How to Create Non-Destructive Filters using Smart Objects in Photoshop

We all know about the tremendous benefits of Photoshop. It offers a solution for editing photos, designing logos, mocking up websites, and refining vector graphics all in one location. But while Photoshop can handle a number of different tasks it is most well-renowned for photography editing. Every graphic designer or photographer can find dozens of tools directly related to enhancing and retouching images.

For this post I'd like to demonstrate how to create smart filters applied onto any digital image. Smart filters behave just like regular filters but are more fluid and flexible in long-term work. Not every project has a need for smart filters, but understanding how to use them properly is yet another tool worth adding into your graphic editing tool belt.

Traditional Filters

Most users already know about traditional filters. These are located in the “Filters” dropdown from the menu bar. Some of the more common filters are Noise and Blur – yet there are a series of different options to choose from. Traditional filters are the same thing as smart filters, but the difference is in how they affect an image.

Application of traditional filters will directly affect the image's pixels. So in this way traditional filters are destructive because once the image is saved, even as a PSD, you can't remove the changes. Smart Filters are a way of getting around this little problem by creating filter effects which can be turned on & off like layer effects.

To get started find an image you'd like to work with. Since this is just practice you could grab something from Google Images or use a free Creative Commons photo off Pexels. I'll be using this Autumn bench photograph.

autumn leaves bench photo sample

If you want to see how regular filters behave try using some on your regular image first. In the menu bar select Filter and choose any of the existing options. You'll notice that effects are applied immediately and a notch appears in the history panel.

To reverse this filter you can go back in history – but Photoshop only has so many save states for history. So once you pass a certain point you'll be like Indiana Jones trapped in a cave: no turning back.

Converting to Smart Objects

There are two distinct terms I've mentioned in this post: smart filters and smart objects. A smart object is like a protective coating around an image or graphic. It helps to retain pixel quality regardless of size or placement on the image. Likewise a smart filter can only be applied onto a smart object. It's a special kind of filter that is applied onto this protective coating so the actual pixels are not damaged.

Both smart objects & smart filters work together nicely, but they are two different ideas. Take a look at this Quora post to read a bit more on the subject.

My point is that in order to create smart filters we first need to change the layer into a smart object. To do so right-click on a selected layer and choose “Convert to Smart Object”.

convert to smart object photoshop howto

The conversion should be instantaneous and you'll notice a small icon located on the layer thumbnail. This means you're now working with a smart object layer instead of a rasterized layer. In fact if you right-click again you'll notice another option “Rasterize Layer” which will convert back to the original format. For now let's keep the layer as a smart object.

convert rasterize layer context

Apply Smart Filters

With the smart object layer selected go back up to the menu bar and choose some filters. All of the menus will behave exactly the same way and it may seem like you're just creating a regular filter. But the difference is that a smart object is not tied to pixels – so any applied filter must scale naturally with the object and not the individual pixels themselves.

Once you create a filter take a peek at the layers panel. You should notice a new sub-section with the text “Smart Filters”. This is called a filter mask which means you could even remove some parts of the filter from the image. It behaves like any other mask layer where a white mask shows the effect and black hides it.

dry brush filter photoshop example

So if you want to play with this filter mask just select the thumbnail and paint a black brush over the image. You'll notice that the effect is hidden only in those areas. And it's super easy to get the effect back by just re-painting over the area with white again. Smart filters really are like magic! But good magic, none of that quarter-behind-the-ear business.

smart filter mask brush screenshot

Other Benefits

You'll notice that each individual smart filter has an eyeball next to the effect. Just like layer effects, these smart filters can be hidden or re-displayed at the click of a mouse. Regular filters do not offer anything like this and pale in comparison to the level of control achieved through smart filters.

But even more interesting is that you can actually go back and tweak smart filters after they've been created. Sound like balderdash? Well balder-watch!

By double-clicking on a smart filter you'll bring up that filter's edit window including all the properties, sliders, buttons, and dropdown menus. This window is also accessible by right-clicking on a smart filter and selecting “Edit Smart Filter…”

edit smart filter photoshop screenshot

Since the smart filters aren't tied onto individual pixels they become a lot easier to edit. Almost everyone has a need for advanced filters in graphic design – but they can become a hassle when trying to use them in the traditional fashion. Instead I would recommend using smart filters as often as possible.

The process may seem clunky at first but it'll eventually become the most reliable method for applying filters onto anything.

I hope this brief guide can be of use to professionals and beginners alike. Photoshop is a tricky subject but with enough practice these skills will become as natural as breathing. To gain proficiency in Photoshop it's all about continual practice and a thirst for trying new things.