Smart Objects and Smart Filters have become an enormous part of working inside of Adobe Photoshop. I’ve discussed both of these features in many posts on this website, but I’ve yet to give an overview of what each of these are. What I’m referring to here is how these features are presented in the application. The anatomy of them. What they look like and what parts make up the whole.
In today’s post, I’d like to focus on what parts make up a Smart Filter in Adobe Photoshop. I’d like to do this so I have a post to refer back to if I discuss the topic in the future. I could write something like, “If you’re not familiar with Smart Filters, please take a look at this post.” And then link to the page you’re on. I think that’s a pretty good idea.
I’m not going to go into the intricacies of every last detail here, but what I will do is cover how to create a Smart Filter and how to manage one of them once it’s been created. I’ll talk about a Smart Filter’s operation and what the different aspects of it controls. This isn’t a difficult topic to understand and it’s actually quite rewarding, so I hope you’ll continue reading on below.
Today’s Demo Image
I could use any photo for today’s post. It really doesn’t matter what it looks like because I’m only going to be applying a filter to it. Since this is the case, I chose something that appeals to me. Something that just looks good.
How’s that? I do love my guitars, you know.
What is a Smart Filter
Smart Filters are easy to explain. Basically, they’re any filter that’s been applied to a Smart Object. Okay, that’s great, but what’s a Smart Object? You can think of a Smart Object as an envelope you slide a layer into that will shield the actual layer from any change that’s made to it. In this case, that change would be the application of a filter. The way things use to be was that when a filter was applied to a layer, it permanently affected that layer. You had to be really sure you loved that filter as you were applying it, because once you did, you were stuck with it. I can remember working in Photoshop years ago not liking this aspect of things at all. For some strange reason, I had a tendency to change my mind after I applied pretty much anything. The way I would work around this deficiency was to duplicate layers a lot. I’d set up a few of the same layer and then apply variations of filters to them that way. I’d just choose the one I liked best and run with it. I’d delete the rest. The problem with that approach was that if I ever wanted to go back into the file to edit the filter, I couldn’t. It was like it was seared into the layer. This is what we in the photo editing world call, destructive editing. Once it’s there, it’s there.
Once a Smart Object is in place, you can apply, with a few exceptions, any filter you want to that layer. The current exceptions are Lens Blur, Trees, Flame Picture Frame, Extract, Liquify, Pattern Maker and Vanishing Point. Of course, this may change in the future, so you’ll need to check back for an update.
Now, I do want to tell you that a Smart Filter is actually bigger and grander than a simple Smart Object. It’s got more pieces and I’ll talk about all of them below.
How to Apply a Smart Filter
There are a few different ways to create and apply a Smart Filter. Two I’ve covered before on this website and one I have yet to discuss. It’s that last one that is so cool.
Okay, first, you can simply convert your layer into a Smart Object by right-clicking on the layer and then choosing Convert to Smart Object from the menu that appears.
Once the layer is converted, you can head up to the Filter menu and do what you want. This is the easiest way to go about getting things set up.
The next method is for you to first click on the layer in question to select it and then go up to the Filter > Convert for Smart Filters menu item and click. That will basically just turn the layer into a Smart Object again. Both of the options I just covered are virtually identical. After this, you’ll need to go back into the Filter menu and choose a filter to apply. This is the same step as the one I just explained above.
The last method is pretty neat. Did you know that you don’t have to apply a Smart Filter to an entire layer? If you wanted to, you could convert the layer to a Smart Object and then make a selection in that layer with one of the selection tools. As an example, I’ll go ahead and draw a circle at the center of this image with the Elliptical Marquee Tool.
Next, I’ll visit the Filter > Texture > Stained Glass menu item from up top and push a few sliders around. When I’m happy with what I see in the preview window, I’ll click on the OK button. Check this out.
Do you see what happened there? The filter wasn’t applied to the entire layer. It was only applied to the part where I draw the selection.
The Smart Filter Itself
Let’s now take a look at what happened to the layer in the Layers panel. I already created a Smart Object and then a Smart Filter. Remember, I couldn’t have created that Smart Filter without first converting the layer to a Smart Object. Here’s the layer and the filter.
If you look at the top image layer closely, you can see a small square icon in the lower right corner of the thumbnail. This is the Smart Object indicator, so whenever you see one of these, you should know that the layer has been converted to a Smart Object.
At the right of the top image layer is a small icon that’s shaped like two rings. If I roll over these rings, a tip will pop up that says, Indicates Filter Effects. You’re probably wondering why this indicator is there if the Smart Filter layer (that we’ll get to in a second) is directly below and plainly visible. Well, the reason the rings indicator is there is because we can use the arrow that sits directly to the right of it to collapse the layer and hide the filters. So really, they’re not always this visible and they’re not as obvious. There’s got to be some way to see that a layer has a Smart Filter applied to it.
Moving on. I’ll now jump down a spot and discuss the layer that has a big white circle in the middle of its thumbnail. If you read the name of the layer, it says Smart Filters. This layer has a two-fold purpose. First, it’s sort of like another container layer that houses all the filters that are applied to it. It also contains a mask. I’ll talk about the filters first.
This is the layer that puts the “Smart” in Smart Filters. This is what makes the application of a filter non-destructive when applied in conjunction with a Smart Object. It has some other uses too, but I’d like to focus on these right now. There is one important aspect of the name of this layer. It’s plural. It says Smart Filters, with an s. This means that more than one filter can be applied to a layer and each of those filters would be stacked on top of each other, right below the layer that contains the mask thumbnail. Here, I’ll show you. I’ll go ahead and apply another filter, just to show you what it would look like.
As you can see, there are two layers stacked on top of each other inside of that red outline. They are in a specific order right now, but if I clicked and dragged either one of them up or down, I could easily reorder them to mix up the look of the effect. Order matters in these cases. Also, both of these filters are in the Smart Filter container, so if I hid the visibility of the Smart Filter layer (the one with the circle in it) by clicking on the little eye icon, both of these filter effects would disappear and the image would return to normal. If I wanted to only hide one effect at a time, I could click just the eye icon for that specific effect.
The mask in the Smart Filters layer is very important. It acts like any other mask in that it can show or hide a filter effect. The mask can be edited either before the filter is applied, as I did in my example above, or after the filter’s been applied. As with any other mask, white reveals and black conceals. So if I wanted to somehow adjust this mask, I could use the Brush Tool, the Paint Bucket Tool or one of the selection tools to alter the black and white aspects of it.
Finally, we have the last icon I’d like to discuss in this post. If I head over to the right part of each filter layer, I’ll see an icon that looks like it’s got two horizontal lines in it.
If I double click on one or both of these icons, the Blending Options dialog will appear, where I’ll have the ability to alter the blend mode for each individual filter effect. This is so powerful I can’t stand it.
The Power of Smart Filters
Smart Filters aren’t just protective containers that allow us to apply a filter that doesn’t permanently alter a layer. They’re quite powerful as well and they can do many wonderful things.
For example, if I were to create or import a new layer that I wanted the Smart Filter I created earlier applied to, all I’d need to do is convert the new layer to a Smart Object and then click and drag/drop either just one filter or the entire Smart Filter group to that new layer. To copy a Smart Filter to another layer, I’d hold down the Alt key (Option on Mac) and then drag and drop.
The real and non-destructive beauty of Smart Filters is revealed when it comes to editing filters that have already been applied. This is just so simple to do. To edit a Smart Filter, all that needs to be done is to double-click on that filter in the Layers panel. When that’s done, the filter’s edit box will pop up. The filter can be edited and then closed out and that edit will be applied. It’s that simple. And what’s even more beautiful is that the blending mode options can be changed at any times as well. Simply double-click on those icons for the same result.
To delete a Smart Filter group or just one filter that sits inside a group, click on what you’d like to delete and then drag it down to the trash can located at the bottom of the Layers panel.
Inverting, Feathering & Opacity
The final Smart Filter features I’d like to discuss in this post have to do with what happens when you double-click on the Smart Filter mask icon in the Layers panel. I’ll do that right now.
As you can see, a Mask Properties panel appeared. Inside of this panel are a few sliders and buttons. The first one I’ll cover is called Density. This slider basically controls the opacity of the mask. If it’s in full force, meaning pushed all the way to the right, the mask itself will have full strength. If it’s pushed to the left a bit or all the way, the mask will start to fade away, revealing more and more of the filter that’s been applied, outside the mask.
The next slider is called Feather. What this slider does is soften the edges of the mask, so they appear to blend into the area around it. Push this slider to the left for less of a feather effect and to the right for more of one.
Finally, if you’d like to alter the mask in such a way as to make it appear opposite of it’s current state, you can click the Invert button. Doing this will simply invert the current look.
I messed with both of the sliders in this panel and this is my result.
Don’t ask me what it’s supposed to look like. I’m not really focused on making things look good right now. My fingers are getting tired from all this typing.
I know there’s a lot of information in this post and believe me, there’s more that has to do with this area of Adobe Photoshop. My goal with writing this was to whittle things down for a more understandable presentation. I hope I achieved that goal. If you have any questions regarding this post, please leave them for me in the comment section below. Thanks so much for reading!