When to Use Smart Objects


Today’s Question: I am curious if you have any preferences for opening up into Photoshop from Lightroom Classic as “edit in” versus “edit as smart object”, especially now with all the filters available, including neural filters, blur, etc.

Tim’s Quick Answer: For a “normal” image-optimization workflow that might include additional image layers, I prefer not to open the image as a smart object. For more creative workflow involving filters, you may want to make use of the smart object option.

More Detail: When you send an image from Lightroom Classic to Photoshop, you have the option to open the image as a smart object. To use this option instead of choosing “Edit in Adobe Photoshop from the Photo > Edit In > Edit In menu you would choose “Open as Smart Object in Photoshop” from that menu.

When you open an image as a smart object in Photoshop the original image is embedded into the derivative file that is created. This provides some great workflow flexibility, but it can also lead to some problems.

In the context of a raw capture opened as a smart object in Photoshop, because the raw capture is embedded rather than having been opened as a normal pixel layer, you can double-click on the smart object layer to bring up the Camera Raw interface. This enables you to refine the adjustment settings you had applied in the Develop module in Lightroom Classic.

While this capability can be helpful, it can also be problematic with a layer-based workflow. For example, let’s assume you processed the image in color in Lightroom Classic and opened it as a smart object in Photoshop. You add a new image layer to perform some image cleanup work to remove some blemishes. Then you double-click on the smart object layer and in Camera Raw convert the image to black and white. The image cleanup work will still be in color, which would be a problem.

This is just one illustrative example of the type of problems you can get into when you combine a smart object with image layers in Photoshop.

Of course, there are situations where using a smart object can be tremendously helpful. For example, if you’re using creative filters there’s a good chance you might want to later review or revise the settings you used for the filter. Using a smart object provides that flexibility, because just as you can open Camera Raw to edit the adjustment settings for a smart object, so too can you apply filters to a smart object and then return to the filter settings to revise them.

The key is to make sure image layers won’t interfere with the use of a smart object. Therefore, I recommend only using smart objects when you won’t need to use additional image layers, and when the use of a smart object will provide advantages in your workflow. This can often mean, for example, having one layered copy of the image for the normal optimization workflow, and then creating an additional derivative based on that layered original that employs a smart object for creative effects.