Smart Brush

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The Smart Brush tools (two of them) live near the bottom of the Photoshop Elements tool bar and they can do some amazing things in your digital editing projects.

smart brush tools

The top brush automatically selects the area to modify and the bottom brush (the Detail brush) lets you make all of the decisions.

Adobe has set it up so that the Smart Brush Tool (the top one) automates a whole lot of different functions.  You decide what you want to do and then let the brush loose to do its thing. 

Photoshop Elements certainly didn't hold back with these brushes. 

There are nine main adjustment categories and each one has a number of different effects within the category for a total of 67 different effects!

Here they are ...
  • Black and White - 7 effects
  • Color - 15 effects
  • Lighting - 5 effects
  • Nature - 5 effects
  • Photographic - 10 effects
  • Portrait - 7 effects
  • Reverse Effects - 6 effects
  • Special Effects - 12 effects

Pen Tablet or Mouse?

Pen tablet, of course ...

smart brush paletteThis is a brush intensive technique so using a Wacom pen tablet (Bamboo or Intuos4) makes things a lot easier.

There's a setting in the brush palette (in the Option Bar) for this tool to turn on Pen Pressure (or finger wheel with the Wacom airbrush tool) when you have a Wacom tablet installed.

You can also select the typical brush settings in this palette.

  1. Brush Size (Diameter).
  2. Softness of the brush edge (Hardness).
  3. Spacing.
  4. Angle and Roundness.
  5. Brush Size (none, pen pressure, stylus wheel)

Using The Smart Brush

When you click on the Tool snart brush tools you're almost ready to go.  The next step is to go up to the Options Bar and choose how the brush will behave.

smart brush menuIf, for instance, you want to change the color of an object in your image drop down the menu and select Color.

Now you have 15 different color choices.

Scroll down to see the choices available and select the color you like or the one that fits your requirements.

You'll notice that Adobe has assigned interesting and catchy names to each of the color selections.

When you've chosen the color simply click and drag over the color you want to change, wait a few moments and watch what happens. 

Elements will search for areas that are similar in certain ways, create a selection and then add the adjustment you've chosen.  Sometimes it's utterly amazing and at other times the selection is poor.

An Example

I've got this picture of a streetcar with nice red stripes.  How would it look if all of the red stripes were a different color?

smart brush streetcar

After dragging the cursor near the front of the red stripe on the streetcar - this is what happened.

smart brush streetcar colored
The selection and the new color looks good especially on an area that's not overly complicated (like hair, for instance).

In this example it's easy to see that some areas were missed because they were far too different from the original red color (like the shadows).

To finish changing the color from re
  • Fair skin will be almost white
  • Blue skies will be black (very dramatic)
  • Green foliage will be kind of gray.
d to green just take your pen and paint in the other red areas.

After you're finished it will be obvious that the Smart Brush did a great job but also made some mistakes.

Here's the streetcar completely changed ...

Sold one this monthsmart brush finished streetcar

The marching ants selection is still visible and there are a couple more problems that need addressing.
  1. The edge of the selection did not completed enclose the original red color.
  2. The area under the left windshield wiper was missed.
  3. The number at the front of the streetcar has some red that was not selected.
  4. The lighter red on the top stripe was not selected.
Fixing Problem With
The Minus Smart Brush

smart brush detail
Here's a close-up of the area below the windshield wiper - the red is gone but the Smart Brush traveled into the base of the wiper so that needs fixing.

This is the kind of thing that will occur when you use the Tool and the more complicated the area you are working on the more the brush will drift into areas where it shouldn't go.

So how do you fix this?  Simple - go up to the Options bar at the top of the screen and select the tool with the minus sign - which is the remove from adjustment Smart Brush.

smart brush detail fixed
Now carefully paint over the area that should not have been adjusted and carefully remove the adjustment.  Here is the same detail after removing the adjustment.

Looking closely at the part that was repaired it is easy to see that the selection has changed using the minus Smart Brush.

At the bottom of the shadow in the top picture you can see some red at the border between the shadow and the sunny part.  The plus Smart Brush was used to fill in this missing detail.

It is now a simple matter to zoom in and scroll around the image to make sure the Smart Brush Tool has done what it was supposed to do.

Plus then Minus - Plus then Minus - Over and Over

The thing I've found when fixing up with the plus Smart Brush selected is that often the minus Smart Brush removes too much.

There is an easier and more effective method of fixing any errors and that is to use the Layer Mask built into the Adjustment Layer when the Smart Brush tool is used.


Correcting With A Layer Mask

Layer Mask review - each Adjustment Layer comes with a Layer Mask and each of the Smart Brush Techniques uses an Adjustment Layer.   This means it's really easy to fix any problems created in the first adjustment without going back and forth between the plus and minus Brushes.

smart brush layer maskAfter doing an adjustment with the Tool you'll see a new Layer and Layer Mask above you're Background.

The Layer Mask is black and when it's painted with white the color you're adding (in this case, Green) will be applied (the same as using the Plus Brush.

When the Layer Mask is painted with black then adjustments that have been applied (the Green color in this case) will be removed (like using the Minus Brush).


Paint with White to add the color.

Paint with Black to remove the color.

Working with the Layer Mask in difficult places is much easier than trying to use the add to adjustment and subtract from adjustment Smart Brushes - at least is seems that way to me!

Detail Smart Brush Tool

The Detail Smart Brush Tool will produce similar result to the standard Smart Brush Tool but does so in a different way.

The reason for using the Detail tool is that you get to make the selection choices rather than the standard tool making all of the selection choices.

In one sense, the standard tool acts like the Magic Wand and that can be unpredictable and annoying.

Another advantage of the Detail brush is that it works really well on more complicated objects. 

For example take a look at this image ...

It's fine but could use some minor adjustments.  The sky was very dramatic in the original scene but isn't at all dramatic in the image.

smart brush train

The Detail Smart Brush was chosen and after some investigation the Could Contrast in the Nature category was selected and carefully painted onto the image with my Wacom tablet.

After tuning up the sky, the dull red of the engine seemed somewhat flat and boring - it seems to need some contrast.  The Lighting category has a Contrast High adjustment so that was painted over the dull red of the engine.

smart brush clouds smart brush engine contrast
Cloud Contrast
on the sky
Contrast High
on the engine

Painting in the adjustment is much easier and far more accurate, at least in my opinion, than letting the brush make those decisions. 

The change to the sky is dramatic and the increased contrast on the top of the engine is more subtle yet effective.

Speaking of which - all of the adjustments (with a few exceptions) can be modified.

Modifying The Adjustments

Each of the adjustments is done with an Adjustment Layer and the nature of these layers is that they can be modified.
smart brush levels
In the engine example the Adjustment Layer that Elements used for the sky is a Levels Adjustment Layer and here's the default adjustment when Cloud Contrast is chosen.

If you know levels then you know that moving the little adjusting triangles below the histogram will change the appearance of the image.

Moving the left and right adjustment sliders will probably make more dramatic changes than you want so just kind of mess about with the middle slider to either lighten or darken the adjustment layer.

To lighten the Adjustment Layer move the middle slider to the left.

To darken the Adjustment Layer move the middle slider to the right.

Here's the image with a more dramatic sky -

smart brush levels adjusted

This may be a bit much but it's easy to see how simple it is to make a change.

smart brush brightness contrast

In the same image the top of the engine had it's own Brightness/Contrast Adjustment layer and here is the default adjustment ...

The contrast can be further modified by moving the contrast slider.


Once you've done the initial selection it is very easy to make changes.  All you need to do is select the layer that has the adjustment and then choose a new adjustment from the drop down lists.

smart brush original
Original Color
smart brush green
Green Mustang
smart brush pink
Pink Mustang
smart brush pewtar
Pewter Mustang
smart brush blue
Blue Mustang
smart brush brown
Brown Mustang

With this picture it would have been easy to go through all of the 26 different adjustments - simply click on the layer, select the Smart Brush tool and then choose the adjustment.

Changing Colors

smart brush blue gradient

The Adjustment Layers for the color options are Gradient Maps and they can be modified in lots of interesting ways.

This is the Gradient Map for the Blue Mustang and if you click on it then Gradient Editor comes up.

Messing With The Gradient Editor

The Gradient Editor allows for changes to the color or the Gradient - and here it is ...

smart brush gradient editor

Underneath the gradient is that little blue square thing (it's called a Color Stop). 

  • If you move it to the left the color gets lighter and if you move it to the right the color gets darker.
  • If you select another gradient from the Presets then the original blue will be replaced with the new Gradient.
  • When you click the little more button above the Presets the list of gradients on your computer will be displayed and you can choose a new one.

The thing to do with this brush is to try out all of the combinations and permutations to find something you like.

As you become more familiar with these two Tools, you'll probably agree that using one or the other of them is very much like just using one of the Adjustment Layers because - basically - that's what it is.

There is a couple of categories that deserves a more in-depth look and they are the Portrait category and the Black and White category ...

Black and White

OK - so I really, really like a good black and white picture!  To me they can convey so much emotion and that feeling rings true with a lot of folks.

If it were not true then black and white would not be as popular as it is when faced with the color pictures that can be digitally captured.

The filters you are offered go some way to simulating some of the black and white films that were available over the years. Historically, films were only sensitive to blue light. As time progressed, film became more and more sensitive to red light. So 100 years ago, skies in black and white photos were very dark in colour compared to the skies of say 20 years ago. To
capture that “older” look, you need to go to the red or yellow filters. The great advantage of digital editing is that you can just change part of your image. Our grandfathers would have really appreciated that. Add to that the fine tuning of a Wacom tablet and Smart Brush technology, and you’re on a winner.

The category includes seven adjustments that should satisfy your every black and white conversion need.  The adjustments simulate filters used with black and white film to create specific results and the good thing is that you can use as many of the filters you want on one image!

Here are the filters ,,,
  • Blue Filter
  • Cold Tone BW
  • Green Filter
  • High Contrast Red
  • Infrared
  • Red Filter
  • Yellow Filter
And just for the heck of it here is the original color (which was adjusted with the Smart Brush earlier) and the conversion to black and white.

smart brush original color
smart brush converted
Original Color Image
Converted Using
Blue Filter
High Contrast Red
Red Filter
Yellow Filter

smart brush black and white conversion layersHere's the Layers palette and just so you know, the filters that were chosen from bottom to top were ...

(1) Blue Filter on the red part of the engine,
(2) High Contrast Red Filter on the sky,
(3) Red Filter on the three high rise buildings, and
(4) Yellow Filter on the bottom of the engine and on the mid and lower background.

The Filters are using Adjustment Layers that were created in the full version of Photoshop and they cannot be edited in Photoshop Elements - just so you know ...

The filters painted over the image were chosen very specifically and the choice depended on the underlying color of the original and that, my friends, is taking us dangerously close to color theory.

You can actually start off with this tutorial by Terry where he talks about colour.  The tutorial was written for Paint Shop Pro but colour theory is the same for all digital editing programs.

Color Wheel

smart brush color wheel

In general, a filter lightens its own color and darkens the color across from it on the color wheel.  As the color wheel progresses from the filters color to the color across from it the colors become progressively darker (from white to black).

Red Filter

smart brush black and white red filterThe Red Filter and the High Contrast Red Filter lightens its own color (red) and the colors immediately adjacent to red.  As the colors get farther away from red they get darker up to cyan which is almost black. 

Skies aren’t actually blue they’re more cyan in color which means the red filter will darken them.  A downside to the red filter is that it will lighten lips and faces which have a red component to them. So people become more anaemic-looking!

This is most often used in well lit outdoor scenes and tends to produce very dynamic skies - like this, for instance.  The sky in the engine picture was painted with High Contrast Red.

The high rise buildings were painted with the Red Filter so they are not quite as dramatic.

When either of the Red Filters is painted onto a color image ...
  • Fair skin will be almost white
  • Blue skies will be black (very dramatic)
  • Green foliage will be kind of gray.

Blue Filter

The Blue Filter will darken Red and that's what I wanted with the top of the engine.  But the blue filter will make the sky look paler and the clouds will become merged into the sky and the sky becomes less dramatic.

This is what you’d have seen in black and white photos from the 1950s onwards. The upside of the blue filter is that it will darken lips. Deft use of the Wacom tablet and smart technology, can accentuate just the lips, especially useful in female portraiture.

I first tried it with the Red filter but it made the red part of the engine white which was not particularly appealing.

Yellow Filter

In the 1960s, most black and white film photographers kept a yellow filter on the lens like we digital workers keep a skylight, UV or clear lens protector in place

The advantage of this filter was it was a “half-way house”. It gave some sky darkening, it didn’t make the skin tones to bleached out, and it didn’t darken foliage too far. If you want to soften and lighten the green foliage, you’ll need the green filter and just control that part of the image – since a green filter lightens green.

However, green foliage reflects infra-red differently than green paint. Foliage goes lighter and paint goes darker. Infra-red film was developed to differentiate tanks from trees in the Far Eastern wars of the 1950s and 60s.

This Filter was chosen for the yellow part of the engine and some of the background.  The Yellow Filter will lighten its own color and I wanted the area immediately below the red part of the engine to be much lighter.   It could have been used to just accentuate the sky from clouds, rather than to darken it.

Portrait Category

Modifying portraits is one of the categories under the Smart Brush and Detail Smart Brush tool and modifying portraits just happens to be very popular with many digital editors.

There are seven different portrait adjustments available, including ...
  • Bright Eyes
  • Details
  • Lighten Skin Tones
  • Lipstick
  • Pearly Whites
  • Spray Tan
  • Very Pearly Whites
This deserves it's own page so click here to follow along with a Portrait adjustment ...


Page Links

Pen Tablet or Mouse?

Using The Brush
Using A Layer Mask

The Detail Brush

Modifying The Adjustments
Black and White
Portrait Category

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