The introduction of Smart Filters is a significant milestone in the history of Adobe Photoshop, as this built in architecture gives you flexibility and freedom you simply could not achieve and enjoy in earlier versions of the software. The Smart Filter architecture is an additive/subtractive chain system composed of any Filters of your choice, yet the individual elements of this chain system have an autonomous, dynamic relation to the underlying image they are affecting.
To see how the system works, first you need to set up the Layer or Background you want to utilize Smart Filters on. As of Photoshop version CS3, the software comes with Smart Objects, a subsystem which gives users increased efficiency to export/import various elements between vector based – such as Adobe Illustrator – and pixel based – such as Adobe Photoshop – applications. Smart Filters require a Smart Object to work on, therefore the only thing you need to do to be able to use Smart Filters, is to convert the desired pixel data to a Smart Object. To accomplish this, go to Filters – > Convert to Smart Filters.
The Layer/Background is a Smart Object now, and is ready to be utilized as the “host” of a Smart Filter chain. Pick a Filter of your choice that has the tendency of affecting the image dramatically. The Filter – > Artistic category has quite a few of those. Be sure to set radical Filter values at first, as soon you will see how the Smart Filter subsystem lets you alter any value at any time upon the activation of the Smart Filter.
Now that your first Smart Filter is in effect, take a look at the Layers palette. In case the Layers palette is closed at the moment, you can toggle its visibility by relying on the default hotkey F7.
The Layer has a tiny icon composed of two intersecting circles, indicating that the Layer is a Smart Object. Below the Layer itself, you see a dialog panel for the Smart Filter you just amended. This panel is the essence of the Smart Filter subsystem, and a separate variant of it will be available for each and every Smart Filter you add to the chain.
The first Eye icon toggles the visibility of the Smart Filter: once the Eye is deactivated, the effects of the selected Smart Filter no longer will be rendered on the host image. At the lower section, you see the name of the original Filter, followed up by two tiny arrows, indicating a Slider. If you double click on the arrows, you will access a dynamic Opacity slider on which you can set the strength of the Smart Filter. Keep in mind though that the current Opacity value is directly reliant on the more involved values you set the Filter to work with at the first pace. The most impressive aspect of this architecture is that the Smart Filters subsystem records those values dynamically, thus you can access-, and re-specify those by double clicking on the name of the Filter. This takes you to the Filter dialog, displaying the values that are currently active and rendered on the image. Adjust these as you see fit and see how your changes will affect the image immediately.
This is only one Smart Filter so far, but already you can see how the system gives you flexibility and freedom that were not present in earlier versions of the software. The true efficiency of this solution becomes evident when you recognize that there is no upper limit to the Smart Filters you can stack up on an image, toggling their visibility and adjusting their respective values as you see fit. This technique of “spicing up” an image with customized Smart Filters and toggling their autonomous visibility values, often yields impressive results you never would have thought of without this fluent possibility of playful-, yet highly controllable experimentation. Let yourself be surprised, as that is what this subsystem is all about.