and how you can use them to make some of the slickest photo templates you’ve ever seen. Then use what you’ve learned to create limitless smart effects of your own!

What’s a Smart Object?
While Adobe refers to a Smart Object as a container, “miracle layer” is a better fit. Smart Objects (which debuted back in Photoshop CS2) let you work with all kinds of image files, even those that weren’t created with Photoshop (think Camera Raw and vector files). When you open an image as a Smart Object, or place one in an existing document, Photoshop remembers everything about the original, including its size and file format. This lets you:

Resize content without losing quality. Instead of resizing the instance (a copy) of the content that you inserted into your document, Photoshop remembers information about the original, resizes that, and then places that information back into your image (leaving the actual original file safely unaltered). It doesn’t matter whether that original lives elsewhere on your hard drive (a vector, Camera Raw file, and so on), or right there in your Photoshop document (on another layer, say). In the blink of an eye, Photoshop updates your document with the newly resized content. If it’s a vector-based image, you can make it honkin’ big and it won’t look blocky. If it’s a pixel-based image, be sure not to exceed the image’s original size. And if you’re running CS4, you can also use the full range of Transform commands on Smart Objects.

Compress a bunch of layers into a single layer nondestructively. Unlike merging layers, you can convert several layers into a single Smart Object and preserve the original layers. This is helpful if Photoshop’s choking on the number of layers you’ve got in your document, or if you want to edit several layers as if they were one (such as when you’re applying layer styles)

Run filters nondestructively. When you run a filter on a Smart Object, the filtering happens on a new layer. That way you can tweak or undo the effects of the filter. They even come with their own layer mask allowing you to hide the filter effect in certain areas. Look for more on Smart Filters in a future tutorial.

Update multiple instances of the same content. If you’ve placed the same content in several places in your document — like a big logo in one spot and a smaller version of the same logo somewhere else — and you make changes to the original file, Photoshop automatically updates it for you wherever it appears in your document. Sweet!

Swap content. Once you’ve formatted a Smart Object just right, you can swap its contents for another image, and the new image will take on the original’s attributes. This is powerful magic when it comes to making creative templates that you can use over and over, but with different images (photographers love this kind of thing).

While the range of effects you can create with a Smart Object template is limitless, today you’ll learn how to make one that converts a color image to black and white, gives it a sepia tint and a vignette. Here’s how to do it.

Step 1
Fire up Photoshop and choose File > Open As Smart Object. Navigate to where the image lives on your hard drive and press Open (you can use a variety of file formats including Raw, JPEG, TIFF, EPS, etc.). Photoshop will then create a new document containing the image as a Smart Object (note the little Smart Object badge on the layer thumbnail circled below).

Step 2
Create a Black & White adjustment layer by using the new Adjustments panel in Photoshop CS4 (shown below at left), or by clicking the half black/half white circle at the bottom of the Layers panel (shown below at right).

Step 3
If you’re using CS4, you’ll see a set of sliders appear in the Adjustments panel. If you’re using CS3, a dialog box will open containing the same set of sliders. In either case, you can tweak the color sliders until you get a high contrast, black and white image. NOTE: If you’re in CS3, don’t close the Black & White dialog box just yet!

Step 4
Next, you can add a sepia tint to your image. If you’re in CS4, turn on the Tint checkbox at the top of the Adjustments panel (circled below). If you’re in CS3, the Tint checkbox lives at the bottom of the Black & White Adjustment dialog box. If you’d like to change the color of the tint you can click the little color swatch to the right of the Tint checkbox in CS4, or by using the rainbow sliders at the bottom of the dialog box in CS3. In either case, the Color Picker will open letting you choose another color for the tint.

Step 5
Over in your Layers panel, click once to select the Smart Object photo layer and then choose Filters > Distort > Lens Correction. In the resulting petite dialog box (ha!), turn off the grid checkbox at the very bottom so you can see what the heck you’re doing. Next, mouse over to the right side of the dialog box and locate the section called Vignette. Grab the Amount slider and drag it all the way to the left, and the edges of your image will immediately darken. To darken them a little more, drag the Midpoint slider slightly to the left. Click OK when you’re finished.

Don’t be alarmed that your image appears color in the filter’s preview window. You’re actually seeing the original image, sans the Black & White adjustment layer you created earlier.

Here’s the final result:

Step 6
Save your template by choosing File > Save As and then give it a clever name like “My Way Cool Smart Sepia Template” and click Save.

Step 7
To swap photos, open the template, mouse over to your Layers panel and Ctrl-click (right-click on a PC) the Smart Object photo layer. Choose Replace Contents from the resulting menu, navigate to where the new image lives, and click Place.

Take a peek in your Layers panel and you’ll see that the photo has indeed changed:

And you’ll also see that the new photo has taken on all the effects of the original:

See how easy that was? There’s no end to the creative templates you can make using Smart Objects in this manner. Sure, you could set up an action instead, but actions can be fussy and difficult to troubleshoot, whereas a Smart Object template couldn’t be easier. As you can see, it’s an extremely fast and flexible way to work.

Until next time, may the smart template force be with y’all! ☺

Posted on: March 25, 2009

9 Comments on Photoshop Tutorial: Create a Smart Object Photo Template

  1. Thanks for the information.

  2. WaltBobrowski

    April 2, 2009 at 1:23 am

    Thanks Lesa! That was awesome. Shows me I’ve got to get smarter with Smart Objects. Now you’ve got the wheels in my head spinning…

  3. I had two problems while following your tutorial (which I loved):

    1. Ps wouldn’t allow me to use a black/white adjustment until I switched from CMYK to RGB mode. Once I did this, I could move forward.

    2. At the end when I ctrl click on the smart layer, the drop down menu that you show in the post is not the one that showed up for me. Mine only gave me layer properties, blending modes, and thumbnail options. I had to go up to the layer menu and open the smart objects flyout and then choose replace image.

    I’ve gone over this several times, thinking I was missing something or doing something wrong.

    Any idea why my experience doesn’t match up with your article?


  4. When you swap content the proportions of both must be the same or else it gets distorted.
    Distorted people ar especially bad making for unhappy customers if you use this in your business.

  5. Using CS3, I frequently use the HPF filter, but immediately after applying High Pass I go back to “fade” the blending of it to Soft Light, Overlay, or Hard Light. I do this for sharpening certain thingds which just look better (to me) when I use HPF.

    When I use the Smart Object method described hear, I can apply an HPF, but I cannot use the “fade” command (it’s ghosted out … not available).

    Is there an alternative technique to achieve the same goal within a smart object?


  6. Thanks so much for the tutorial. It is very simple to follow. Question though – Is there a way to incorporate an action into the smart object? Meaning – if I use a particular action to garner the b&w or sepia treatment I like, how can I incorporate that into the template?

  7. Thank you for this great tutorial which I will use with my high school students. We are preparing for the Adobe Associates Certification in Photoshop and want to be sure we know how to use this valuable tool. -K.Link, Fairfield, CA

  8. Thank you for your kind help.

  9. Thanks again for a wonderful technique. I just used this for some group pictures. It’s nice to do something different. Most times something different means to study…most people will not the forth the effort. But you tackle it. Thanks.

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