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Total Creative Control: How to Use Virtual Copies to Fork and Stack Images in Lightroom


The dozens of sliders in Lightroom allow for a limitless number of combinations of visual styles, but it can be hard to correct, adjust, and build up your look from scratch (or even from presets) in one sitting, especially if you're trying to make a bunch of related images look good together.

The Awesome Power of Virtual Copies

If you're working on an image, or set of images, Lightroom's virtual copy features are a handy set of tools to help you break down the work and get expressive. A virtual copy is a version of your image that references the original image, but does not create a new image file. It is information that lives solely in Lightroom.

Virtual Copy Usage
I shot the image above for a client's album release, and wanted to present him with a variety of options for the finished product. I created several different virtual copies with totally unique editing styles and let him select a finished product. Creating virtual copies didn't create more files on my hard drive, just many different versions.

Virtual copies are an oft-overlooked and undervalued Lightroom feature, but they are very powerful. They allow you to create lots of different versions of your changes to an image. You can use these versions in many different ways, from saving incremental changes in the post-production process for a group of images to creating several unique directions for a single image.

Think of a virtual copy as a fork in the road that lets you take your vision in unlimited directions.

Lightroom is built around the idea of non-destructive editing. This means that as you adjust your images with Lightroom's sliders the original file isn't changed. Only when you export the image is the edited version saved as a brand new file.

When you've got all of these options at your fingertips and it doesn't harm your original image files, why not get adventurous? Creating a virtual copy doesn't add an extra file on your hard drive; it doesn't duplicate the original RAW image. It only adds another edit to your filmstrip that you can adjust any way that you please. Think of a virtual copy as a fork in the road that lets you take your vision in unlimited directions.

Creating a Virtual Copy

Creating a virtual copy takes just a couple of clicks. On the filmstrip at the bottom of Lightroom, right click (Control + click on a Mac) and choose "Create Virtual Copy." Lightroom will create a duplicate version of the photo

Create virtual copy
Creating a virtual copy is really easy - just right click on an image (Ctrl + click on Mac) and choose "create virtual copy."

When you create a virtual copy, it takes the image in its current state and duplicates it. Whatever edits you've applied can be reset or changed, totally independent of one another. From this point on the work on the new virtual copy is in no way linked to the original copy, and you can modify it any way that you wish. This is an extension of the non-destructive editing model: as you create additional virtual copies the original image is untouched.

Stacking Copies

If you start creating many editions of any image, your filmstrip may become cluttered with virtual copies. The best way to solve this is to stack the images together into a single stack, so that it shows as a single image stack on Lightroom's filmstrip.

Lots of Virtual Copies
After you've begun experimenting with virtual copies, your filmstrip can become a bit messy. To keep your film strip clean, one great feature Lightroom offers is Virtual Copy stacking so that the image appears as just one thumbnail.
The quickest way to stack virtual copies is to hover over any of the virtual copies in the filmstirp and click the icon in the upper left corner of the image. You can unstack it by following the same process.

To flip through the many editions of an image in a stack, you can press Shift and the bracket keys ([, ]) to move through them. You can also press the stack icon to expand the stack and make all virtual copies visible once again.

These stacks can help keep your collection nice and neat, even when you've created many different versions of your edit. As your collection grows with the creativity of your virtual copies, think about stacking them to maintain a neat workspace.

Deleting Virtual Copies

If you've created too many editions of your images and need to trim your virtual copies down, you can delete a virtual copy easily. Deleting the virtual copy doesn't necessarily have an effect on other editions of the image or the original image.

When you right click (control click on Mac) and choose "remove photos," you'll get a pop-up that's similar to the standard delete window, but instead, you'll be asked to remove just the virtual copy. The original image will stay put (as long as you haven't selected it) and only the virtual copy will be removed.

Remove Virtual Copy
To remove a virtual copy, right click on it in the film strip and choose "remove photo." Lightroom will prompt you to remove that copy. Keep in mind all other virtual copies will remain untouched, and the original image is preserved. Deleting a virtual copy doesn't remove the original image.

Using Virtual Copies in the Post-Production Workflow

Virtual copies can help keep a large edit organized and sane. The idea here is to use a virtual copy for each major "turning point" of the edit. When we aren't sure about what to do with an image, we can freeze our progress with a virtual copy.

Forking an Image

Let's say you're working that top notch image from a portrait shoot. It's the one image that you'll put on the cover of the album and use in your portfolio for years to come. There are many different edit treatments that can be applied, and you'll want to spend time experimenting. Virtual copies are how multiple edits can be explored.

Each step of the edit can have its own virtual copy. After I apply the correction, I'll create virtual copies to experiment with various crop options. Then, I'll create further virtual copies for different edit styles. In this way, virtual copies are like a version management system for digital photography.

Mindmap of Image Edit
This mindmap shows how I used virtual copies to manage a full edit for the image I showed earlier. Each of these branches represents a virtual copy that allows me to explore different edit treatments for my image. When I come to a decision about what to do, I don't have to make a single selection - instead, I'll create a virtual copy and fork my edit style.

Working With Groups of Images

If you have a group of images to all process to the same look it can be hard to achieve consistency. Wedding, product, documentary, and commercial photographers, for example, all use a multi-image workflow, and virtual copies can really help to move a body of pictures through their post-production smoothly.

As above, the idea is to use virtual copies to mark the way points in your process. Once you've selected the images to use, move each to the same step of the process together: everything exposure-adjusted, everything white-balanced, and so on. Identify your major steps and save a virtual copy for each picture when you're done each step.

Working with virtual copies, you can leave the work mid-way through processing the images. The number of virtual copies in the stack tells you where in the overall post-processing workflow each individual image is when you come back. This way you won't let forget an image or let anything fall behind, thereby ensuring everything stays looking reasonably alike.


Virtual copies are another degree of freedom to use in your digital workflow. You're never confined to a single edit when you can so easily create another option. Use virtual copies when you want to try several different editing styles on an image, and to keep track of the work you do with large sets of images.

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