How to Create with a Good Workflow Using Smart Objects in Photoshop

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Do you want to make sure you get the most details out of your shot? How about making sure none of your post-processing is destructive? It sounds like a really smart way to set up your workflow right?

A workflow is a process that goes from initiation to completion. In the case of photography, that implies from the time of shooting to post-processing. So the first thing you need to do is to ALWAYS shoot in RAW mode. This is a format that changes file extension with every manufacturer but they all share one common thing: raw files store all the un-processed and un-compressed data received on the sensor of your camera when you make a picture.

Intro before after - How to Create with a Good Workflow Using Smart Objects in Photoshop

Why shoot RAW?

What is the point of that? Well this means that your file can tolerate more post-processing adjustments and that you can alter some of the settings from the image in a non-destructive way.

As I mentioned before, RAW files have different file extensions and therefore need special software to process them. Your camera surely came with a software that handles your files. However, in this article, I am going to show you how to get the most out of them in Photoshop which supports most raw formats either by default or by using a plug-in.

When you open a RAW file in Photoshop you will see that you can adjust the image with the sliders on the tool palette on the right. Start moving those around to recover the most detail you can from both the highlights and the shadows so you can even out the exposure as much as possible. You can also control the tone of the white balance, the saturation and vibrancy of the colors, and so on.

Raw Window - How to Create with a Good Workflow Using Smart Objects in Photoshop

Tweak the image using the sliders and local adjustments in ACR

Once you have the overall settings adjusted, you can start working the settings in different areas to fine-tune your image.

Use the Adjustment Brush that you’ll find in the Menu bar on the top; you can change its settings like size and hardness on the right. Whatever adjustments you make to contrast or exposure will be applied only to the part where you paint with the brush. This is very useful when you are processing images with a lot of contrast. You can keep going with the other tools like the gradient for other local adjustments.

Raw Brush - How to Create with a Good Workflow Using Smart Objects in Photoshop

Open as a Smart Object

If you are already familiar with processing RAW files, these are likely your normal post-processing steps, after which you would click the Open Image button so that the photo opens in Photoshop with the applied adjustments. However, there is one more step you can add to your process to really make your images pop. You can open your photo as a Smart Object.

Open Object - How to Create with a Good Workflow Using Smart Objects in Photoshop

Here’s how to do it. Instead of clicking Open Image, just press the Shift key and that same button will become Open Object, now you can click it. Having done this, the image will open in Photoshop as a Layer. Now right-click the layer thumbnail and choose New Smart Object via Copy and a second layer, containing a second smart object will be created.

IMPORTANT: Don’t just duplicate the layer or you won’t be able to process them independently; every adjustment would be applied to both smart objects!

You can now rename the layers to identify which adjustments you are going to do in each one. For example, I’m doing Highlights and Shadows for my image but maybe for another image, it’s better to call the layers Background and Foreground, it depends on your image and what it needs.

Double processing

Double processing - How to Create with a Good Workflow Using Smart Objects in Photoshop

The cool part about Smart Objects is that when you double-click the layer, it will open again in the RAW editor, which means that you are back to all the data to keep processing without loss. You can make the adjustments that you need for a specific part of the image.

Finishing up

Now that you have done the best post-processing for each part is time to integrate it all into one amazing picture! Add a mask to the top layer by clicking the Layer Mask button on the bottom of the Layers Palette. With the layer mask selected you can start hiding the parts you don’t need. Remember that whatever appears in black on the mask means that you will see the layer underneath; whatever is white will show the top layer. I’ll turn off the bottom layer so that you can see what I mean below.

Layer Mask - How to Create with a Good Workflow Using Smart Objects in Photoshop

If you find it necessary, you can keep going with your adjustments, as you would normally do in Photoshop. You can add a filter or adjustment layer by clicking on the buttons at the bottom of the Layers Palette. Have a look at these before and after examples!

Before- How to Create with a Good Workflow Using Smart Objects in Photoshop

Before

After - How to Create with a Good Workflow Using Smart Objects in Photoshop

After

Before2 - How to Create with a Good Workflow Using Smart Objects in Photoshop

Before

After2 - How to Create with a Good Workflow Using Smart Objects in Photoshop

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Ana Mireles is a photographer and artistic researcher. She has been awarded and exhibited in Mexico, Italy, and the Netherlands. Through theory and practice, she explores the cultural aspect of photography, how it helps us relate to each other, the world, and ourselves. She has also a passion for teaching, communication, and social media. You can find more about her and her work at her website or acquire some of her works here.

  • Nice article, thanks for sharing! I can see why this is useful in merging multiple images for example (like HDR or double exposure). But I fail to see why this is useful for editing pictures? Maybe I just don’t understand it good enough 🙂

    What I usually do is do some basic editing in Lightroom and than open it in Photoshop. What would be the difference between that and working with smart objects like you describe?

  • Ana Mireles

    Hi, thanks for your comment, I’m glad you liked the article! Often there are different ways to achieve same or similar results and it’s just a matter of which fits you better.
    Personally I like to keep things in the same software when possible, that way there’s no problems of compatibility and in general I just find it makes my workflow more smooth.
    The process is non destructive that’s why it’s better for editing; also you can do separate edits for different lighting within the same image, without having to stack multiple images; you get the most information out of each zone.
    But of course it can have different applications, like the ones you mentioned 😉

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