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.

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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.

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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.