Recently, I’ve heard from more than one photographer who uses Lightroom for much of their RAW file processing and organization with one exception: They feel it’s too slow out of the box for sorting and rating. This process, often referred to as culling, is where photographers separate the wheat from the chaff. Some pros like to use a dedicated program for this; Camera Bits’ Photo Mechanic is an oft-cited culling program. And while I have no doubt it’s ideally suited to this task, many photographers would like to accomplish as much sorting, ranking and organizing in a single application as possible. So how can Lightroom be tweaked to improve the efficiency of this essential step?
First, be deliberate with import settings. Most photographers want the process of importing images from camera to computer to be as quick as possible. But with Lightroom’s ability to perform several tasks during import, it may actually save you time in the long run to make deliberate choices about those import settings.
First and foremost, are you copying those images to a backup drive on import? Doing so is the safest approach, as once an image is imported it’s immediately living in two places. But this process does slow down the time it takes to import files—particularly if you’re importing thousands of high-res files in a single batch.
If minimizing import time is essential, consider making this backup later by unchecking “Make a Second Copy To” in the File Handling area of Lightroom’s import module. You’ll also want to be sure you’re not applying any develop settings during import, and be sure the “Don’t Import Suspected Duplicates” is checked in order to prevent you from ingesting a second copy of images that have already been brought in.
Last and most important, unchecking the “Build Smart Previews” box and setting the “Build Previews” dropdown menu to Minimal will significantly speed up the import.
That last step, however, is like so many things in life: immediately gratifying but troublesome in the long term. You see, the previews largely dictate how quickly a photographer can sort and rate images during culling.
With minimal previews, Lightroom builds very small previews during import, then builds a larger preview as needed when the image is selected during culling. That causes a lag while the low-res preview is updated to a larger one on the fly, and that lag is immensely frustrating.
To counter it, reverse the process that makes for a speedy import: build larger previews—such as Standard or 1:1—during the import. It makes the import take longer and requires more hard drive space, but it pays off later by dramatically speeding up the culling process.
One compromise is to choose Minimal preview size on import, but then prior to the culling process, tell Lightroom to build full-size 1:1 previews. To do this, simply ensure you’re in the Library module and select any photo.
Then, click on the Library menu heading at the top of the screen and choose Previews, then click “Build 1:1 Previews” from the menu. Lightroom will then ask if you’d like to build a preview for just the one photo or all of them. Choose “Build All” if you’d like to render them in full-size previews before you get to work. Depending on the size and quantity of the image files, this could take a bit of time, so be sure to schedule this procedure well in advance of your planned editing time.
Better still, check “Build Smart Previews” and Lightroom will make a preview file that can be used in lieu of the much larger original file for editing. It was built for photographers on the go who want to, say, work on files on a mobile laptop then return to the office to plug in to the drive of original RAW files. But it works exceedingly well even if you have those RAWs on the internal drive because the editing process works faster with smart previews.
To enable this speed improvement, navigate to the Performance tab of Lightroom’s Preferences, then check the box that reads “Use Smart Previews instead of originals for image editing.” The import time will slow and the preview quality will suffer, but the final output will remain at 100 percent quality and the editing will go much faster.
The other way editing and sorting will go noticeably faster is if the files being accessed are on a local hard drive. Though you may prefer to store your image files on an external drive or network server, Lightroom generally works much faster with a number of images if those files are present on the computer’s internal disk. You can move files to the local drive for this temporary purpose, but make sure to leave the originals on the external drive by making a copy to the internal disk.
This way, when you’re done, you simply drag the local drive’s folder of images to the trash and direct Lightroom back to the originals on the remote drive. This is done by finding the folder of images in the Lightroom catalog (which will now feature a question mark beside the name to indicate those local files have gone missing) and then right-clicking the folder and choosing “Find Missing Folder,” then navigating through the Finder window that pops up to point Lightroom to the correct folder of images in their original form on the external drive you started with.
If you’re forced to work with files on an external drive, do yourself all the favors you can by ensuring it’s fast—something like an NVMe solid-state drive (SSD) with the latest USB 3.1 Gen2 Type-C or Thunderbolt3 connectivity. If you’re using an external spinning hard drive and an older USB 2.0 connection, your data transfer rates will lag quite noticeably.
Speaking of sending files externally, one major cause of Lightroom lags is the application synchronizing your files with the cloud. To prevent this, you’ll want to turn off the “Sync with Lightroom CC” function, which is found in the dropdown menu that appears when you click your username in the header on the top left of the Lightroom window. Ensure this activity isn’t running and you’ll free up as much memory as possible to streamline the application. Of course, if you do want to synchronize those files later, be sure to restart the sync when you’re done with your editing process.