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Photoshop: Combining Complex Filters

Sometimes one filter just isn’t enough. There are so many filters in Photoshop, and so many settings to tweak, that it’s quite easy to create a unique setting never seen before. The trick is how to do that in a way that’s non-destructive, repeatable, and editable.


Step 1

First, you need to turn your layer (or all your layers) into a Smart Object. This function is found in several different places, and (confusingly) under different names. After selecting your layers, do one of these things:

  • Right-click in the Layers panel and choose Convert to Smart Object
  • Choose Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object or
  • Choose Filters > Convert for Smart Filters

Layers into smart objects


Step 2 - Plastic Wrap

Now that you’ve converted your layer(s) into a Smart Object, we can begin: Almost every filter works on Smart Objects, with the exception of Lens Blur, Liquify and Vanishing Point. Shadows/Highlights, found under Image > Adjustments, does work on Smart Objects, however, just like a filter.

Choose Filter > Artistic > Plastic Wrap for starters. This opens an interface known as the Filter Gallery, in which you can apply filters with full-resolution previews on the left and parameters to tweak on the right.

Plastic Wrap and its options


Step 3 - All the filters together

Take a look at the settings on the far right. While these parameters vary from filter to filter, a common thread is that most people never change them. It’s worth pushing a few values up or down to see if you can tease out a different kind of look from the default.

If it doesn’t suit though, there are many different filters to choose from. Just above the sliders for the Plastic Wrap, there’s a drop-down menu, currently showing “Plastic Wrap”. From this menu, choose Underpainting. This has the same effect as clicking on a thumbnail between the preview and the current effect’s parameters.

All the filters together


Step 4 - The New and Trash buttons

There are yet more options to tweak here, including a Texture drop-down for quite different effects. However, you can get a far more complex result if you add another filter in addition to this one.

At the very bottom of this window, there’s a “New” button, the Adobe-standard “document with an upturned corner”, next to a Trash can button. Press the “New” button.

The New and Trash buttons


Step 5 - Two filters at once

Now, you can choose a second filter: I’ve chosen Halftone Pattern, from the Distort group.

Two filters at once


Step 6 - Layers panel with a Smart Filter applied and a mask

The order here matters, and it’s bottom-up. That is, the filter at the bottom applies first, then the one above, and so on. You can rearrange the filters by dragging them, as you’d expect, and you can hide an effect by clicking the eye next to its name in the filter stack. If your filters are complex and your image is large, expect to wait a few seconds for updates after changing settings or rearranging the filter order.

When you’re done, press OK. Now, the exciting part: painting the effect in and out. The Layers panel will now show “Filter Gallery” under your Smart Object. Select the mask, press B to choose the Brush tool, press D to choose default colors and then X to switch them around. Now, paint with Black to erase the filter. Press X again, then paint with White to paint it back in.

Layers panel with a Smart Filter applied and a mask


Step 7 - Blending Options for a Smart Object’s Smart Filters

Double-click the words “Filter Gallery” to edit the filter settings again if you wish. Finally, double-click the small sliders to the right of the words “Filter Gallery” to access its Blending Options. This is where you can turn it down or apply it with a blending mode like Screen or Luminosity.

Blending Options for a Smart Object’s Smart Filters


These parameters, taken together, give you a great deal of control. Apparently only 5% of computer users ever change their preference settings, and I suspect the same applies to filter parameters. Be in the top 5%!


Iain Anderson

Iain Anderson | Articles by this author

Iain Anderson is an editor, animator, designer, developer and Apple Certified Trainer based in Brisbane, Australia. He has taught privately and in tertiary institutions, and has freelanced for Microsoft and the Queensland Government. Comfortable with anything from Quartz Composer to Second Life and Final Cut Pro to Adobe Creative Suite, he has laid out books, booklets, brochures and business cards; retouched magazine covers and product packaging, shot and edited short films and animated for HD broadcast TV, film festivals and for the web.

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