Adobe made a huge change when Lightroom 5 launched with Smart Previews. Smart Previews are a feature that I’ve been using since I installed Lightroom 5, but based off the majority of people I’ve talked to that use LR5, I’ve found that this remarkably simple and useful feature is under used. I encourage every budget minded person who hasn’t tried utilizing them to think about incorporating them into the workflow.

Who would this benefit?

Answer: Anyone with limited storage on their machines who want to edit on the go.

Let’s create a scenario to help you understand how this might work:

I’m going to use Sherri, because Sherri is awesome. Let’s say that she has a baseline MacBook Pro or Air and only has 128GB of storage because she’s on a budget. Sherri takes pictures often and enjoys editing and putting together different shoots for her friends and friend’s families. She typically offloads all those pictures onto external hard drives to save space on her computer but keeps track all the pictures in her Lightroom Catalog. She’s used to keeping external drives in her bag when she travels around, but wants to lighten up the load she carries when she goes to the local coffee shop to edit.

But Mykii, why is this beneficial?

Smart Previews actually allow someone like Sherri to store original image files on an external hard drive (to save storage space) and still retain the ability to view and edit those photos while that hard drive isn’t connected to the computer!

  • Saves Time
    • No need to transfer photos back and forth from external drives.
  • Saves Storage
    • Keeps your local drive free, so your operating system can breathe.
  • Saves Space
    • No need to carry that drive around with you in your backpack or purse.
  • Saves Photos
    • Decrease the risk you have of damaging external drives and losing photos

If you’d try to edit images with the original images on a disconnected drive, you’d normally get a message stating that the file couldn’t be found or a question mark may show up on the picture.

Smart Previews work by creating a small DNG as a preview that Lightroom stores on the drive and uses to show you when the actual file isn’t connected to the computer. These little images are slightly lower resolution and are really meant to be place holders for you to use and edit. You won’t be able to export them into Photoshop to do some heavy editing, but you’ll be able to use all the tools in Lightroom sufficiently– yup, you can go click happy on the Spot Removal Tool and Adjustment brushes all you want. All of those edits to images are then automatically synced back to the original files when you reconnect the external drive.

Sweet! So lets do this!

To put these to use, you need to create these Smart Previews by one or both of the following ways.

The first way to do it is by creating the Smart Previews on import. This option renders the previews for all the images that you’re importing right away and is found on the top right of the Import dialog. This is great if you know that you’re planning to take a whole shoot with you to edit on the go. Note that using this option slightly increases the overall import process and rendering time. If you leave the checkbox checked, it will continue to create a Smart Preview for every image you import in the future until it is unchecked.

The second way to do it is by creating Smart Previews in the Library Module for a selection of images. Navigating through the menu bar on the top to Library -> Previews -> Build Smart Previews will produce the option.

If you only have one image selected, as seen in the following images, Lightroom will ask if you want to build Smart Previews for just that single image, or build Smart Previews for all the images in that folder. Note that “Build All” applies to that folder that you’re viewing in the catalog.

Once you’re done creating the Smart Previews, the status underneath the histogram changes to signify that that specific image has a preview built with it. Once the original file is removed, it only shows “Smart Preview” and not “Original + Smart Preview”. If you have multiple images selected in the Grid view, that status area changes to a bunch of icons. The first shows how many Original images without Smart Previews are available in the selection, the second shows Original + Smart Previews (typically indicating that the drive containing the original is connected), the third shows Smart Previews only (typically indicating that the drive containing the original is disconnected), and the last shows Missing photos.

Deleting Smart Previews

Deleting Smart Previews are just as simple, if not more simple, than creating them. Select on an image or on multiple images, and if Loupe mode, click on where it says “Original + Smart Preview”, or if in Grid mode, click the Smart Preview icons. A dialog will appear asking if you want to delete the Smart Previews. This dialogue is actually pretty nifty! It shows how many Smart Previews there total are and how much additional space those Smart Previews have occupied, even though you’re maybe deleting one at a time. You also may have noticed that in the Library module, you can navigate to Library -> Previews -> Discard Smart Previews in the menu bar– this will discard ALL of the Smart Previews on the computer.

Share your experience with Smart Previews with me in the comments below! I’d love to answer any questions you have about them as well.