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One Shot, Infinite Possibilities

All about Lightroom virtual copies
Lightroom Virtual Copies Example

One of my favorite things about Lightroom is how it makes my workflow more efficient. Not just in terms of importing, processing and exporting files, but in the way it maintains a single “master” image file. Rather than ending up with duplicates and multiple versions of image files—which are often quite large and take up a lot of precious storage space on my hard drives—I have a single original raw file, from which I create a single retouched TIF or PSD document. Because I use Lightroom to manage these files I have the benefit of turning that one master high-res file into as many different versions as I’d like, without having to duplicate or output additional big files. This is entirely a function of Lightroom’s ability to produce Virtual Copies. 

To understand virtual copies it helps to start by understanding how lightroom applies edits to image files. You see, when you work on an image in Lightroom’s Develop module, the edits you apply within Lightroom don’t actually change the underlying image file. What Lightroom creates is more of a record of the edits you’d like to make, along with a small preview version of the file so that you can see the effect those edits have. It’s only when an image file is output—for printing, say, or posting online—that Lightroom applies the edits to the resulting TIF, JPEG or whatever kind of file you’re outputting. (I think of such files as temporary and disposable. Because my originals remain safe, sound and untouched thanks to Lightroom, I can output these other versions, send them off to where they need to go, then trash my local copies. It’s another reason why Lightroom is above all else an efficient image management system.)

Creating a virtual copy within Lightroom couldn’t be easier. In the filmstrip view, simply right-click on the thumbnail and choose “Create Virtual Copy” from the popup menu that appears. A new thumbnail will appear immediately adjacent to the original, but you’ll notice two differences: the filename of the new virtual copy will be the original filename appended with “Copy 1” and there will be a small white triangle in the bottom left corner of the preview. So while an original RAW image file might be 50MB or more, the virtual copy is tiny—like 20k worth of text, because after all it is virtual. Nothing more than a set of instructions for the application to be able to recreate the actual image file on demand. 


What’s better still is that right clicking on an image file—or even a virtual copy—can create another virtual copy. So each new iteration of the file can be maintained as is, with additional edits applied to subsequent virtual copies.

In practice this means that I often edit an original image file, then create an alternate version as needed, followed by black & white versions, alternate crops, and any other variation I may need to save without adding additional, sizable image files. No matter how many virtual copies I create, the total demand on my hard drive is still, essentially, the 50MB of that original image file. Or the 500MB of a high-res layered PSD file, and so on. The bigger the file, the more vital virtual copies will be. Lightroom’s virtual copies allow you to take one image file and, with minimal additional storage space, create infinite possibilities.

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