Why I Don't Use Smart Objects In My Photoshop Workflow

Photoshop tutorial by photographer Craig Boehman.

Photoshop is my go-to photography post-processing program. Each new iteration only gets better - and the new June 2020 update certainly makes paying the big annual subscription fee worthwhile to me as a professional photographer. But every editing software program, as least in 2020, isn't without its flaws. Even in Photoshop, which I consider the best in the business, there are glitches and flaws big and small which I wish were remedied. Case in point is the Content-Aware option box when you're using the Crop tool within a Smart Object layer.

Smart Objects is a great idea on paper. It makes your editing workflow non-destructive, which allows one to go back and make adjustments later. Smart Objects also save space on your hard drive - potentially a lot of space - and that translates into saving money on purchasing additional external drives. If you've worked with multiple layers, then you know that every time you duplicate or add a new layer, then the size of the file typically doubles. And if you work in RAW, file sizes have potential to reach upwards of several gigabytes.

It makes perfect sense then to work with Smart Objects whenever possible. The problem is, as I already alluded to, that the Crop tool isn't fully integrated into the Smart Object world. The Content-Aware feature just doesn't work - the option is greyed-out if you've converted your layer into a Smart Object. Why is this a big deal? Because for me, cropping in post-production is usually one of my standard go-tool tools in my workflow directly after importing an image from Camera Raw. Now, you can crop normally but you can't use Content-Aware, which is also a vital step for me. The header image is a prime example of this.

Sometimes things happen quickly out in the streets, and I'll miss the perfect frame for any number of reasons. In this case, I would have loved for there to be more space at the bottom of the frame so it doesn't look look so unnatural with the dog's paw touching the border. Ideally, I'd have a nice buffer of a few more pixels. I'm not as bothered by the man's head being cut because it's a little more acceptable in some genres (like fashion and other editorial genres). But having the frame so tight at both top and bottom doesn't work for me.

These kind of issues do happen to those of us who are prime lens shooters. We heaving rely on speed to get some of our shoots when shooting street photography and wouldn't normally consider wasting time with a zoom lens. The drawback for this strategy, naturally, is that not all the frames are as perfect when dealing with fast-moving objects or quickly-changing scenes - like a dog-walker stopping mid-stride to pose for me. FYI - I took several shots of these two but this was the only frame where the dog was looking right at me. So I didn't have another frame I could go to unless I wanted to make a composite. But why bother with this when I could use the Content-Aware feature while cropping - and automatically fill in the negative space at the bottom? More advanced photographers out there might chime in and say that I could just use the Smart Object and crop, uncheck the Delete Cropped Pixels box, and simply clone-stamp the bottom portion back into the frame. Yes. I could do this. But it's a lot more time-consuming if there's no legitimate reasons for doing so - lacking the presence of patterns or varying levels of texture or depth of field, etc.

The above represents what I'd normally do before moving on to additional editing. I unchecked the base layer and began work on the copy. After I made the necessary cropping edits and (and corrections!) with additional layers, I flattened those down to just one layer.

Full disclosure: I did end up having to do some additional work making use of the Clone Stamp tool and Healing brushes (and a quick job here for demonstration purposes). Whenever there are tiles and different exposure zones, additional editing post-crop becomes inevitable. I could have clone-stamped an additional set of wavy lines on the left just below the dog but decided instead to only clean up the Content-Aware artefacts.

As always, I welcome your comments. If you've got a great workflow, I'd like to hear about it below.

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