Photo manipulations don’t have to be a mess of layers. Many complex photo manipulations can be recreated in less than 15 layers by taking advantage of Smart Objects. Learn how to create photo manipulations with a fraction of the layers you’d normally use with these 10 tips.

1. Convert your layers into a Smart Objects

It’s surprising how many people don’t use Smart Objects – the most important nondestructive editing technique. Smart Objects are layers – just smarter. Unlike regular layers, Smart Objects give you:

  • Nondestructive transformations. You can scale, rotate, skew, etc. multiple times without losing the original image quality. For example, if you were to scale layer to a smaller size then decide you want to enlarge it back later, you can do so without losing any image quality.
  • Nondestructive filterings. When you apply filters to Smart Objects, they are applied as Smart Filters which lets you edit the settings at any time. Most filters in Photoshop CS6 are compatible with Smart Objects.
  • Syncing/Linked instances. If you duplicate a Smart Object, you can update the contents within the Smart Object and both of the layers will be updated. This is useful when you need more than one copy of the same layer but want them all to be synchronize.

To convert your layers into Smart Objects, right-click on the layer then choose Convert to Smart Object.


2. Use the File > Place command to place images

Often times, photo manipulators would open an image in Photoshop then copy & paste it to another document. There’s no reason to do this anymore. Copying & pasting takes more time and effort and the Place command automatically places your image as a Smart Object saving you even more time.

Bokeh Brushes

Using the File > Place command also lets you place RAW, AI, and other types of files directly as Smart Objects. For example, you can place your RAW files and use the Adobe Camera RAW to edit the RAW file at any time just by double-clicking on the Smart Object. You no longer have to convert your RAW files into JPG images before placing them into your photo manipulation.

3. Use layer and clipping masks

Most of you already know about layer and clipping masks but they still aren’t being used properly by many. A lot of times, photo manipulators would create a cutout of the image directly on the layer then use a layer mask to erase more parts of an image. If your layer was a Smart Object, Photoshop would prevent you from doing this and force you to make changes in your layer mask. If one layer mask isn’t enough, you can always add more by placing them into groups.


Need to use more than one layer mask? Put it into a group and add a layer mask to the group.

Clipping masks is another great way of recycling those layer masks/cutouts you’ve created. Instead of copying/pasting layer masks, just use clipping masks. If you really can’t use clipping masks, you can always place those layers into a group and apply a layer mask to the group instead. With Photoshop CS6, you can even clip layers to layer groups.


Recycle layer masks with clipping masks.

4. Keep photo effects simple

There are many ways to apply photo effects and most of them can be created with few adjustment layers. It’s easy to keep stacking layers upon layers to get the photo effect you want – try recreating the same photo effect using fewer layers. Photo effects should be created from a series of layers that you understand; not a random stack created by chance. Complex photo effects are messy and can degrade the image quality and reduce the dynamic range of your artwork.

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