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Smart Previews | What’s New in Lightroom 5

By Matthew Saville on June 14th 2013

What are Smart Previews?  They’re a new feature in Lightroom 5 that can make your life a whole lot easier!  Here is Adobe’s own Julieanne Kost to explain how to use Smart Previews:

Advantages and Disadvantages?

Essentially, you know how Lightroom always freaks out if it can’t find your images?  Well now if you create Smart Previews for your images, Lightroom doesn’t freak out!  In a nutshell, that’s Smart Previews for ya.  You can view and even edit your images, …even if Lightroom doesn’t know where they are.

Okay, that’s the good news.  Before we get to the GREAT news in a minute, let me mention the bad news.  Lightroom can still “lose” your photos, and you should keep track of them.  Unlike Bridge and other browser-based, non-catalog type programs, Lightroom is still a catalog-based system.  If you move or delete a folder from your hard drive, you are still at risk of truly losing that image.

And now especially with Smart Previews allowing us to edit images even if Lightroom doesn’t know where they are, we need to be even more vigilant.  You might accidentally get a RAW file corruption, or delete an entire folder, and not even notice it if you manage to ignore the “this file is offline” label.  It’s pretty prominent depending on your viewing mode, but still, be careful!

Emergency Backup / Export Trick

Of course if you generate Smart Previews, you’ll always have access to at least a Facebook-resolution version of your image, which in a total catastrophe is better than nothing.  I have experimented with making 4×6 prints from Lightroom’s in-catalog preview files, and they look pretty good!  Julieanne mentions that Smart Previews are about 2500 pixels wide, and you can even export these smart previews which is pretty cool in a pinch.

However the main point is that I still recommend you come up with a solid, sure-fire workflow that helps you track your images.  You know the drill: keep them backed up in two locations, and preferably on three separate devices if possible.  If you only have a single copy of your images, be ready to lose them eventually.

Travel Photography

The real use of Smart Previews is simply to let you edit photos that are on external hard drives without them being connected 100% of the time.  Even if you’re disconnected from the half-dozen external hard drives you may have accumulated over the years!  Say for example you travel with a laptop that has enough room on it for a week’s worth of photos, but nothing more.  If you’re like me and you have a 128 GB or 256 GB SSD instead of a big fat 1 TB laptop hard drive, then you know what I’m talking about.  Anyways, if you keep your main Lightroom catalog on your laptop, you can post-produce the photos you shot last month while you continue to shoot (and download) during your current trip or adventure.  Even if you’ve off-loaded your older photos to external hard drives back home.

A brilliant feature, if you ask me.  Way to go, Adobe! Of course in retrospect this is a feature Lightroom 4 should have had from the beginning.  So just in case Adobe is getting too proud of themselves, let me quickly point out that pretty much everything Lightroom 5 offers is just barely catching up with what Lightroom 4 should have been, over a year ago.  (And my Lightroom 4 wishlist, which you can read by clicking HERE, is still only 10-15% fulfilled!)

Okay, enough scolding, are you ready for the great news?

Smart Previews Make Lightroom Faster!

Yep, that’s right people, our extensive testing is showing that building smart previews is reducing the overall lag time from shot-to-shot in the develop module.  Significantly!  Especially those of you who are shooting 20-30+ megapixel RAW files, you should definitely check out this feature.

Try this test:  Grab yourself ~100 random photos, and render 1:1 previews for the entire set, but only render Smart Previews for the first half of them.  Then, scroll through them as fast as you can, but wait for the Develop Module tools to become available each time.  (when you first switch to a new image in the develop module, the tools are usually greyed out for a second or three)

You can edit the photos too, if you want, but the objective is to be speedy here.  When you pass the half-way mark and start going through the images that have 1:1 previews but no Smart Previews, you should definitely notice the lag time.

In my opinion, the shot-to-shot time in Lightroom 5 with Smart Previews is as fast or faster than it was back in Lightroom 3, which was VERY fast!  Of course, please post your input and your findings here in the comment section, we’d love to hear from you.

Take care, and happy clicking,
=Matthew Saville=

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Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Sean Hoyt

    Matthew, concerning the 1:1 previews, I’ve been told by a developer for LR directly that the previews are ignored in the develop module. This means, in your testing, that the time difference is due loading and rendering a screen preview from the raw file on the fly versus loading the Smart Preview DNG and creating a screen preview. The ACR 1:1 cache is ignored because the developers want to show you the absolute newest and purest version of the raw file. This is good news that the Smart Previews speed up the Develop module without the need for hiding the folder from LR to trick it into thinking the masters are offline.

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