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Tips & Tricks

Dramatically Speed Up Adobe Lightroom’s Performance With This One Tip

By Trevor Dayley on October 20th 2015

What if I could show you a way that would dramatically speed up Lightroom for you while editing? If you ever wished you could speed up your editing workflow and make the program run like a well-oiled machine, then this tip is for you.

Some of you might already be familiar with Smart Previews. They were my favorite update to Lightroom 5 back in 2013 when it launched. The crazy thing is how many photographers are not using them in their workflow. It’s probably because the Smart Preview workflow was marketed as the solution to photographers that are outsourcing their work or those that need to work on images from their laptops while on the go.

In other words, there was a niche of photographers that loved the new Smart Previews, but most others ignored it altogether. This article is my attempt at convincing those of you not yet using Smart Previews, to start; it will take your workflow speed in Lightroom to a whole new level.

Does Lightroom Run Slow

There are lots of articles online about the specifics of what exactly a Smart Preview is, but here is a general overview. When we import a RAW file into Lightroom, those file sizes might range from 12MB-50MB depending on the camera we used. As we try to switch from one image to another in Lightroom, the software struggles to load quickly the new image along with any edits we might have already applied to it. As we move sliders, there might be a tiny delay as the picture updates with the changes for us to preview. Smart Previews fixes all that by taking the large file size and reducing it by about 1/15th the size. However, the image is still a RAW file so we can edit it just as we would a typical RAW file; the only difference is now Lightroom can handle the file with ease and, as a result, the program is super responsive and quick.

Imagine you are asked to carry sand bags that weigh 25lbs. After awhile, you would start to slow down. What if instead, those 25lbs bags turned into 2lbs bags? Surely you would feel rejuvenated and be able to handle those with ease. The same goes for Lightroom, giving it small Smart Previews to work with help the program work efficiently and effectively.

Once you have finished making your edits to the Smart Previews you just resync the original “large” files and Lightroom will immediately apply the edits you made. In other words, everything you did to the Smart Previews has now been done to the original RAW files, but without having to fuss with a slow and clunky Lightroom program trying to carry 25lbs sand bags, uh hmm, I mean 25mb RAW images. The edits are applied immediately and then all you need to do is export those RAW files out of Lightroom and deliver them to your clients.

There are two main ways to generate Smart Previews for your photos. One is on import. As you import your photos into Lightroom, you can select the box in the top right menu to generate the previews immediately after importing the files. The check box is located under the “File Handling” dialog box.

How to Speed Up Lightroom Performance Dramatically 1

The second option is by selecting the images in your folder and while in the Library Module click on “Library” on the top menu bar, then choose Previews > Build Smart Previews. The process will then begin, and you’ll see the status bar in the top working.

How to Speed Up Lightroom Performance Dramatically 2

Once your Smart Previews have been created, you need to disconnect your original RAW files from your Lightroom Catalog so Lightroom will start using the Smart Previews. In other words, you need to hide those original files, so it now uses the Smart Previews to edit. Because I do all my editing on a MacBook Pro laptop, I import my files onto an external hard drive instead of my internal hard drive. When I want to use Smart Previews, I just disconnect my external and immediately Lightroom begins to use Smart Previews. When I am finished with my photo edits, I plug in my external hard drive, and all the original RAW files are synced up with the new edits applied.

How to Speed Up Lightroom Performance Dramatically 3

If you are not using an external hard-drive, one easy way to hide those original RAW files so Lightroom can switch to the Smart Previews is to rename your folder that has the images. You would do this outside of Lightroom. Just add “temp” to the name as a reminder that you are making a temporary edit to the folder name. Now when you go back into Lightroom, you’ll see it won’t be able to locate the original RAW images and, therefore, will resort to using the Smart Previews you generated following the steps previously. Once you finish with your edits, go and change the folder name of the original files back to the previous name, and now Lightroom will once again be able to see those images and sync them with the edits you made on the Smart Previews.

You will know once Lightroom has created the Smart Previews and they are synced by looking at the bottom of the histogram box. Original + Smart Preview means they are in sync. Smart Preview shows when you are working on the smaller preview file only.

You will know once Lightroom has created the Smart Previews, and they are synced by looking at the bottom of the histogram box. Original + Smart Preview means they are in sync. Smart Preview shows when you are working on the smaller preview file only.

It’s an easy process and one that I honestly believe could benefit every photographer. Yes, even those of you that are reading this anxious to tell me about your new computer that is “a beast!” It comes down to that example with the sand bags above. No matter how much memory, what chip or how big of a hard drive, giving Lightroom smaller RAW files to work with that are only 1/15th the size will most definitely speed things up.


The key to this system of using Smart Previews is to stay organized. Know where those original files are at all times, make sure to have a backup (as you should always), and practice a few times, so you feel comfortable with the sync process. Just remember, when you hide those original files, Lightroom will always be sending out its feelers looking for those images. When it can’t see them, it will let you use Smart Previews (as long as you generated them previously.) Once you make those files visible again to Lightroom (I connect my external drive), then it will do the rest of the lifting, sync the files, and apply the edits you made while working on the Smart Previews.

Hope this tip helps all of you work efficiently in Lightroom. It’s made the process much more enjoyable for me, and I am confident it will do the same for you.

If you are looking for more mastery in Lightroom, including more tips to speed up your workflow (by 5, even 10 times!), be sure to check out our Lightroom Workshop Collection here.

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Trevor Dayley is a full-time wedding photographer based out of Arizona. He has six kids and has been married for 15 years. When he is not shooting weddings, he loves helping the photo industry. He has written hundreds of articles and shared countless tutorials. In 2014, he was named one of the Top 30 Most Influential Photographers in the Industry and one of the Top 100 Wedding Photographers by BrandSmash.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Paul White

    Tried this and it worked for exactly 3 Images. After that, it returned to being very slow. I had hoped that the “new” Lightroom Classic – touted as improving speed – would solve the problem, but it hasn’t. I am using dual monitors, with the second one showing the image in Loupe view. When I switch to a new image in Develop, the secondary monitor displays the image immediately, but the primary monitor takes about 3-4 seconds to display it. I am awaiting delivery on my new Nikon D-850, which sets a new bar on HUGE file sizes and I am dreading to see what Lightroom will do with files that size. BTW, a cheap program named, “Fast Raw Viewer” displays files instantly, so I know it can be done. Why Adobe can’t seem to accomplish the same thing befuddles me. Anyone have any ideas?

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  2. Greg Samborski

    Great article! I’ve been using smart previews to speedup editing for a while now. Yesterday I tested how much faster JPGs export from smart previews and if there is a noticeable quality difference. Here are the results:

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  3. Denis Valeev

    Thank you!

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  4. Art Altman

    How does editing in smart previews affect editing accuracy and ability to magnify details?

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  5. Cat Pennenga

    Hey Trevor I am giving this a try, and it works great for editing on my laptop but when I try to bring the catalog back to edit on my desktop (where the catalog was created), LR gives me a “File cannot be found” error and the images are blurred out. I would just eject the external hard drive but that’s where my catalog is so that’s not an option. Any thoughts? I’ve been editing with proxy DNGS for a couple years but would love to skip the step of creating those with your process!

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  6. Adam Sheridan

    This would be very useful except in the situation that you use PS or Affinity Photo etc, after most of your edits. I am guessing you cannot export the smart preview raw file into PS and then perform advanced edits. Even if you could the quality would be less. If you got into the workflow of doing all your Lr edits first on all your photos then plug back in the drive and after sync export to PS, then this would also be a good choice. Better yet, if Adobe gave you an option to work on smart previews until you where exporting that would be even better. Maybe you could choose the behaviour in the preferences, e.g “Use Smart previews for workflow until export” or something like that.

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  7. Rob Ruttan

    Since we’re talking about Lightroom, I have two exceedingly naive questions — if y’all don’t mind. I haven’t been using it for long. Here’s the first: one thing I find annoying is the fact that, unlike Photoshop, I can’t simply “Open” and then “Save” a file; I have to go through all of this “Import” and “Export” business. Is there a way around that tedious process? Here’s the second: I do find it incredibly slow, but half the problem is probably my old laptop. I’m thinking of having my tech-whiz son build me a desktop just for photo work. He tells me that solid state hard drives run faster, but they’re expensive. Do you think I’m better off with, say, a 250 gig solid state hard drive, or a 1 terabyte ‘regular’ hard drive?

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  8. Richard Maguire

    Tried it on my mac with my internal images drive. Once I made the previews, I just ejected the drive, made some changes, and used Disk Utility to mount the volume again. I did notice a speed increase; how fun. Thanks

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  9. Jessica Spencer Forgette

    Thank you so much for this, Trevor! I just tried it and I cannot believe the difference in speed! This is going to shave HOURS off of my workflow!

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  10. Keith Sheridan

    I started using this method about 1 year ago. My process is simple, import all photos naming the folder as year-month-day of the shoot. Once imported I append an x to the folder name through the operating system not LR. In affect disconnecting the folder. Once I’ve culled and edited I remove the x from the folder and LR can sync my changes.

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  11. Andrew Paradise

    Fantastic tip and so well timed too! My iMac has just been sent in for some repairs so have to resort to old laptop and cinema screen for editing which would have struggled with all the raw images over the next couple of busy weeks but with this system i can manage. Thanks once again!

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  12. Emily Okerson

    Smart previews are the bomb. It speeds things up so much. I’ve been using them ever since I learned about them when I first started using Lightroom. Great article!

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  13. Deirdre Ryanphotography

    Thank you for the tip!

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  14. robert s

    I use acdsee pro and it pisses on LR in terms of speed. it also has large sliders that allow you to hover the cursor over and use the scroll wheel to adjust really quickly. previews are lightning quick. has quirks, not any more than LR. but looking to LR because I want more speed.

    I ordered the nocturn midi board. you use paddy with it. instead of nonstop mouse movement which is so inneficient with the crap tiny sliders that give you cramps from trying to make minute changes and doing this over and over for 2-3000 images of a wedding. yes were 2 stills photogs and 1 dslr. 12-14 hour weddings.

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  15. robert s

    fastest way to speed up LR is use the delete button on add/remove programs. things will fly ;)

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  16. Michael Anthony

    I noticed how fast LR runs when working on smart previews back when the feature was first introduced, hoping LR takes advantage of these in future versions without the need to disconnect the hard drive. Never though to rename them! Great thinking Trevor!

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  17. ken weil

    This would work great if not going back n forth from LR to PS, which I do.Connecting and disconnecting would just make it More time consuming I believe.

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  18. Richard Olender

    My question is where are the smart previews? Are they taking up space on my hard drive? Do I have to get rid of them when I am finished my post processing?

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    • Flowing Color

      In gallery mode go to “Library” => “Previews” => “Discard Smart Previews”. You can remove them once you’re done processing the photos.

      Physically they a in a folder next to your catalog file “Catname Smart Previews.lrdata”

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  19. Flowing Color

    This doesn’t work at all for me. I use LR all the time and have a “Beast” Lightroom only PC. Working with smart previews isn’t any faster on my PC. First thing even if it worked smart previews are limited to ~2500px so you will be doing only some toning and adjusting the overall image. No detail work. Also keep in mind that the “Library” still uses the regular previews so if you’re doing culling always create 1:1 previews. The smart previews are great for taking the images along with you and doing overall image adjustments. So they are great for laptop work. Maybe this a different story on a Mac.


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  20. Dylan Martin

    I used smart previews a while back but am trying to understand the value of a smart preview rather than a 1:1 preview. I know the benefit of the smart preview is not having to be plugged into the hard drive.

    I am assuming 1:1 is always the fastest preview option even if it takes the most time to build?

    Thanks in advance

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  21. Stu Worrall

    any advice for using it on an IMAC 5k? I tried it but the image in the develop window is too small to work from.

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  22. Patricia Knight

    Time is valuable and this is an awesome tip Trevor. Heading off to build some smart previews right now!

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  23. Tyler Friesen

    This method works great! I have been doing this for awhile now and love it!

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  24. mickey howell

    didn’t work. tried it on an old project. created smart files then changed the name of the folder that holds the raw files. opened the lr project file and it opened the raw’s.

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    • Matthew Saville

      I would strongly recommend against “tricking” Lightroom like that, anyways. Just move the entire folder to a different hard drive, let Lightroom know where that folder is, yet do most of your editing while unplugged.

      Everybody’s workflow is different, however one of the worst things you can do is begin to confuse where you’ve put stuff. That’s a recipe for either losing your photos altogether, or just losing all your hard work on those photos. What you’re doing here might be harmless if it’s part of a solid system, however I just want to encourage caution and attention to detail. Good luck! :-)

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    • Hannes Nitzsche

      fair point, Matthew!

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  25. Mark Romine

    I’ve been using the Smart Previews for awhile now but I did not know that LR wasn’t actually using them until it could not longer access them. I will have to give that I try because I have a tricked out iMac 5K that is not as fast as it should be.

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  26. Paul Empson

    interesting indeed.. though for the fraction of a second I’ll wait for the image to open in the develop module I’d prefer the piece of mind working on the actual raw file brings..

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    • Leon Jimenez

      In Lightroom you are never working on the actual RAW file. Adjustments are made in a sidecar and you are always looking at a type of preview. Zoom is what you won’t be able to do so keep that in mind. When editing in an external editor then typically a Tiff is created (you select format) and it needs access to the RAW (smart previews won’t work). Still the Raw is there untouched.

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    • Paul Empson

      Indeed Leon, I knew as soon I I’d hit enter that I’d wished I’d phrased it differently… one of the best features of LR is the non-destructive editing.. we’re just writing changes to the database and LR mimics the changes on screen.. xmp files rule..

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  27. Jean-Francois Perreault

    Thanks for the tip! Can’t wait to try it!

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  28. Len Currie

    This could be the best tip of the year! Will be trying this out for sure.. thanks!!

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  29. Gregory Davidson

    Interesting, I will have to give that a try and see how things go. Thanks for the tip!

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