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Posted by Gerard Murphy – June 12, 2013 browse all

When Should I Use Smart Previews in Lightroom 5?

There has been some confusion about Smart Previews in Lightroom. This feature was added in Lightroom 5 and is not the most straight forward concept to understand. Let’s do a quick overview of the feature and then talk about the right times to use them.

Lightroom is a catalog based photo management system. The catalog is where Lightroom keeps track of all of your edits, metadata, and settings. So this is a very important file!

You can store your Lightroom images “offline” on an external hard drive. If you ever wondered how Lightroom could still know what your photos look like when they are not plugged in, the answer is the Lightroom previews.

Lightroom creates these preview files for each of the images you import. These preview images are what you are actually viewing on your screen in Lightroom (and these are what you see when the images are not present – “offline”.)

With the introduction of Lightroom 5, Adobe added Smart Previews. They didn’t replace the regular previews. These regular previews are still there. The Smart Previews are larger lossy DNG formated images. They are 2048 pixels wide (or basically big enough for an iPad screen.)

Lightroom Smart Preview Offline Image

So in addition to being bigger previews, Lightroom add two major things you could not do before to regular previews. First, you can export Smart Previews. These are not huge files so using Smart Previews is not recommended for high quality print jobs. But if you want to send a proof to a client or post an image to Facebook, the smart previews are perfect.

Second you can edit the Smart Previews. Instead of editing the full image, you are editing a smaller but big enough version of the photo. If you making small tweaks to white balance or contrast, you won’t notice a change. If you are doing more expansive edits, the limits of not having the full photo present will be seen. This allows you to work on your offline images.

So when do I use Smart Previews?

This depends on 3 things: Where is your Lightroom catalog, where are you images and how good are you with metadata.

Where is your Lightroom catalog?

This matters because if you keep your Lightroom catalog on an external hard drive, next to your original images, Smart Previews will have no impact on your workflow. This is because, by default, Lightroom will choose to work on your original images, so building Smart Previews in the same place as your images will just take up space on your drive.

Where are your images?

If you have the full images stored locally on your drive, then again there isn’t any need to build Smart Previews. They will just take up space.

So easy rule… If you have all your images on your local hard drive, Smart Previews are not for you.

If you store some of all of your images on an external hard drive and your Lightroom catalog is on your local machine, than Smart Previews will be very helpful. Go ahead and build Smart Previews for the images on your external hard drive. Then they will be accessible when that external hard drive is not plugged in!

So the ideal time to use Smart Previews is when your Lightroom catalog is on your local drive, and some or all of your images are on an external hard drive.

How is your metadata?

You probably moved your images to an external hard drive because you didn’t have enough space on your internal drive. So filling up your internal drive with thousands of smart previews will take up some room on your drive… the answer is to create Smart Previews only for the images you are actually going to use.

We all collect a lot of images. Not all of them are good. If you use stars, flags, collection, colors, keywords etc., this is a good time to use them to help you manage your Smart Preview creation.

Maybe only create Smart Previews for those images that are marked with a pick flag, are 3 stars or better, are in your “client” smart collection, or are marked with the keyword “keeper”.

What do I do?

I have most of my photos on an external hard drive. I import my new photos to my local drive. When I run out of room on my local drive, I move the older photos to the external. This way my most recent images are always on me. (These are the images I spend 95% of my time editing.)

Since upgrading to Lightroom 5, after moving my older files to my external drive, I then create Smart Previews for anything 2 stars or above.

Of course, I also backup my photos to Mosaic and access to everything on the Mosaic Lightroom iPad / iPhone App. :)

This gives me offline Lightroom access to everything I want and also mobile access with Mosaic while also not filling my internal drive with Smart Previews.

How do you use Smart Previews?

Gerard Murphy

Gerard Murphy is an entrepreneurial do-er who is the CEO / Co-Founder of Mosaic. He is also a decent guy who loves his family, taking photos and startup culture. Loves promoting Mosaic to the world. Gerard has written several articles on entrepreneurship, marketing and photography that have appeared in publications including Forbes, LinkedIn and Photofocus.

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  • affinityseattle

    The real confusion here is where are the performance benefits from using proxy media? I don’t see it yet after about 10k images. The interface should load and render the images faster in both the Library and Develop module. But, to enable Smart Previews, I have to fool LR into thinking my local folder is missing (4TB work drive internal to my Mac Pro, catalog on SSD). Where are these gains?

    • JT

      Its not about performance benefits, it’s about laptop users having access to their images without having to take along extra equipment. I use a MacBook Pro 15″ Retina with 256GB SSD. I only have so much space and can’t put my entire catalog (1TB) on there, so having the option to leave my 3TB drive and power adapter at home, yet still having access to work on my latest images is a powerful tool. I fail to see why anyone would use Smart Previews on a desktop. That scenario doesn’t even fall into the ‘When do I use Smart Previews’ section, above. See: ‘So easy rule… If you have all your images on your local hard drive, Smart Previews are not for you.’ Make sense?

      • affinityseattle

        No… See you’re confused too. If I’m shooting 36MP 14-bit raw files on my D800 and processing on a 2560×1680 27″ screen, which file do you think would render faster? A 7300×4900 raw or 2560×1680 dng proxy? Make sense? This could have major implications in my 60k images per year workflow.

        • JT

          Where did you see that there are supposed to be performance benefits to using the Smart Previews? I don’t recall that being a touted feature of the SPs, which is why I pointed out that you are applying a feature that isn’t going to have any sort of benefit due to your setup.

          Don’t get me wrong, I see what you are trying to do…use the smaller SP images as the proxy for your full size 36MP photos, thinking that there should be some sort of quicker processing because the file is smaller. I would love for this to be the case because my 24MP, A99 shots can seem painfully slow to load as well. In theory, your desired result makes sense. But with the way LR works, it may not even apply. Everything I am reading (including the article here) points to how SPs are for photographers on the go with laptops and smaller SSD drives to eliminate the need for added storage, or other methods of having your full catalog available.

          I did find this:

          There is a section there, “Smart Previews Make Lightroom Faster!” but it is simply addressing the time it takes for develop tools to become available after a preview render in the center pane when comparing 1:1 previews with images that have Smart Previews generated. The SP images seem to allow for editing quicker than those with 1:1 previews. Not sure this is exactly the same as actually USING the develop tools and waiting for each edit to process, or if its even supposed to make a difference there.

          • MosaicArchive

            I believe JT is correct. Smart Previews have an odd name as feature because they are not truly Lightroom previews but proxies for the originals.

            Lightroom previews are what we see on the screen. They are interpretations of the final versions of an image and include the edits applied to the original. Smart previews do not replace these 1:1 or standard Lightroom previews. The load time between the modules is usually caused by smaller previews that need to load. (This is why we recommend standard previews on import as these need to be generated anyway when you load photos in loupe or develop module.)

            I don’t believe that Smart Previews will actually replace your local files when developing and the photos are local.

            I wrote about my issues with this feature which included calling it a “preview”.

            Hope that helps clear up the confusion.

          • affinityseattle

            It does not. When in Dev module, the 1:1 LR cache previews _are disregarded_. The data rendered to the screen is built on-demand. When developing images, you now have two options: 1) load the original raw file, demosaic (single-core) or 2) load the significantly smaller proxy DNG Smart Preview, pull in the embedded DNG preview (?) or demosaic the DNG (multi-core). From a hardware point of view, file load times should be significantly faster with a smaller DNG and multi-core rendering should be significantly faster with DNG. Maybe we are talking 1-2 seconds faster per file. Like I said, I run 60k+ images. For a 1-2 second improvement, that’s 60k/120k seconds or 17-34 hours a year I’m waiting for LR just to put the images up. I don’t care a bit that the feature was built to make LR more mobile. Maybe I’m advocating that the LR team polish this up a bit.

          • JT

            So are you stating that if you somehow invoke the Smart Previews (likely by renaming your photo directory to trick LR) that the times to render the photo and allow you to edit/process edits are no shorter than if you just use the full version? I know you want it to be faster. I would love it too and it would be easier for me too, because I would just need to unplug the drive rather than go through the trouble of tricking LR into using the Smart Preview feature. Unfortunately, it still seems like we need to throw more processor and more RAM at them the bigger our files get. For now (let’s hope)

          • affinityseattle

            Thanks for the links!

          • Sune

            You can map your local images folder to a virtual drive, that you point lightroom to, using the subst command. Make two bat scripts, one that maps and one that unmaps the virtual drive. When the drive is unmapped you will get the speed of smart previews, when its mapped, you get your originals. I do this for images on a nas.

          • affinityseattle

            Thanks JT. I’m checking that link.

  • Josh Polk

    I’m wondering if you choose Smart Previews, is it then redundant to choose your Render Previews to be anything higher than Minimal? If you choose Standard previews, are you getting both a larger preview there AND the Smart Preview separate, thereby increasing your file size even more? Or does choosing Smart Preview effectively give you a Standard or 1:1 preview anyways. Hm…

    • MosaicArchive

      Hi Josh.

      Thank you for the question. This is a very reasonable thought… but Lightroom doesn’t actually use the Smart Previews in this way. Smart Previews are actually a proxy for your original images – not for the Lightroom previews. The actual Lightroom previews are used to display the images on the screen. They are visual representations of your final images.

      Using 1:1 or standard sized previews decreases the load time between the grid and loupe/develop modules. 1:1 previews will be generated automatically if you enter the develop module and are used for zooming.

      Creating minimal previews on import gives you the perception that the import was faster however, you will pay later when Lightroom gets slower as you load the images into Loupe or Develop and Lr creates the standard/1:1 previews anyway.

      We wrote about some of the confusions with a new class of previews here:

      Hope that helps. Thanks for the question.

      • Josh Polk

        Thanks so much for the reply and clearing things up for me. As a side note, I have never heard of Mosaic before and am going to check it out!

        • MosaicArchive

          Awesome! Hope you enjoy our App!

  • Doug Abel

    Anyone else having problems on the “remote” computer where even with a verified smart preview you cannot use it to export? My laptop has a clone of the entire library in smart preview form but many of the images refuse to export even a low-rez image, telling me that the original cannot be located.

  • Sian

    Hi, I just spent ages editing some images (original + smart view) and went to export my top picks via lightroom export. When I looked into my new folder, the images were there but all of the editing I had just spent ages on, wasn’t on any of the images. Please say there is a simple cure for this? I already looked at the original location of the files and they hadn’t been changed by my editing, they were still as taken from the camera.
    So- why when I try to export my images does the editing I have just done not save on the image? Please Help!

    • MosaicArchive

      Hi Sian,

      I believe when you are exporting you are most likely selecting to export the “original”. You should choose to export the file as either a JPG, PSD or DNG. These files types will contain your edits.

      Hope the helps! Best, Gerard