One of Lightrooms greatest strengths is the fact that it stores all the work you do in its catalog file and never changes the pixel data in the source photos. Having all of that data on hand gives you a tremendous amount of freedom and flexibility in your post-production workflow. The most obvious benefit is that you can always return to the un-processed state of your photo at any time, which gives you the freedom to explore and experiment without fear of doing permanent damage. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing though as you can step back and forth through every slider bump and setting tweak youve ever made in the Develop module, and you can even preserve certain states along the way in what Lightroom calls Snapshots. Lets take a look at the two panels in the Develop module that make this all possible, and how to get the most out of them.
First there is the History panel, which is located near the bottom left side of the interface. Figure 1 shows a photo that has just been imported (and needs a bit of work). The first step in the History panel is the state the photo was in when it was imported. Typically this is the photos default state, which would include only the default Adobe settings or any settings you included in a customized default. However, if you applied a develop preset via the Import dialog (or via tethered shooting) then that would be the import state instead of the default, and the preset name would also appear in the import history step.
The other panel I want to discus is called Snapshots and it is located right above History. The Snapshots panel is empty by default, and it is only populated manually when you want to preserve a certain state of processing. I think it is easier to understand how these two panels work by showing an example, so lets follow along as I process this photo.
As you work on a photo the History panel is automatically populated with each adjustment you make as you make it. In this example I adjusted white balance and made some tonal adjustments, and all of those steps appear in the History panel.
Now you may wonder why we need the Snapshots panel if Lightroom is automatically recording each step in the History panel. A fair question, and the answer is that the Snapshots panel is there for us to create a more human readable and tailor made list of develop states that fit our way of working. Snapshots are also entirely 100% optional, and there are plenty of times when I don’t take advantage of using them. In those cases I am grateful that the History panel is silently recording everything for me.
There is no wrong way to use Snapshots, but one way I like to use them is to record certain milestones in my develop workflow to make it easier to go back to a specific point in time, which can sometimes be hard to find in a very long list of History steps. Creating a Snapshot is as easy as clicking the + sign in the Snapshots panel or pressing CMD+N (PC: Ctrl+N), and then entering a name in the New Snapshot dialog box that appears. I try to use a descriptive name that relates to the stage of development and I give it a leading number so that the snapshots sort within the panel in the order I create them (instead of alphabetically). In this case I created my first snapshot after completing all of the basic tonal adjustments that I would use no matter what direction stylistically I might take this photo.
Using Them Together
The History and Snapshots panel share some common traits. If you expand the Navigator panel you can hover your cursor over a history step or a snapshot and see the Navigator panel preview change to reflect the state of the photo at that time. Similarly if you click on a history step or a snapshot you will set the photo to the settings contained in that step or snapshot respectively and this updates the live preview in the main editing window.
Here is a key difference to understand about the way these panels work. Clicking on a snapshot reverts the photo to the settings contained in that snapshot and adds that action to the photos history in just the same way as if you applied a preset or moved a slider. Even though this may change the photo to reflect settings from an earlier time in your post-processing you still retain all of the history steps that lead to the moment you clicked on the snapshot.
Any adjustments you make after that continue to be added to the History panel in a linear fashion. However, if you click on a past history step you revert the photo back to the settings at that point in time (see Figure 7), and the moment you make any new adjustment you will wipe away all of the history steps that were previously above the selected history step (see Figure 8).
You see, when you click on a past history step and make a new adjustment you have effectively taken the photo in a new post-processing direction from that selected point in history and any work above that history step no longer applies and is deleted.
So, if you take the photo in a certain direction and want to preserve those settings for all time, make a snapshot of that state. If you want to revert the photo back to that state without losing any history steps you can click that snapshot to go back and then take the photo in a new direction. If you are just experimenting and are not attached to the outcome, then just use the steps in the History panel to go back in time and wash away your experimental tracks by simply making any new adjustment.
You can also make a snapshot from any history step by ctrl-clicking (PC: right-click) the desired history step and choosing Create Snapshot from the contextual menu that appears. So, if you forget to make a snapshot at the time you make the adjustment you can always create one without having to revert the photo back to that state first.
Sometimes history and snapshots are more useful for comparison sake than for reverting back to an earlier time. You may have noticed the second option in that contextual menu was Copy History Step Settings to Before (that same option exists when you ctrl-click/right-click a snapshot). I use Lightrooms Before/After comparison view all of the time, and find it much more useful to compare a current adjustment against a significant develop state than to compare against the state at import. This is the second reason why I name and number my snapshots as I work, as I find it more useful to use a snapshot as the before state in many cases.
If you find that you create a snapshot and then do more work that you wish to include in that previously made snapshot, just ctrl-click/right-click the snapshot and choose Update with Current Settings. You can also use that same contextual menu to rename and delete snapshots.
One final note on snapshots versus history is that snapshots can be written to a photos XMP metadata whereas all of the individual history steps are not preserved (only the last set of settings are written to XMP). This might be useful if you like to preserve Lightroom changes in the photos XMP metadata in addition to the catalog.
In case you were wondering, this photo was taken at Old Car City (located north of Atlanta, Georgia). It is one of the places we’ll be going back to in a future trip with
Rob writes the “Under the Loupe” column for Photoshop User Magazine, and is the author of many photography related books.