I’d like to take a quick break from all the demonstrations I’ve been recently working through on this website and get back to an area that might need more explaining. I talk a lot about Smart Filters throughout many of my posts and I realized the other day that not everyone knows exactly what these things are. I thought I’d discuss it for just a few moments, in an effort to clarify any misunderstanding.
In today’s post, I’d like to briefly explain how both Smart Filter blending modes and masks work inside of Adobe Photoshop. I’ll first set up a Smart Filter and then I’ll apply a blending mode it it, explaining the effect it has on the filter itself. Then, I’ll work a bit with the mask that comes with every Smart Filter in an effort to show you how powerful and helpful they can be. They’re definitely worth taking advantage of. This will be a very easy to understand post. I won’t include any curve balls and it’s my hope, that by the end of reading what I have to write, you’ll have a better understanding of the topics I discuss. Perhaps you’ll even begin using some of the techniques in your own projects.
The Demo Photo
I’ll be using a photo of an old broken down truck for this post. I wanted to find something that had an isolated object in it and I thought this was pretty good. It’ll be easy to work with and to explain as I’m going.
Converting For Smart Filters
Okay, I already have the image opened up in Adobe Photoshop. I have just one layer in the Layers panel. It’s the image layer and it’s also considered the background layer. If I were to head up to the Filter menu and apply a filter as things currently are, the filter would be applied, but it would permanently alter that layer. If I changed my mind later and wanted to remove the filter after doing a bunch of other work, I wouldn’t be able to. I’d have to scrap the entire file and start over. A long time ago, Adobe realized that this was a horrible environment to work in, so they decided to offer something called Smart Objects. These are sort of overlays that allow us to alter images and apply filters in a non-destructive manner. Smart Objects give us recourse and allow us to change things long after they’ve been applied.
Think of a Smart Object as a piece of clear plastic wrap that sits on top of any layer. If you color the layer itself with magic marker, you just permanently altered the layer. If you color the clear plastic wrap that sits on top of the layer, you haven’t changed the layer at all. You can always toss the plastic wrap and put a new one down.
To change my regular layer to a Smart Object, I’ll head up to the Filter > Convert For Smart Filters menu item and click. All this does is convert the original layer into a Smart Object.
Applying a Filter
For this section, I’m going to apply a filter to the image layer. It makes no difference what filter I apply for this demonstration, but I will try to choose one that stands out. With that in mind, I’ll head back up to the Filter menu, but this time, I’ll select Camera Raw Filter.
Once I do that, I’ll head into Camera Raw, make a few changes and then, when I’m finished, I’ll click the OK button to get back into Photoshop. Just yesterday, I updated Camera Raw and I discovered a bunch of new presets installed by default. For this demonstration, I simply clicked into the Presets tab and from there, I chose B&W Split Tone. Here’s the result.
Let’s also take a look at the Layers panel to see what’s going on.
I’d like to use this section to pick apart the Layers panel. That’s where all the good stuff is.
The top layer in the Layers panel is the Smart Object. That used to be the background layer, but I converted it into the object by using the menu and process I described above.
The next layer down, with the big white box in it is the Smart Filters layer. The big white box is a mask, which I’ll talk about later. You can treat this layer as sort of a shell that holds all the Smart Filters. I only applied one filter in this case, but if I were to apply more, they’d all be listed below this shell layer.
The third layer down is what I just referred to. This is the first (and only, in this case) filter that’s been applied. If I wanted to edit this filter, all I would need to do is double-click on this layer and Camera Raw would open back up. This is what they mean when they say “non-destructive” editing. I didn’t destroy (permanently alter) the file at all by applying this filter since I did it smartly.
If you’ll take a look to the right portion of this third layer, you’ll see a small icon. This is what I’ll be talking about next.
Applying a Smart Filter Blending Mode
As you may already be aware, you can easily apply a blending mode to any layer in the Layers panel in Photoshop. I’ve written about this topic numerous times on this website, so if you’re interested, please give the site a search up top. What you may not know is that you can also apply a blending mode to just the filter that was applied. So if I applied a really insane filter that completely changed the look of the photo, I could go ahead and change up that filter another dozen or so times. Each blending mode has a different effect on whatever it’s applied to.
To change the blending mode of a Smart Filter, all you need to do is double-click that small icon that sits to the right in the filter layer. In this case, it’s the third layer down; the one that says Camera Raw Filter.
Once I click that icon, I’ll see the Blending Options dialog box appear.
If you look inside this box, you’ll see a Mode drop-down. This is where all the blending modes are held. You can choose any one. I’ll go ahead and select Saturation down at the bottom, because it doesn’t change the look of the filter too much. Here’s the result of this selection.
Now, you may have also noticed the Opacity slider in the dialog box that was just open. That slider affects the Smart Filter as a whole, not just the blending mode. If I were to push that slider to the left so the opacity was at 0%, none of the filter would be applied to the image, no matter the blending mode. For this demonstration, I’ll leave the opacity set to 100%.
Working With the Smart Filters Mask
For this final section, I’m going to move up one layer in the Layers panel so I can work with the Smart Filters mask. Basically, this mask applies to only the Smart Filters, not the layer itself. And to go one step further, the mask is applied to all Smart Filters that happen to be currently active in the file, not just any particular one. So keep that in mind. Also, I’ve written tons on this website about masking in Photoshop, so again, if you’re interested in the topic, please do a site search up top.
Basically, working with masks that belong to Smart Filters is the same as working with regular layer masks. Use the Brush Tool with the color white to reveal an area and the same tool with the color black to hide an area. So in my case, the Smart Filter is covering all of the original photo. Let’s say that I wanted the full, unfiltered truck to show through. How could I make that happen? Well, all I would need to do is color the truck with the color black to hide that part of the filter. Of course, I’d have to make sure I click on the big white filter mask thumbnail in the Layers panel to activate it first. I’ll go ahead and do that now. I’l click on the white mask thumbnail and then I’ll use the Brush Tool to paint the truck black as best as possible.
Let’s first take a look at what I colored black in the mask. To do this, I’ll hold down the Alt key on my keyboard and click once on the mask thumbnail in the Layers panel. This will enlarge the thumbnail so it looks like a mask overlay.
Anything that’s white in the mask will show the filter and anything that’s black will hide it. Now, let’s see the result of the truck showing through the filter.
Does that make sense? I hope so. I first changed the image layer into a Smart Object. Then, I applied a filter to the layer, which was considered a Smart Filter because it was being applied to the Smart Object. After that, I changed the blend mode of the filter and finally, I wiped away some of where the filter was applied by painting part of the filter mask black.
I truly hope I helped you understand Smart Filters, filter blending modes and filter masks in Adobe Photoshop in this post. Did you hate it? Please tell me. Did you love it? Please tell me that too. If you wouldn’t mind, leave your feedback down in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!