There’s an important new feature in Lightroom 5 that you might not be taking full advantage of: Smart Previews. We’ve been using Smart Previews over the past year and there’s a big tip that I want to share with you.
About Smart Previews
First, a little bit about Smart Previews: You can create Smart Previews of your photos in Lightroom 5. Once you have the Smart Previews, you will be able to view photos in your library, even if they are not currently connected to your computer. You can even edit photos that aren’t currently connected! It’s like magic!
Once you re-connect a hard drive or storage system that contains the photos, the adjustments you made to the Smart Previews will then be applied to the original image.
Smart Previews work by creating a low resolution compressed DNG file from your original raw or JPEG photos (learn about RAW vs JPEG file formats here) in your Lightroom library. This all happens behind the scenes, and you may not even notice that you’re working with Smart Previews in Lightroom (except that the hard drive containing the original files isn’t connected). (For reference Adobe states that 14GB of original photos will take up about 400MB of space in Smart Previews).
You’ll be able to tell if a photo has a Smart Preview by checking the Histogram. If the original photo is disconnected it will only show “Smart Preview”
A couple important points about using Smart Previews. First, you actually need to create Smart Previews. It’s an optional feature. So you need to select all the photos you want to create Smart Previews of in the Library module and then click the Library menu, then Previews, and then Build Smart Previews (as shown in the main graphic at the start of this blog post).
Another thing I want to point out is that Smart Previews have a max resolution of about 2500px in size (actual resolution seems to depend on how big the original file is). So these smart previews are actually quite large and you could easily share exported JPEGs on the web, but you probably should hold off on doing any prints until you have the original files connected again.
How To Use Smart Previews
Now at first I wrote off the potential uses of Smart Previews, mainly because our primary photography workstation always has our photography hard drives connected to it. Since our photo storage is always connected we would never need to use Smart Previews.
Originally I could only see the benefit of using Smart Previews if you use only a single laptop computer. Laptops don’t typically have a lot of storage space, so you’d need a large external hard drive (or drives) to store all your photos. If you needed to travel, and didn’t want to bring your big hard drives with you, Smart Previews would be a handy way to take along your catalog, in a much smaller format.
But Smart Previews can also be useful for people who work on Lightroom from multiple computers, and those who want to travel with their images. You can put your Lightroom Catalog (along with the regular previews file and the Smart Previews file) on an external portable hard drive. Then you can simply carry this hard drive around with you, and plug it into any computer with Lightroom to access your catalog and view your entire archive with Smart Previews (as long as the computer ran the same operating system you created the catalog on).
When you create Smart Previews Lightroom creates a seperate .lrdata file that contains the Smart Previews Information. You should copy all of these files if you’re planning on making a copy of your Lightroom catalog and Smart previews.
There are a couple caveats about using Smart Previews the above way:
First, you need a fast, external portable hard drive, something with at least a USB 3.0 connection, otherwise working in Lightroom is going to be slow! If you can afford it, a solid state drive (SSD) would be great for speed here. And you’ll also want a bus powered drive (a drive that can be powered through the USB connection without the need for an additional power cable). A large drive is also a good idea since the Smart Previews can still take up quite a bit of disk space depending on how big your image library is.
Second, you’ll need to make sure that you include this new drive in your backup workflow somehow. It’s fortunate that in the event of hard drive failure or loss you would presumably never lose original files (since this hard drive only contains your Lightroom catalog and Smart Previews files). Still, you don’t really want to be losing your Lightroom catalog (since it’s a record of all the adjustments you make to your files, as well as organization like keywords).
Other Ways Of Using Smart Previews
Now I should mention that we haven’t really been using Smart Previews in the way that they were intended. Instead we’ve been using Smart Previews mainly to create what I refer to as “disposable catalogs”, which are copies of our main Lightroom catalog with the accompanying Smart Previews file. Basically these disposable catalogs are copies that we never intend to connect back to our original photos. We don’t worry about deleting them or backing them up. Here’s how this is useful:
Right now it’s not possible for two computers on the same network to have the same Lightroom catalog open. It’s actually impossible to even open a Lightroom catalog file over a network. A Lightroom catalog can only be open on one computer at one time. This has to do with reducing the possibility of corrupting your Lightroom catalog file.
Because Lightroom is really only designed to work on one computer at a time, it’s been a real challenge for Lauren and me, since we often both have to work on photos at the same time. At one point we had our photo archive split up with some photos on her computer and some photos on my computer – what an organizational nightmare!
By creating these disposable catalogs we’re able to both have access to the exact same photo archive and work on photos at the same time. Lauren works on the computer that contains the original photos and main Lightroom catalog, and I’ve copied a disposable Lightroom catalog to my computer which I can work on. When I need to, I can even connect to her computer through our network and access the original files within my disposable catalog.
There are some obvious downsides to this hack. First, things like keywords and collections that I create in the disposable catalog (which I frequently create) don’t get passed back to the main original catalog.
Second, if I want to sync back editing adjustments, I need to connect to the computer with the main catalog, save the metadata adjustments to the image files (DNGs in this case) from the disposable Lightroom catalog and then I need to go to Lightroom on the main computer and read the metadata adjustments from the edited photos. So it is possible to sync editing adjustments made in the disposable catalog back to the the main catalog, but it requires a fair bit of manual work, instead of being automatic.
Another downside is that newly imported files on the main catalog won’t show up on the disposable catalog. But you can manually import newly added photos to the disposable catalog. Every so often I also copy over the current main catalog and Smart Previews files (creating a new disposable catalog), this way I have the latest version of our library.
So why bother even having this disposable catalog? Well it’s really useful to be able to browse our whole image archive from either computer. Often we’re looking for photos for blog posts so browsing and quick editing is all we need to do. Or if I’m making a tutorial it’s easy to copy over the original photos that I need from Lauren’s computer to my computer (through the disposable catalog).
Despite all the drawbacks, this is really the best option that I’ve found that lets us both have a nearly identical Lightroom catalog open at the same time. If that’s something you’ve been trying to accomplish, you might want to give this “disposable catalog” system a shot!
When we travel we take a disposable catalog with us. All our original photos take up over 6TB of space, so it wouldn’t be convenient to travel with all of them! By taking a disposable catalog with us, we have access to our whole image archive from wherever we are, and it only takes up 400 GB. That’s still large, but actually portable.
These disposable catalogs (with their Smart Previews file) kind of make a poor man’s backup. Say we’re traveling and an absolute worst case scenario occurs where both our home and our offsite backup location are destroyed (maybe a tornado rips through our city). If we have the Lightroom catalog with Smart Previews with us, we will at least have a 2500px version of all the photos we’ve ever taken. You could also use these disposable catalogs to store your archive at multiple offsite backup locations (maybe you could mail one to a friend in another city, or another country).
This obviously isn’t the same as properly backing up your original photos and definitely shouldn’t be taken as a substitute option. You need to properly backup your original photos. (Click here to learn how to keep your photos safe!) However, using these disposable catalogs can act as an additional safety backup solution, giving you greater security over the total loss of all your images.
(Note: If you want greater control over this type of “poor man’s” backup you can always export lossy DNGs from Lightroom. This will give you the same type of super compressed DNG used with Smart Previews but you’ll actually be able to choose what setting you want the resolution to be saved at (in case you want greater than 2500px). By doing this you also have individual DNG files which may be easier to work with for backup purposes compared to a Lightroom catalog file with its accompanying Smart Previews files.
Smart Previews are an interesting new feature in Lightroom 5. Adobe actually uses Smart Previews in order to do some behind the scenes syncing between Lightroom and their new Lightroom Mobile app. I’m sure that Adobe has ideas for how they can make Lightroom completely cloud based (with no need for local photo storage) but the reality is that large files (both JPEG and especially raw) and large catalogs of images are difficult to work with over the cloud, taking up enormous amounts of bandwidth uploading and downloading.
If you have a small catalog you could use Dropbox to sync your Lightroom catalog file and Smart Previews file – but it’s really not a great solution for a large catalog of images or working on a catalog from multiple computers.
It would be incredible if Adobe created a feature that allowed one Lightroom catalog to be opened from multiple computers at the same time (simultaneously syncing adjustments between the computers). How difficult can this really be? This would be such a valuable feature to the enormous number of photographers using more than one computer workstation. But for now, Smart Previews is the best we’ve got!
If you haven’t tried out Lightroom 5’s Smart Preview function yet you might find it worth a look. At the very least it’s a good feature to keep in the back of your mind as a tool you can use for different mobile or multiple computer situations you might face.
Do you have any additional suggestions or tips on using Smart Previews? I would love to hear from you! Share your thoughts in the comments below!