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Photography

How to Set Up a Fast and Flexible Library With Smart Previews in Adobe Lightroom

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Difficulty:AdvancedLength:LongLanguages:
This post is part of a series called Digital Asset Management: Photography Workflows.
Best of Both Worlds: Use a Fast Working Library and Secure Picture Archive
Implementing a Controlled Vocabulary in Adobe Lightroom

In this tutorial you’ll learn how to set up a fast and powerful picture library with Smart Previews in Adobe Lightroom that gives you access to your full archive without sacrificing speed or costing you a fortune.

A working picture library collects and organizes the day-to-day images you keep close at hand so that you can work on them. The library is the partner system to the archive described in our recent article, Do You Need a Picture Archive?

The Good-Fast-Cheap Paradox

We all want solutions that are good, fast, and affordable. In reality, we’re usually forced to choose two of these. We can have a solution that is good and affordable, but not fast. We can have a solution that is good and fast, but not affordable.

Seperating your library from your archive splits the work into segments. This lets you maximize resources. With a library and archive you can emphasize speed, affordability, and dependability in different amounts at key points in your imaging process.

In this tutorial I will make three assumptions:

  1. The media you need for working on images must have a fast read-write speed and be highly accessible: good and fast, but more expensive. We are willing to trade lower capacity and higher cost for increased speed and performance in our library because we have relatively fewer pictures in the library but we use each of them more often.

  2. The media you need in order to safeguard your images for tomorrow must be affordable and safe: good and cheap, but not fast. We are willing to trade speed and accessibility for lower cost storage volume and more dependability in our archive because we have relatively more pictures (sometimes many more) but we use each of them less often.

  3. We want to avoid media that is fast and cheap but not good. In other words, we want a system we can depend on.

What You’ll Need

Just a few years ago, photographers were often caught in a dilemma of how to store images. If a photographer wanted to have access to her entire image collection at once it meant plugging into a large external drive. These drives were often slow, expensive, and bulky: good for an archive, but not for a working library.

Fast SSD Storage

Lightroom’s Smart Previews help bridge the gap between your day-to-day working library and your long-term image storage archives. You can use Smart Previews to get the best of both worlds, as you’ll learn below. There is an added cost and complexity to the setup but it’s worth it, in my view.

If you have an solid-state drive for your computer’s hard drive you can keep your working library there. Most likely, however, your computer’s main SSD won’t have the space needed to store all the data Lightroom creates with this setup. An external SSD is a much more flexible solution.

The working library is the one you keep close at hand.

Look for a drive enclosure that has a fast connection. USB 3.0 (preferably bus-powered with a second USB connection) or Thunderbolt are good choices. The SSD itself should be fast and fairly large. Depending on the volume of pictures you take you’ll probably need 500 gigabytes to a terabyte of storage.

You’ll devote the entire drive to storage for your working library. It will store your Lightroom Catalog and your preview data, and that’s it.

Control Your Data Flow

Libraries, archives, catalogs: it’s enough to make your head spin. To make this setup work you need a firm understanding of your digital imaging pipeline.

Before we move on to implementing our workflow let’s recap some key principles:

Archives

This is where the digital image files you care about will live for all eternity, or until you decide otherwise. All your master copies go here. Most individuals will have one archive. Organizations might have one or more than one archive. We’ll cover optimal setups for picture archives in a future tutorial.

Libraries

This is where you organize pictures, collect them into groups, add metadata to describe your records, and browse your collections.

There are many types of libraries, but for this tutorial we are concerned with the working library. For our purposes, a working library is the place where we work on pictures. We “check out” or copy images from the archive to use them in the working library, and when we are done we “check in” or merge the result from our working library back to the archive.

Catalogs

This is the structure we use to describe how our pictures are organized. Both archives and libraries have catalogs. We can keep versions of catalogs, subcatalogs, special-purpose catalogs, catalogs of catalogs, and so on.

Adobe Lightroom uses the word Catalog as the name for it’s database file. This database holds all of the information Lightroom has about the image files you add to the Catalog and how they are organized. Lightroom cannot work with files or information outside of the Catalog.

A Master Catalog

This catalog contains a record for every picture in your archive. From this master catalog you can make all the other catalogs I mentioned above, but ultimately everything starts and ends with the master catalog.

The master catalog can also contain your working library. In this setup, the working library is a set of images in the master catalog that are currently active or that you need to keep available. You’ll use Smart Previews to give these images extra powers.

If you currently have more than one catalog floating around it’s time to start thinking about creating a master catalog.

Masks
Ambalangoda Masks by Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement CC BY 2.0, cropped and colour corrected from the original.

A Proxy-Based Working Library in Lightroom

Many digital asset management (DAM) tools feature the ability to build “proxy files” to stand in for the original files. These proxy files are reference copies to the originals that take up much less storage space, load more quickly, and leave the master copies untouched. Lightroom’s implementation of this approach is called Smart Previews. These previews give you the flexibility to view and work on your images with almost all the features of the original file without actually having to stay connected to the master files at all times.

With Smart Previews we can keep working on our images even when we aren’t connected to the original files.

In this workflow, you make Smart Previews for everything in you want to include in your working library. When you’re done with an image, or set of images, you delete the Smart Previews for those images. This frees up space on your SSD for new Smart Previews.

All the images without Smart Previews will still have regular previews. You’ll be able to see a low-resolution image (depending on your import settings) and do all the file organization maneuvers as usual in Lightroom. What you can’t do without Smart Previews (or the originals) is process and output those files.

Nondestructive

With the combination of proxy files and a database—Smart Previews and a Catalog—you can work quickly, see everything you have, and keep the original master copies safe and sound in your archive. Once everything is downloaded and imported, Lightroom will never actually change the master copies. It will simply store information about the master copies, then references them when you need to export a new version of an image.

What’s more, with this setup, disconnecting from your archive doesn’t mean you have to stop working. If you build Smart Previews the editing process can continue on. When you reconnect back to the archive everything synchronizes up and you can export from the master files to complete your work.

Limitations of Smart Previews

Although Smart Previews are a great solution, they do come at a cost. Notably, you can’t edit images at 100% view, so plan on doing your precise edits (if needed) when reconnected to your masters.

No. of Images Originals Smart Previews
50 1 gigabyte 48 megabytes
100 2.02 gigabytes 98 megabytes
250 2.56 gigabytes 240 megabytes
500 5.08 gigabytes 481 megabytes

In the table above, I show some brief testing I did comparing the original image files to the size of the Smart Previews. Keeping the Smart Previews for 500 images will take up less than 500 megabytes, so it’s easy to see the massive space savings.

Also, keep in mind that building Smart Previews does increase the size of your Catalog folder. The new Smart Previews are much smaller than the original image files that they reference, but they are a net increase to the catalog size.

Build the Working Library

Alright. I hope you’re convinced, as I am, that this is the best way to configure your library. Let’s get started with building Smart Previews for our working library.

My recommended setup is to keep the Lightroom Catalog and your Smart Previews on your external SSD and your picture archive of original image files on a separate raid or network drive. This split gives you performance when you need it and dependability where you need it.

Import Settings

If you are working with a new Catalog or importing new image files, here is the import process:

  1. Open your Lightroom Catalog from the SSD.
  2. Open the Library module and click Import.
  3. Set the To destination to your picture archive.
  4. If you also have a backup disk, tick Make a Second Copy To: and select this location too.
  5. Tick Build Smart Previews.
  6. Complete the rest of the import process as usual.

Lightroom will import your files and build the Smart Previews.

For Existing Images

The easiest way to build Smart Previews for images already in your Catalog is to access the Library menu and choose Previews > Build Smart Previews.

Lightroom Build Smart Previews dialog
To start building Smart Previews, enter the Library module and choose the Library > Previews > Build Smart Previews menu option.
Build all Smart Previews
On the next menu, Lightroom will ask if you want to build one Smart Preview or Smart Previews for all images in your Library. If you’re doing this process for the first time, you’ll likely want to Build All for your image catalog.

You can also follow this approach if you want to build Smart Previews for just a selection of images in your Lightroom Catalog. Choose a smaller group of images you want to build Smart Previews for and repeat the process, this time choosing to Build Smart Previews for the limited image selection.

Find Images that Need Smart Previews

One of my favorite ways to find images that need Smart Previews built is with a Smart Collection. If you’ve never built a Smart Collection before, these are like saved searches in Lightroom. We can build a rule to show the images that need Smart Previews.

In the Library module, find the Collections panel and choose to Create a Smart Collection to get started.

Create a Smart Collection
To get started with Smart Collections, press the ”+” button on the Collections panel in the Library and choose to create a new Smart Collection.

Next up, we’ll want to build the rules to find images that still need a Smart Preview. Luckily, Adobe has given up the option to include the Smart Preview status as a Smart Collection rule.

To find images that lack the necessary Smart Preview, choose the Has Smart Preview option from the first column’s dropdown choices. Next, we’ll need to ensure that the second dropdown is set to False. Basically, this tells Lightroom to show us all images that lack a Smart Preview.

Smart Collection rules dialog
The new window that opens allows us to create the Smart Collection’s rules. We’ll need to choose Has Smart Preview from the first dropdown, and is false to make sure we’re pulling the images that lack Smart Previews. Make sure we stay set to match all just above the rules, and give it a simple name like “Needs Smart Previews.”

After we’ve created this handy Smart Collection we can open it at anytime to view the images that still need Smart Previews.

If I’m going to disconnect from my drives for some time, I always check this Smart Collection before disconnecting. Keep in mind that Smart Collections are dynamic searches that change in real time, so if we import images and don’t build Smart Previews, they’ll show up in the collection.

Discard Smart Previews

Finally, we can also discard Smart Previews if we no longer need them. The process is very similar: simply select the images you want to discard, and choose Library > Previews > Discard Smart Previews.

Discard Smart Previews
If you’re ready to discard your Smart Previews, choose the related images and choose Library > Previews > Discard Smart Previews.

Of course, you’ll need to keep your original images. Smart Previews are not replacements for the original image files. They are a supplementary approach that help to create smaller proxy files in place of the original images.

Processing Images with Smart Previews

Now when you want (or need) to work in “Smart Preview mode”, disconnected from your original image files, you can keep right on rolling. Simply disconnect from your picture archive and keep editing just as you normally would. This workflow is perfect for when you’re traveling or just around the house and away from your desk.

Working disconnected from the picture archive
You’ll know the status of your Library by viewing the Histogram in the Develop module. In the top half of this screenshot, Lightroom notes that we have access to both the Original and Smart Preview. However, after you’ve disconnected, you’ll see that only the Smart Preview is available.

Exporting with Smart Previews

The only time that Smart Previews really impact the workflow is at the export stage, where you’ll need to be conscious of the size of your exported images.

As I mentioned earlier, you may need to reconnect to the drive where your original images are stored. According to Adobe’s Principal Digital Imaging Evangelist, Julieanne Kost, you can export using Smart Previews up to 2540 pixels on the long edge.

If you need to export larger images you’ll need to reconnect to the original images. Other than that, the export process is the same as normal with Lightroom.

Recap

In this tutorial, you learned how to build a working library setup that allows for access to your full archive while remaining lean on storage size and high speed. Implementing a hybrid working library is possible with Lightroom’s Smart Previews. Build Smart Previews when you want to retain access to your images and work fast even when you aren’t connected.

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