Snapshots vs. Virtual Copies

The snapshot and virtual copy functions in Lightroom share some similarity some significant differences. Each has a valuable place in a Lightroom workflow, and it’s important to understand the differences to use each one effectively.

Every adjustment you make to your photos in Lightroom is stored in the catalog file as a set of instructions that’s only applied to copies created during output, such as exporting copies, printing, uploading a Web gallery, and so on. The snapshot and virtual copy functions allow us to leverage the power of the Lightroom catalog to store and display multiple variations of how we might process our photos. There are certainly many instances where you’d never need to use either snapshots or virtual copies, but for the times that you do, they can be an invaluable addition to your workflow.


The pur¬pose of a snapshot is to capture a set of Develop module settings at a given point in time and preserve it in a way that makes it a one-click solution to jump back to that state at any time. For example, you might create a snapshot right after you’ve made a white balance adjustment, and then another after completing all tonal adjustments, and perhaps another after performing a lens correc¬tion. In another scenario, you might not want to be so particular and you might simply create a snapshot after all global adjustments have been performed and before you begin certain local adjustments.

You might wonder about the benefit of creating snap¬shots at different points in your workflow when you have the History panel right below it, diligently keeping track of every tweak you make. The History panel can become quite long in a short amount of time, and it may not be readily apparent from scanning the history when you achieved a certain level of satisfaction from a given adjustment. Creating snapshots to mark key milestones can be a helpful way to be able to look back at where you’ve come since first importing the photo.

Snapshots can be created several ways: The most obvious way is to click the Create Snapshot icon (+) in the Snapshots panel header the moment you’ve reached a certain state in development. You can also choose Develop>New Snapshot, or use the keyboard shortcut Command-N (PC: Ctrl-N). You can also use the History panel by Right-clicking on any history step and choosing Create Snapshot from the menu. No matter which method you use to create the snapshot, you’ll be presented with the New Snapshot dialog, where you can give that snapshot a name that makes sense to you. Note that snapshots are arranged in the Snapshots panel in alpha-numeric order. Because of this, I sometimes find it helpful to number my snapshots so that they fall into chronological order.

As with presets and history steps, when you move your cursor over a snapshot in the panel, the Navigator panel will display a preview of the image at that particular state of development. You can also set any snapshot as the Before state of your photo, so when you take advantage of View>Before/After, you can compare your most up-to-date adjustment against the snapshot of your choice instead of comparing against the state right at import. To do this, Right-click on the snapshot you want to use and choose Copy Snapshot Settings to Before from the menu. Now just press the Backslash key () to switch between the Before and After and compare your latest work with your snapshot.


As great as snapshots are, there are times when you might want to actually create an additional set of instructions for processing a photo that you can see side by side with your original photo. Prior to Lightroom, our only option was to duplicate the original photo on disk (such as through the File>Save As menu in Photoshop), and then process the copy in a new direction. Thanks to the power of the catalog file, which stores all the work we do in Lightroom, we have the option to create a virtual copy. A virtual copy is the Lightroom way of creating more than one set of processing instructions for a single source photo without duplicating the original file on disk. Yes, Lightroom does create a preview of the virtual copy that’s stored in the preview cache, but this takes up much less room on your drive than an actual duplicate copy of the original photo.

You can create a virtual copy by Right-clicking on the photo and choosing Create Virtual Copy from the menu, or by going to Photo>Create Virtual Copy (where you can also see its keyboard shortcut). A virtual copy has a page curl icon in the lower-left corner of the thumbnail in Grid view (G) and in the Filmstrip. If you don’t see the icon in Grid view, go to View>View Options and make sure Thumbnail Badges is checked, or in the Filmstrip, Right-click on a thumbnail and make sure Show Badges is checked under View Options.

Once you’ve created a virtual copy, it will look and act just like a duplicate copy of your original photo. You can process the virtual copy any way you like without affecting the work you previously did to the source photo. When it comes to output, you can use virtual copies in Web galleries, slide shows, prints, publish services, and even export. Lightroom simply uses the instructions for the virtual copy to create the copy from the source photo.

Let’s say I want to create a color and a black-and-white version of the same source photo. I select my original color photo and create a virtual copy via the Photo menu. Now I can take that virtual copy to the Develop module and process it as a black and white without having any affect on the original color version. The virtual copy will start with the same settings as the original photo at the time the virtual copy was created, and while you won’t have access to the original photo’s history steps, you’ll find that snapshots are shared across all virtual copies and the original. That gives me a great deal of flexibility in my virtual copy if I ever want to go back to a previous state of the original and move forward from there. Plus, if I create a new snapshot in the virtual copy, that snapshot will be available to the original (Lightroom calls it the «master») photo.

There’s also hidden benefit to the automatic sharing of snapshots between virtual copies and masters. Because virtual copies only exist in the Lightroom catalog, they cannot be written into XMP metadata and, as a result, cannot be seen outside of Lightroom in Bridge or Camera Raw. Even if you don’t use Bridge or Camera Raw, some people take the belt and suspenders approach of having Lightroom write all changes into the XMP metadata space of their photos, in addition to backing up their catalog. So, if you take the extra step to create a snapshot of your finished virtual copy settings, you now have a way to make those settings a little more portable because snapshots can be written into XMP metadata.

If you should fall in love with the virtual copy version of your photo and decide you no longer want to keep the original instructions on the master version, Lightroom gives you the means to set the virtual copy as the master (which changes the original master into a virtual copy). Just select the virtual copy in the Library module and choose Photo>Set Copy as Master to make the switch. Used independently or in partnership, virtual copies and snapshots are powerful tools in your Light-room workflow.

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