Points in Focus Photography

Lightroom 8 Years Later: A Critical Look at Virtual Copies

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In the first couple of articles in this series I’ve looked at some of the more broad user interface points about Lightroom. Now I want to start getting into some more technical aspects, starting with virtual copies.

As I’ve said over and over, one of the biggest features of Lightroom is that it doesn’t directly manipulate the pixel values of the images in the catalog. Every image you see in the interface is made up of two “parts”. First, there’s the original image file, be it raw, jpeg, tiff, psd, or what not, on the disk. Second is the set of instructions that tell Lightroom how to process and display an image; these are stored in the catalog.

One of the advantages of having these two separate parts to an image (the raw file and the recipe) is that it enables a very space efficient way to address multiple alternative versions of an image. You don’t need to store completely separate files on disk, you just need the bookkeeping in the database for two images that point to the single file on disk.

It’s not like the space savings of virtual copies is something to sneeze at. The develop recipe can be as little as a few KB. Even big develop recipes — and I’ll be going into much more depth about the storage of Lightroom’s develop settings in a future article — will almost always be under a few hundred KB. Compare that to the 3–6 MB needed for a 10 MP JPEG, never mind a 50MP raw at 60–70 MB, or the even larger file sizes needed for fully converted RGB tiffs or PSDs.

Make no mistake, Adobe unquestionably got the overall concept of virtual copies right. However, there is one major detail that just drives me up a wall.

Adobe decided for some reason, to impose an artificial distinction on the images in Lightroom. There are Master Photos and Virtual Copies, and these two “types” of images behave differently in certain subtle but important ways.

Master photos are the first entry in the catalog that’s created when and image is first imported. Beyond that there’s nothing special about them other than that artificial distinction and the subtle differences in behavior.

I can only speculate as to why Adobe chose to do this, but if I had to guess I think maybe Adobe was trying to retain some kind of skumorphic analogy to film. That is, the first slide/negative is the master image, from which you make copies and do your work. However, such a distinction doesn’t exist in digital; all copies are identical to the source they came from. When all copies are identical until you change them, the impetus to track the “first” or even generations at all is almost completely negated.

Moreover, it’s not like there’s a clear technical limitation that requires this behavior. I’ve dug through the catalog. Adobe properly normalized the file references from the image table. Many images can refer to the same files. The distinction is in fact extra information that’s stored.

It would seem, to me at least, that Adobe thought there was some benefit to this. Certainly you can filter your library by master and virtual images. But I have to be honest, I’ve never really seen the utility to this.

Since I hinted at subtle differences in behavior I should probably enumerate them. So the first difference is that you can filter the catalog based on whether an image is a master image or a virtual copy.

The second difference has to do with deleting, or removing the image from the catalog. When you delete a virtual copy, Lightroom only removes the virtual copy from the database. The image file remains on disk, and the master image and all other virtual copies remain in the catalog. However, when you delete a master image, Lightroom removed all of the virtual copies that are derived from that image and potentially also the raw file stored on the disk.

Lightroom’s master images are “more important” than a virtual copy, even though they’re technically the same thing as far as the database is concerned.

Perhaps the best way to understand my complain is though an example.

A lot of times I’ll work many similar variations on the processing of an image to find the way I like the best. I do this by making a virtual copy and tweaking the settings repeated. In the end I may have a processed master photo and a half dozen slightly different virtual copies. Even though virtual copies don’t take up much space, I find having a lot of extraneous images in my library less than desirable.

After my process of working up alternative images, I typically clean up the ones I don’t want and move the “choice” develop settings to the “master photo” to keep. With Lightroom’s implementation of virtual copies, to do this I have copy and paste the develop settings from my choice virtual copy to the master image and delete all the other virtual copies. What I should be able to do is just delete all the “copies” I don’t want and have the last remaining virtual copy become the “master” image.

The difference is not huge, and the workaround I use is workable. However, given that there are no real technical reasons that virtual copies need to be treated different than master photos, the process is just frustrating to me.

The other are where I think Adobe could further improve the use of virtual copies is with respect to publish services. One other desire I have generally is to insure stability of images in publish services. I don’t, for example, want to have a different version of an image listed on my site than what I have on my computer to make the print from. I do this by creating virtual copies to attempt to fix in place the settings. It would be nice, if there was a way to automatically create virtual copies on adding images to a collection or publish service.

So that about covers what I think I have to say about virtual copies in Lightroom. Again, Adobe did things pretty solidly. Internally, the catalog design is, so far as I can tell, sound in the implementation of virtual copies, and there’s nothing that would prohibit the more fluid interface, that I would prefer. Moreover, for the most part, the UI doesn’t suffer from a whole lot of major issues, and the benefits in storage space savings is significant as opposed to having multiple real copies to accomplish the same effect.

Next time I’m going to really burying into some technical details in the catalog as I look at the way Adobe stores develop settings, and the implications of that on the size and efficiency of the catalog.

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