I was thinking I should subtitle this post, “Where is the Save button in Lightroom?” because I see that question pop up on social media from time to time and that’s really the basis for this post. The short answer is: There isn’t one. A slightly longer answer is: There isn’t one because Lightroom doesn’t need one. Basically, when you open a file in most computer programs – whether it be MS Word, Photoshop or TurboTax for your income tax – and you make a change, you’re altering the file you have open. In order to keep those changes, you need to save the file by either overwriting the original file or creating a second copy (Save As…) Now Lightroom is essentially a database program, so when you import an image into Lightroom what you’re doing is referencing wherever the image is stored on your hard drive or other device. Lightroom creates a line in its database that says, “This image is located here.” From that reference Lightroom creates its own preview images and works with those previews. When you export an image from Lightroom what it does is to take the information from the originally referenced image file, optimize and add in the changes that you’ve made in Lightroom and create a new image file based on the original image, the changes you’ve made and the export parameters you’ve set. If you’re working with a rendered image file (.jpg, .tif, .psd, etc.) technically you can export an image to the same folder as the original referenced image and tell Lightroom to overwrite the original image, but that’s rather missing the point of the entire ‘non-destructive’ pipeline. There are pros and cons to both pixel editing and parametric (non-destructive) editing and a place for each, but this isn’t the place for that discussion.
So, when you import an image into Lightroom, that importing step is the beginning of the History for that image. If you process the image in the Develop module, every change you make gets added to the History file. Increase Exposure by 1 stop? That’s a line in History. Decide you don’t like it and decrease exposure by one stop? The previous step isn’t erased; another line is added to the History. Print out the image? That’s in the History. Export an image? That’s in the History. This image shows part of the History file for an image I made recently with my cell phone. Most of the ‘Spot Removal’ steps in this case were to remove bubblegum, etc. from the pavement.
The History panel is seen in the Develop module, left panel, below Presets and Snapshots. Now, one of the advantages of the History Panel is that one can go back and forth through the History steps by clicking on a step and Lightroom will show you what the image looked like at that point. You can cycle up and down through the History to any point and compare the results. If you hit the Reset button on the bottom right panel of the Develop module you will see the image as it was on Import, but the Reset function is simply added to the History steps. Hit the Reset button by accident and decided you don’t really want to undo the last four hours of work on this image? Not a problem. Just hit Ctrl/Cmd-Z to back up a step, or click on the History and you’ll see your image as it was a minute ago.
One thing to be aware of with History, however is that if you go back to an earlier step in the History and then make a change by moving one of the sliders for example, everything ‘downstream’ from that point will be wiped out. You can see what I mean here:
In this example I stepped back into History to the Light Tones adjustment and converted the image to black and white. All of the History up to that point has been preserved but at that point the road forks so to speak and the image begins to take a different direction. That’s fine if you’re committed to the change, and if you’re not you can still Undo the change and go back to your previous History, but what if you’re not sure or if you want to take your image in two different directions? Well, you have two choices, Snapshots and Virtual Copies, and they both work a bit differently. Snapshots first.
As you can see from the image above, I started at the top or last step in the History and created a Snapshot of the History as it was at that time. The Snapshots panel is directly above the History Panel and you create a new Snapshot by pressing the + icon. By default Lightroom labels the Snapshot with the current date and time, but I suggest you rename it to something that makes sense to you. A week from now, will you remember what “January 30, 2014 5:13pm” meant in terms of that image? Probably not. In this case I simply called the Snapshot ‘Luminance Smoothing’. From there I went back into History to the Vibrance step, and again converted the image to black and white, then made some other processing developments as a black and white image. In the column on the right you can see the new History beginning from that point. I finally decided I didn’t like it as a black and white image and wanted to revert the image back to the colour version that I had. By clicking on the Snapshot I had created Lightroom returned the image to colour state it was in when the Snapshot was created. Note that the History steps in arriving to that place have not been restored, but the image looks as it did and all of the sliders are set as they were when I made the Snapshot. You can have one, two or more Snapshots for any image and clicking on any of them will show the image as it was when the Snapshots were made.
Virtual Copies are what the name suggests – copies of an image that exist only in the Lightroom database (catalogue). As mentioned at the top of this post, Lightroom uses the information from the image file to build its own preview images, and it’s those previews that you work with in Lightroom. Lightroom uses different previews in the Library and Develop modules, and will refer back to the original image in the Develop module (unless you build Smart Previews before or after import, but that’s a topic for another time.) When you make a Virtual Copy Lightroom will duplicate the look of the image as it was when the Virtual Copy was made, but from that point Lightroom will treat the master image and the Virtual Copy or Copies as separate images – meaning that they each have their own History, etc. The History file for a Virtual Copy begins when it is made so it will not contain the History for the original image. Virtual Copies are designated in Lightroom by having a little curled up corner in the bottom left of the image. Since Virtual Copies do not exist outside of Lightroom it’s impossible to give a Virtual Copy a different file name than the master file, but it is possible to change the default Copy Name from Copy 1, 2, 3… to something more appropriate.
Virtual Copies are most useful when you want to take an image in two different directions – for example having a colour image and a black and white version of the image. I often use Virtual Copies in combination with the LR/Enfuse plugin to soften the Orton effect on images I create. Here’s an example of one of Marcia’s images, processed two different ways. One of these is the master image and the other is a Virtual Copy.
Both Snapshots and Virtual Copies can have a place in your workflow but they are a little different. I find Snapshots most useful for bookmarking a stage in processing an image to which I might want to return, whereas Virtual Copies allow me to take the same image in two different directions. One other important difference between Snapshots and Virtual Copies is that if you back up the metadata for your images to the image files themselves (see our Lightroom, File Management and Metadata post for more on that) Virtual Copies are not stored with the exported metadata but Snapshots are. Assuming you have backups of both your catalogue(s) and your image files this point may be moot, but it’s worth knowing.
Another potential use for Snapshots is this: One of the challenges with parametric editing is that really long History files can slow down your computer. It is possible to erase the History for an image by pressing on the X icon beside History, and doing so will wipe out the History file but maintain the process condition of the image wherever it was when the History was deleted. If this is done in error one can immediately Undo the last step, but Lightroom only maintains so many Undo steps. Therefore it’s best to consider this deletion only if you’re certain you don’t want to go back and revisit the image at some point in its processing. If there are certain branches or steps you might want to keep you can create Snapshots of those key points before deleting the History file.
So that’s History, Snapshots and Virtual Copies in a nutshell. They can be an important part of your processing workflow once you understand what they are and are not capable of achieving. Use them well.
Now go out and make some photographs!