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Non-destructive image filtering is now possible with CS3's Smart Filters

Added on Saturday 22nd of March 2008 07:32 am EST
Adobe Photoshop CS/CS2/CS3
Operating Systems:
Microsoft Windows, Macintosh

Photoshop enthusiasts have longed for the day when filters would be editable and non-destructive to images. Alas, that day has finally come; we’ll introduce you to the amazing new world of Photoshop CS3’s Smart Filters.

To explore Smart Filters’ benefits, we’ll:
  • Explain how Smart Filters work and tell you why they’re so great. Prepare an image for smart filtering and apply multiple filters for interesting effects.
  • Outline the new Smart Filters editable controls in the Layers palette, and detail how to edit, rearrange, and mask a Smart Filter.

As a professional pixel-pusher your goal should always be non-destructive image editing. That’s why adjustment layers are the cream-of-the-crop in Photoshop. They allow you to apply editable curves, levels and other color and tonal transformations to an image, without ever altering the image’s pixels. (This is especially important when you have clients who want last-minute changes!) Well, the fantasy of non-destructive image filtering is now a reality with CS3’s Smart Filters. Does it get any better than this?

What’s so smart about smart filters?
Adobe introduced Smart Objects to Photoshop in CS2, and with the release of CS3, the Photoshop engineers have added the ability to non-destructively filter a Smart Object using Smart Filters.
                 Smart Filters are simply any filter(s) that you apply to a Smart Object. The beauty is that they are editable and non-destructive to your image. If you decide 10 steps later that you don’t like the filter effect or want to change the filter’s settings, making that edit is now a breeze.
                  While you don’t necessarily need to understand how Smart Objects work to reap the benefits of Smart Filters, we’ve provided a brief explanation on Smart Objects as well as other articles on the topic. See our pullout box “Smart Object articles” for more information.

Smart Object articles
Smart Objects are layers containing an embedded copy of a native Illustrator, Photoshop or RAW file. Because Photoshop embeds a copy of the original source file in the Photoshop file, every time you scale or transform the Smart Objects layer, Photoshop revisits the original embedded image data. The layer transformation regenerates with the new specs as if each transformation was the only one, so you won’t get any distortion or pixel degradation.
            For an in-depth look at Smart Objects, check out these articles in the August 2006 issue of Inside Photoshop (Online Subscribers can visit the corresponding URLs):
  • “Never lose a pixel: Transform better with Smart Objects,” located online at
  • “The mystery of the saved Smart Object file revealed,” located online at

Apply a Smart Filter To explore Smart Filters, you’ll need an image to work with. To follow along with a low-resolution copy of our example, shown in Figure A, download the file from the URL given at the beginning of this article. Then, extract the file rose.psd, launch Photoshop and open the file. (Images provided by PhotoSpin. Some images modified for educational purposes.)

Note: Smart Filters aren’t limited to RGB color mode or 8-bit images for that matter. You can use CMYK images as well as 16- or 32-bit images with Smart Filters. Be aware, however, that the same filtering limitations apply to those image types when using Smart Filters as when applying standard filters: many of the filters are unavailable.


We stated earlier that a Smart Filter is any filter you apply to a Smart Object, so it makes sense that we need to convert our image layer to a Smart Object first. We’ll show you how to do that quickly and then apply the filter effects.

Note: We’ll show you the new Photoshop CS3 easy way to convert an image layer to a Smart Object for Smart Filtering. To read about other ways to import a Smart Object, check out the aforementioned articles of interest.

To apply a Smart Filter to a Smart Object:
  1. Drag the image layer to the Create A New Layer icon located at the base of the Layers palette to duplicate the layer.

Tip: Duplicating the layer isn’t a necessary step for using Smart Filters, but for the purpose of this article, it will help to illustrate an effect.
  1. Select the image layer you wish to filter,...

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