Using Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 (or any Filter) as a Smart Object in Photoshop

Nik BannerUsing Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 (Or any Filter) as a Smart Object in Photoshop 

How many times have you finished tone mapping an image and made your final Tiff or Jpeg image only to think that you wish you would have done things differently in your HDR program when tone mapping or adding adjustments during the HDR process? 

Do you wish that you could just go back to where you left off in that process and make any change you wanted? 

Well of course you could just merge the images again and yeah you were smart enough to save the recipe you used as a preset. But what about the 20 control points you added to the image. Plus all that time spent remerging and aligning the initial images. There has to be a better way. 

There is, using HDR Efex Pro 2 as a Smart Object/Smart Filter in Photoshop. 

What is a Smart Object? 

Smart Objects have been around in Photoshop since I think CS2; however they really came into their own in versions CS4 and later. I just upgraded to Adobe Photoshop CS6 so I’m loving all the new options I have (It is a great upgrade). In the later versions you have options to add layers as a Smart Object and use them with the filters in your filter menu. 

A Smart Object allows for a couple things. The main thing that people like about a smart object is that it is pretty much infinitely resizable within your Image, retaining all the characteristics of the original layer even if you blow the object up to much larger proportions. This is much like using a Vector image in Illustrator except that it is still a Raster (Pixel) image. So you don’t see any of the pixelization or jagged edges you would have if doing that with a standard Raster (Pixel) layer. 

That’s the main use of a Smart Object but for us there is another use that really fits our needs. It allows us to go back and edit any filter we use on that Smart Object layer. *If we drop down our filter list in Photoshop, virtually all of those filters can be applied to a smart object layer and later in our process we can go back and make changes to the filter and all the while doing so in a Non-Destructive manner. 

That is a really cool thing. So we are going to show how to use Smart Objects but in a very specific way with Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro 2, which because it operates in the 32 bit domain (as opposed to 16 or 8 bit we are used to working in) It has a few things we need to be aware of. 

Using Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 as a Smart Object/Filter 

We will begin out journey here in Photoshop Bridge (sorry Lightroom users, although you can open an image as a smart object in Photoshop from LR, we can’t do the merge and enter HDR Efex Pro from there as a smart object)

In Bridge, we select the images we want to use for our HDR and then with them selected go up to Tools > Nik Software > Merge to HDR Efex Pro 2. (It’s also available on the right click/ctrl click flyout)


 This will be begin the process. A screen in HEP2 will pop up with these options:


 And there under the red arrow is the most important part of the merge process, the check box for “Create Smart object”.

 From here, everything continues as it normally does, the alignment/ deghosting opens and from there right into our normal tone mapping. We do anything and everything we want to to the image, apply presets, make adjustments, add control points and when we have it as we think we want. We click OK 

Now the image will open in Photoshop and we have our image as a Smart Object layer.

Returning to HDR Efex Pro 2 tone-mapping

From this point if we want to go back to Nik HDR Efex Pro 2, we simply click on the smart filter; HDR Efex Pro 2 and that brings us right back to where we left off.

All our adjustments just as we were and completely editable, all our control points exactly where they were and fully editable. The only thing missing is the history and we can’t enter the merge dialog again but that really OK since everything else is fully editable. Clicking OK once again brings us back to Photoshop.

 So that’s cool enough and I usually will at this point save this image as a Layered Tiff or PSD file. 

At this point we will of course want to carry on with our finish post processing of our image but this brings up one peculiarity to using a Smart Layer on HEP2 that I mentioned earlier. The image is a 32 bit Image so that means that not all adjustments or filters are available to work on 32 bit images. They’ve added more and more as Photoshop has progressed but still are quite limited… 

Some Limitations and Workarounds

Adjustment Layers are limited to Levels, Exposure, Hue/Saturation and the Channel Mixer. Sometimes that’s all I might need. 

Filters are limited to a few Blur and Sharpen effects.

But we can open up more adjustments and filters by changing the mode of  our image ( I still would save a copy in 32 bit) to 16 bit or 8 bit mode. 

We do this by highlighting the Layer (Layer 0) and then going up to Image > Mode > 16 Bit (or 8 bit) It will ask if we want to merge the layers, Say “Don’t Merge”


 It will convert the mode of each exposure layer and then allow for more different Adjustment Layers and a full range of filters including other Nik Filters. In fact those Nik filters are so smart on their own that they will recognize that they are being applied to a smart layer and will themselves be editable as a smart object. How cool is that? 

Now of course there is never a free lunch in life or editing. There still are some things we can not do with our image as a smart object. We can’t Paint on them, *Edit, Thanks to Steve’s suggestion, You can Paint if you add a Blank Layer above the  Smart Layer” …..we can’t Dodge and Burn. We can’t clone or heal. Basically anything that operates on a pixel level we can’t do. So at this point if you wanted to edit and refine further we would have to merge down the image and rasterize it thus eliminating the smart layer and our ability to edit in HDR Efex Pro 2. (Photoshop will warn you this will happen). That’s’ why I say to save separate copies at maybe one or two points in the process so you can always return to a state you may need. 

So you may flatten the image and finish your project. 

One note though of something that May happen and how to handle it. Depending on when you flatten the image, if it is still a 32 bit image when you flatten the image, Photoshop assumes you are merging an HDR and will open up its own tone mapping. (This happens anytime you change from 32 bit to another bit depth, which is how you can tone-map a single image in Photoshop, convert to 32 bit and back) To work around this, simply drop down the Method list to Exposure and Gamma, make sure the controls are “Centered” (Exposure 0.0 – Gamma 1.0) and click OK.


 At this point it is just like working on any merged image and you can do anything in Photoshop your heart desires, of course EXCEPT, go back and edit the Smart HDR Efex Pro 2 Filter. That’s’ why I say once again to save separate copies along the way. They may save you a ton of time. And remember you can use Smart Objects with all filters including other Nik Products like Color Efex Pro 4 And Silver Efex Pro 2

Hope that helps 

Thanks to Janice Wendt at Nik Software for her enlightening me on Smart Objects and Nik Filters 


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Oh if you want to see the final image, Here it is:






  1. Kevin La Rue September 13, 2012 at 3:14 pm #

    Hi Peter – where were the exposures taken? That looks somewhat like Anza Borrego desert east of San Diego!

  2. John MacLean September 13, 2012 at 4:22 pm #

    Peter, nice blog post! I had asked NIK this same question, AFTER I bought the LR suite on sale last December. I guess I could just buy the apps again for PS, but what a drag! Grr 🙁

    • Peter September 13, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

      Thanks John,
      Yeah I think if you buy an individual component you get all three Plug ins.(PS LR AP) But with the complete collections, you can buy it just for Lightroom?Aperture or all three at a higher price. But I’m not entirely sure

  3. Steve Casey October 6, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    Peter, Why would you not point that it is possible to paint, clone stamp, &/or dodge burn by adding a blank layer(s), which allows one to retain the smart object? It is not necessary to merge down and rasterize the file.

    • Peter October 6, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

      Hi Steve, thanks for the comment and the question.

      Well, you are right in that you could add an blank layer and actually the one thing I stated wrong was you couldn’t paint, you are right you can. It’s just something I never do on an HDR so I didn’t really look for a fix. I’ll make an edit change to the article and credit you.

      As far as dodging and Burning, You still can’t because the layer contains no pixels so dodging and burning would only apply if you added pixels from somewhere.

      As far as cloning, healing, patching…yes, if you select “sample all layers” it is possible. But here is the problem “I” would have with that. So I patch something and that now appears on the blank layer. If at this point I return to HDR efex Pro 2 and do some type of Global change, lightness, color etc. Or possibly just a control point area too, Those patches are going to stick out like a sore thumb.

      Of course maybe I’m missing something here, so if you have a fix, it would be appreciated.

      The truth is, “you” may never need to rasterize the image. If your workflow is only looking at the image in Photoshop, you don’t need to use the few tools that are precluded and you print to you own printer, you may never need to rasterize

      For me, I am always going to make a rasterized copy at some point and I find it simpler to make those finishing touches then. But that’s just how I work.
      I just want the option to go back without having to start over my image that Smart Layers allows

      Thanks for the suggestion


  4. Steve Casey October 6, 2012 at 5:09 pm #

    Peter, Thanks for the explanation. Please understand that my question was based in wanting to understand, not criticism. There are always multiple ways to do everything. I have been able to Dodge/Burn by adding a new Blank Layer in Overlay Mode and filled with 50% gray. You are correct that any adjustments in the Smart Filters after the New Blank Layers mean the Ps Layers have to be redone. Thanks for your input.

    • Peter October 6, 2012 at 5:46 pm #

      Hi Steve,
      I didn’t take it as criticism I just wanted to explain my way of doing things which at times is un-orthodox…bordering on stupidity…lol

      Plus I was cranky, tired and hungry from laying sod all day and I wanted to get my pot-stickers in the pan…umm they were good. So I rushed through the reply to get it done before dinner

      Anyway, I DO appreciate your comments and your suggestions, I’ll have to try that dodging and burning technique, I’ve never done that and it may be just the trick.

      Thanks again!! Sorry if I sounded cranky


  5. Steve Casey October 7, 2012 at 9:15 am #

    I did not sense any “crankiness”; however, sod laying would make me cranky too. I am “all in” the next time you are going to have pot-stickers. 🙂

  6. Tony January 25, 2013 at 8:17 pm #

    ” And remember you can use Smart Objects with all filters including other Nik Products like Color Efex Pro 4 And Silver Efex Pro 2″

    Mine does not all for this in CS 5.5. It will not allow 32 bit in any of the other Nik plugins until I convert down to 16 bit. Is it different in CS6?

    • Peter January 25, 2013 at 8:42 pm #

      No, It’s No different in CS6
      If you fully read the article I do say “The image is a 32 bit Image so that means that not all adjustments or filters are available to work on 32 bit images. They’ve added more and more as Photoshop has progressed but still are quite limited… ”

      You can use any Filter or Plug in as a Smart Object, That deso not mean they will work in 32 Bit Mode, as I said things that work in 32 Bit Mode are quite Limited and as I say later in the article, there are some work arounds but you will at some point need to change to a 16 Bit Image/

  7. Tony January 26, 2013 at 9:25 am #

    Peter, Thanks.
    The only way for me to get PS to “open up its own tone mapping” dialog is to do the opposite of what you recommended and Merge, then follow your directions. If I “Don’t Merge” I don’t get the dialog and my image desaturates.

    I don’t have any Nik plugins on my CS6 machine any longer as the trial ran out before I had time for testing, so I’m stuck with my CS5.5 machine with the plugins for now. Maybe it’s a 5.5 problem. 5.5 Bridge also doesn’t have the ability to import through the Nik plugin also, so I’m forced to import through PS’s automate, but leads to your same directions either way.

    I wish that there was full 32 bit support across all the Nik plugins and PS. This would allow me to go from one Nik plugin to the other without all the converting and also allow me to save my history states and Smart Objects. As of now it seems half baked. I do love all the Nik plugins and what they can do for my imagery, so don’t get me wrong.

  8. Tony January 26, 2013 at 9:26 am #

    BTW, nice to see a “in my backyard” familiar location.

  9. Deb April 6, 2013 at 11:57 am #

    I have a question, if I may….I just downloaded Efex HDR and unlike the other Nik plugins, it does not save the changes in a layer in PS CS5. I used it before several years ago as a trial, and it saved as a layer at that time, but not now. I just prefer to work in layers. Any ideas? Thanks for any help you can offer.

    • Peter April 7, 2013 at 1:51 am #

      Hi Deb,
      Because HDR efex Pro 2 works a little differently ( It works in 32 bit mode) It does not save as a seperate normal Layer, however like this article sujest, you can save it as a Smart Layer. which do somethings like a regular layer and some things differently. But you have to make that choice to save as a smart layer, after your select your exposures for the HDR and before the alignment starts ( The first screen that comes up, There is a check box for save as a smart layer.

      If you are having trouble with any of the other Plug-ins not saving on a layer, Open one of the filters and under settings, there is a tabe, “What do I do after clicking OK” and set that to save on a seperate layer. This is not available in HDR Efex Pro

  10. Howard Ramey May 9, 2013 at 10:46 am #

    I have some beautiful 32 bit HDR Nik images which I would like to print. I tried your suggestion for flattening the HDR image but it did not work well at all – the resulting image was unusable. When I tried to change the gamma to “0” the image became very flat (never mind that PS did not want to allow me to change the gamma to “0”. PS insisted that it be at least 0.1
    I have CS5, version 12.0, x64 and HDR Efex Pro 2 which I just purchased. Any suggestions?

    • Peter May 9, 2013 at 11:35 am #

      Hi Howard,
      As you’ve seen you can’t print the image in 32 Bit Mode, and it’s because printers can’t accept a 32 Bit image, They will accept 16 and 8 bit images even though they actually themselves are most 8 bit input devices.

      So as you have seen, you need to flatten and change the mode of the image in order to make a print copy. However, in my instructions I used an Ambiguous term. I said “Zeroed” Not Zero and that leads to confusion. A lot of times in Photoshop and Lightroom the “Zeroed” point is not zero…yeah I know, I’m not making sense, What I should have said is stock center point of the adjustment. In the case of Gamma, This is 1.0. 1.0 is normal Gamma without adjustment. So if you have Exposure set to 0.0 and Gamma set to 1.0 you should have NO adjustment made to the image which is what you want. This should give you a 16 Bit or 8 Bit image that looks the same as your 32 bit and is indeed printable.

      Save this as a separate file just for printing (Either Tiff if printing at home or Hi Qual Jpeg for sending to lab) and you should be all set.

      Sorry for the confusion and thank you for bringing this to my attention. Sometimes things make sense in my head but don’t translate to the rest of the world. I’ll change the wording in the post to clarify.

      Thanks again and if you have any other probelms please ask


      • Howard Ramey May 9, 2013 at 3:25 pm #

        Okay thanks. I think there is perhaps one more important piece – this MUST be done with a RAW file; I could not get TIFFS to work.

        • Peter May 10, 2013 at 12:05 am #

          Hmmm…Not sure what your workflow is and maybe you means something other than what I think but I have had 0 problems using Tiffs, RAW or even Jpegs for that matter as the source files for a Smart Object HDR in HDR Efex Pro 2

          My suggestion for you and others, would be to perhaps forget about the whole Smart Object and uncheck that box and just do a normal process HDR through HDR Efex Pro 2. It seems for most people the small advantages (editability) with 32 bit Smart Objects is far outweighed by their complexities for people not used to working with smart objects or the 32 bit mode in Photoshop

  11. Jacob July 29, 2013 at 2:39 am #

    Thank you for the detailed workflow, especially the transition from 32bit to 8/16 bit. This was driving me crazy – I get it all fixed in HEP2 and then it wants to do more changes in RAW 🙂

  12. Jeff October 17, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

    Thanks Peter – here is where I lost you: “From this point if we want to go back to Nik HDR Efex Pro 2, we simply click on the smart filter; HDR Efex Pro 2 and that brings us right back to where we left off”.
    When I [double] click on the Layer 0 sublayer Smart filter, I only get “Filter mask display options”. If I single click and go to the filter menu, all of my Nik filters are grayed out. What am I doing wrong? I’m on CS5 (64bit).

    • Peter October 17, 2013 at 6:55 pm #

      Hi Jeff,
      In your Layers Menu you should have
      A Layer o
      Below that a Mask Layer That says Smart Filter
      Below that a Smart Filter Named HDR Efex Pro2

      It seems if I am reading you right that you don’t have that 3rd Subset layer named HDR Efex 2

      It’s not unusual for all the Other Nik Filters to be Grayed out, since they don not work in 32 Bit Mode, The only Nik filter that does work in 32 bit Mode (Image Mode) is HDR Efex 2 and that should Not be grayed out, but if you clicked it again from the filter menu it would reapply the filter, not take you back to editing it.

      It can only be done from the Layers Tab

      So, I’m not sure why you aren’t getting that layer subset

      Are you taking your images from Bridge, selecting them going to Tools> Nik Collection > Merge to HDR Efex 2 and at the first menu selecting Open as a Smart Object?

      are are you going about it a different way?