Editing Smart Objects—PNG & JPEG

A Tip for Working With Photoshop Smart Objects

During a discussion about the limitations of editing Photoshop Smart Objects, some of us brought up for the thousandth plus time how frustrating it is to open a JPEG or PNG Smart Object, edit it, and then have to destructively flatten the file back to its original state before we can save the edits to our document.  A good problem-solver in the group took a look and said the real problem is JPEG and PNG files open into their own format, which cannot accept layers, whereas a PSD will open as a PSB file, which can handle layers. The trick, then, is to get the JPEG or PNG file to open as a PSB file.

And to do that, our problem-solving friend told us, run the Convert to Smart Object command on the Smart Object layer containing the JPEG or PNG. Now when I double-click on the Smart Object icon to open it, I’ll see the file format is a PSB file. This will increase the original document’s file size, but it also means I can pile on the layers, layer styles, and even Smart Filters to my heart’s content, just so long as I’m willing to sacrifice extra disk space when saving it.

Original example of PNG file
The original file that I want to alter.
PNG file being edited with layers
The file was placed in my PSD document as a Smart Object, but if I want to edit that file, Photoshop informs me I have to flatten the layers to return the file to its original state.

One reason I might be willing to accept larger files is if I thought that many edits, or days, later, I might change my mind about the edits I’ve made. Having already made one destructive edit, I’d have to make a second, even if the only change to all the edits I wanted to make was to the one of the edits. My Layers panel, too, will be more manageable if I don’t add a lot of clipped adjustment layers above the basic PNG or JPEG Smart Object layers. I inevitably make some kind of mistake where I lose the clipping, and now my adjustment layer is affecting everything below it. For a subtle adjustment, I might not even notice before I’ve begun adjusting everything to match the mistake. I’d rather have those layers tucked away inside the Smart Object.  Add to that, the fewer layers I have to deal with, the clearer I can see what I want to alter or replace, and I’m not scrolling and scrolling and scrolling to find it.

The converted PSB file
By converting the original placed Smart Object layer to a Smart Object once again, double-clicking on that Smart Object to edit it proves the file is now a PSB file and can retain all the layers, filters, and other effects that a PSD file can retain. Notice that the image above opened at 50%, but this image opened at 100%. That’s because I had transformed the original Smart Object layer before I converted it again to a new Smart Object. This is 100% of the converted Smart Object. The original, if I double-clicked on the Smart Object layer visible in this screenshot, is still the full size file I imported. It is also still a PNG file.
Images compared after editing PSB file
Not happy with the strong pinks, I was able to come back and re-edit the Smart Object using the original layers I had added to the PSB file.

Now that I know that the trick to allowing for layers is to create a PSB file, and that creating that file is as easy as simply converting a Smart Object layer containing a PNG or JPEG to another Smart Object layer, I’ll be using that trick often. Smart Objects have many idiosyncrasies, but they offer some of the best protection against destructive editing we have, and are worth mastering.

"At School" art journal composite image
From my Democracy series, “At School” art journals a tweet by Harry Potter author, J. K. Rowling. Credits go mainly to Eenas, Finecrafted, and Holliewood.
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The Blank Canvas

Using Templates to spur creativity

The other day when I saw a sale, I thought it might be time to buy a couple new templates for scrap pages. It’s not that I don’t already have lots of templates—some bought, some made by me. It’s just that I don’t have all the ideas in the world for designing pages sitting somewhere in my head. Some of those ideas, in fact, have never been anywhere near my head, let alone in it.

And while there are times I love a blank canvas, something to stare at until I get so fidgety I do something, anything, nevertheless there are plenty of times when I’d rather not have to think so hard. With thousands of pictures I might want to do something with, I’m supposed to design each and every page all by myself? I did that before I discovered templates, and it began to feel like a chore.

I have a couple of problems when buying templates, though. The first is the format. I decided in the very beginning not to use the traditional 12”x12” format for scrap. I chose the standard 10”x8”  (basically US letter size), because it not only works with most home printers and  store-bought frames, but also makes better use of the widescreen format of monitors and TVs. Purchased templates for scrap are, of course, a square format, so I have to redistribute and resize all the elements for my landscape paper size. On the positive side, I get very familiar with each template. This format is also one of the reasons I never buy any of those lovely quick pages. They can’t be rearranged, and very few can be nicely transformed.

Square vs Landscape templates
Converting from a square format to a landscape format takes a bit of fiddling and rearranging. Template by Kastagnette.

The other problem I found with templates is that they’re all in color. Sometimes the color is soft and almost monochromatic; more often templates are bright and cheerful, or even, as is the case with Jumpstart Designs, so completely developed you could use the templates as their own quick pages. But the lovely colors, despite enticing me to buy, get in the way when I start replacing template shapes with my elements. After figuring out that I was having trouble looking at colors  that didn’t fit with my palette, I began converting them all to Grayscale.

Soft pinks with bright colored template
Template colors and my color palette are rarely harmonious. It’s even more difficult to judge progress with a layout when I’m using elements from different kits instead of a single coordinated kit. Template by Manue.

Whatever size your page is, you might also like using templates better if they’re in neutral grays. Of course, by definition you can’t create a full color page if the Mode is Grayscale. And if you add a B&W Adjustment layer to the top of the stack of layers, everything you add below it will be gray. Further, if you’re using Photoshop and have Smart Objects in your template, Grayscale won’t work without rasterizing them. Fortunately, it’s very easy to get all this resolved.

After choosing Image> Mode> Grayscale, the first dialog will ask you if you want to Merge layers (PSE says Flatten); you don’t. If you have Smart Object layers, the second dialog in PS will tell you that changing modes can affect the appearance of Smart Objects and do you want to rasterize? Yes, you do. (PSE doesn’t support  Smart Objects , but rasterizes them on open.) When you next convert your Grayscale back to RGB, you again do not merge (flatten) your layers and all should be fine. Save the template with a new name—I append a G for Gray to the name—and you’ll be preserving the color if you want to be inspired by it.

Changing color mode dialogs
Both PS and PSE will ask you to merge when converting to Grayscale. PS also asks if you want to rasterize Smart Objects, which were rasterized in PSE if you open a file that includes them.

With your template now in neutral grays, when you start adding your own colored elements to your design, that hot pink or bright orange from the original template won’t look out of place with your chosen palette, and you won’t be distracted by strong unwanted colors.

Template in color vs in grayscale
When templates only contain shades of gray, you can focus better on the elements you’re adding to your layout. Template by Aurelie.

Know Your Photoshop Presets

Create a Preset “Previewer” for your photos

Recently Creative Live had their Photoshop Week with professional instructors such as Chris Orwig and Ben Willmore. Creative Live, if you don’t already know them, streams free classes on a variety of subjects that creatives are involved in, and sells access to those classes afterwards. Even though I’m reasonably advanced in Photoshop, there is always some feature I’ve forgotten to take advantage of, or a way to use it that I’ve never thought about. Ben Willmore had a tip for creating a file with presets applied to an example image. I’d once had a plug-in for Photoshop actions that used previews I created so I had some idea what “ACF6A25” did before I ran the action. I knew having previews could save a lot of time; I simply hadn’t remembered to take the time to create those previews.

So one evening while watching Dr. Who reruns, I decided this was just the right amount of mindless activity that let me both relax with the TV and do something useful. I chose to catalog the presets for the Color Lookup Adjustment layer. That’s one I don’t use very often, mainly because I never can remember what “Fuji F125” is going to do to the different colors and tones in my image. Color lookup tables—abbreviated as either CLUTs or LUTs— are common to the film industry, and can be used to mimic film or darkroom techniques with just one click. Chris Cox from Adobe created starter files to help us make our own LUT presets that anyone with a Creative Cloud subscription can get, and I’ve had a bit of fun doing just that. (Choose Help > Browse Add-Ons, and look for them in the Photoshop free section.) But why am I trying to run before I can walk?—the shipped presets were designed by professionals and all I have to do is figure out what type of photo each works best with. Making a preset “viewer” turns that time-consuming effort into quick work.

Screenshot of ExportColorLookupSample
Creative Cloud subscribers can pick up free sample files from Chris Cox that demonstrate how to create your own LUTs.

I picked a landscape almost at random. The way this type of file gets created, I can later easily swap out the landscape I used for any other photo. I created my standard 10×8 file and dragged the photo from Bridge into the file to set it as a Smart Object. If you want to keep your file size reasonably small, you can resize a duplicate photo to a smaller size before dragging it in, but if you have a size photo that you commonly work with, I’d suggest you take the file size hit and retain the actual size. It will make it easier for you to work with this file later on.

After adding one Smart Object, I copied the layer (Cmd/Ctrl-J) 3 times. I dragged the topmost layer to the far left position, using Smart Guides  to show that I was keeping it aligned (View> Show> Smart Guides, or Cmd/Ctrl-U). It also helps to hold down Shift after you start dragging—drag sideways and then hold down Shift, and the file can’t move up or down on the page. Drag up and then hold Shift, and the file can’t move left or right on the page.

Files about to be distributed
Three files are stacked on the left; one file is aligned with them to the right.

I next selected all four Smart Object layers in the Layers panel, then clicked on the Distribute horizontal centers icon in the Options bar to get all 4 layers to space themselves evenly between the first and last photo. After creating one row, I duplicated the entire row and moved it below the first, and repeated this process to fill the page.

Screenshot of Align icons

Image of 4 distributed images
Horzontally distributing images across a document

Next I added a Color Lookup Adjustment layer to the first photo. I used the icon in the bottom of the Adjustment Layers panel to clip it to the photo so it would only affect that photo (or press Cmd-Opt-G/Ctrl-Alt-G), and then applied the first preset. I renamed the photo layer in order to see at a glance what preset corresponded to each photo, but of course, you could also just open the Adjustment layer to see the name. If there are more presets than you have layers in your file, save the first file, then immediately save it again with the same name and “2” to indicated it’s continued from the first file. This time you’ll edit the exiting Adjustment layers to apply new presets. When all of presets have been used in your file(s), you can simply delete any extra layers.

Color Lookup Properties
Select the icon at the bottom left to clip the Adjustment layer to the layer below.
Example of Smart Objects with different presets
After creating a Preview file, you can see at a glance what each Adjustment layer preset will do to this image.

The reason for using a Smart Object becomes evident when you want to see how these presets will affect a completely different photo. All you have to do now is right-click on the photo’s layer in the first file and choose Replace Contents from the context-sensitive menu. In the dialog that opens, navigate to the image folder you want, select the photo you want, and click Place. Because your example photo is a Smart Object that you copied many times, all of your Smart Objects will be updated to show the new photo you chose with all your Adjustment layers still intact.

Menu with Replace Contents
Right-clicking on a Smart Object layer displays the Replace Contents command.
Smart Object contents replaced with another image
Use the Replace Contents command to display a different photo with the same presets applied to it.

Do this with each file for that Adjustment layer’s presets that you have. If your replacement photo isn’t the same size as the original, it won’t fill the layout exactly the same, which is why I suggested you stick as closely to your typical photo size as possible. Any scaling you do to the original Smart Object is remembered and applied to the replacement image. You can see that if you use a small photo and don’t scale it, then replace it with a large photo, which also won’t be scaled, the large photo won’t fit. And vice versa. Scale a large photo down, then use a very small one, and it might wind up so small after scaling you can barely see it. I didn’t say this was the perfect Preset Previewer, but it’s a lot better than not having any Preset Previewer. You might even want to make one set each for horizontal and vertical orientations. The more you do up front, the more useful the files will be in the future.

Swapping contents with the wrong size
If you replace a Smart Object’s contents with an image that has very different dimensions, you’ll have to manually resize each Smart Object to fit the space.

This setup works great so long as your presets are added with Adjustment layers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work with any of the 3rd party plug-ins that I have, such as Topaz, Nik, or On1 Perfect Effects. These plug-ins always see the whole document, even if each layer is mostly empty after you scaled the original Smart Object. Borders and vignettes follow the document, not the Smart Object layer. Fortunately, unlike Photoshop they all have a way to preview their presets on your current image. However, like playing scales on the piano before playing the piece, creating preview files of presets for some of your plug-ins can help you know what to look for when using the filter presets. But demonstrating that is for another time.

3rd party borders don't fit
Adding a border inside a 3rd party plug-in (such as On1’s Perfect Effects shown here) to one Smart Object in the document doesn’t work.