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