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Travel Light with Lightroom Smart Previews

lightroom 5 smart previewsNote: this article and video were created when Lightroom 5 came out, but they are applicable to later versions of Lightroom as well.

Lightroom smart previews allow you to develop your photos, even when the masters are offline. Imagine traveling with your laptop, and leaving your big heavy external hard drive with all your photos back at home. Work on your photos on the road, and when you get home and reconnect your hard drive, your work is seamlessly applied to your masters. All you need on the road are your laptop your catalog, and smart previews of your photos.  Not interested in traveling with your photos? Smart previews may still give you a performance benefit in the Develop module.  Finally, Adobe has hinted that at some point in the future, smart previews will enable us to work with our photos in a Lightroom app on our mobile devices.

Watch this video for more on how smart previews work, and how to build and manage them. This is one video of 58 in my Lightroom 5: The Fundamentals & Beyond series (which as of 2016 has been updated to: Lightroom CC/6 and 5: The Fundamentals & Beyond and now contains 76 videos.)

(For higher quality, once you hit Play, click on the sprocket wheel in the bottom right and choose 720/HD.)

Related articles:

Adobe Releases Lightroom 5

Lightroom 5 Videos: Highlights + Individual Features


Related articles:

Adobe Releases Lightroom 5

Lightroom 5 Videos: Highlights + Individual Features


2017-07-09T19:07:13+00:00 June 12th, 2013|16 Comments


  1. aron cooperman June 12, 2013 at 2:20 pm - Reply

    how do smart previews interact with Photoshop and other tools (OnOne Software or NIK Software)… if a smart preview is edited, can the photo be exported/edited in other program and then imported back into LR?

    • Laura Shoe June 12, 2013 at 4:22 pm - Reply

      Hi Aron, you can’t go directly from LR to PS (or presumably Nik) with Edit in. You could export a PSD or TIF copy and then open it in PS or Nik, and then import that into LR, but remember that you would be working with only a small and compressed version of your photo.

  2. dan radigan June 15, 2013 at 5:51 pm - Reply

    Hey Laura,

    What happens when you delete a smart preview? Does it delete the master from disk when you re sync?

    • Laura Shoe June 15, 2013 at 6:39 pm - Reply

      Hi Dan, thanks for bringing up this point that I missed. When you try to delete the photo, LR warns you that it cannot delete the offline original, and gives you the choice to still remove the photo from the LR catalog. When your originals are offline, I recommend flagging photos for deletion, with the reject flag, a color label, keyword or collection, and then actually doing your deletes when the originals are back online.

  3. Sang C. Logan July 1, 2013 at 4:35 am - Reply

    So in addition to being bigger previews, Lightroom add two major things you could not do before to regular previews. First, you can export Smart Previews. These are not huge files so using Smart Previews is not recommended for high quality print jobs. But if you want to send a proof to a client or post an image to Facebook, the smart previews are perfect.

  4. Jodie August 12, 2013 at 11:55 pm - Reply

    Love the idea of smart previews and I’m about to upgrade to LR 5 for that reason. I’ll move my photos to an external drive so I can work on them from the laptop (mostly) as well as my iMac. I understand the changes i make to the smart previews will sync when I reconnect my hard drive. My question is – if i make changes to the smart previews using my laptop then sync it to the hard drive, will the photos on the iMac be updated to reflect those changes when I connect the hard drive to it? Will the catalog on my iMac realise that changes have been made to the master (on the external drive) and automatically sync them?

    • Laura Shoe August 17, 2013 at 1:25 pm - Reply

      Hi Jodie, if you regularly work on two computers, then I would put both your photos and your catalog on the external hard drive (and not bother building smart previews). Lightroom does not have the ability to detect changes that are stored in a different catalog. Here’s a blog post on this. (I discuss different organizational solutions in depth in my Fundamentals & Beyond video series. There is also a video in this on how to update one catalog with work done in another.)

  5. irwin lakin August 16, 2013 at 9:24 am - Reply

    Laura,do i really need smart previews if i do not work with a laptop(or travel with it) and just work with my desktop at home with my master photos. Thanks!!

  6. Hector May 13, 2014 at 11:51 pm - Reply

    I have a desktop computer, where my catalog lives. The files are on an external, but always connected. I recently got a laptop with intent of editing and working on my catalog away from the home. How would you recommend I approach working with my files on the laptop? My catalog has 4500 files, and I don’t want to be importing and exporting as catalog all the time and having a limited number. Id rather have all the files on my laptop, and my desktop, and be able to edit them on the go from the laptop and sync back to desktop when back home.
    Is brute copy of the full catalog and smart previews the only solution, i made them even though my drive is always connected, in the case of emergency failure, and have plenty of space. And then manual copies from laptop back to desktop?
    Any cleaner or more elegant way to handle this juggling act would be appreciated. Thanks in advance.

    • Laura Shoe May 19, 2014 at 1:03 pm - Reply

      Hi Hector,

      You could also consider storing your catalog and your photos on an external drive, and taking this with you when you travel. This way there is no syncing necessary. (Some day hopefully we will be able to easily sync between desktop and laptop using the same approach that Lightroom 5.4 now allows us to sync from our Desktop to our iPads.)

      Another option would be to store your catalog and smart previews in Dropbox, where you could access it from either computer. However, you have to be extremely careful not to open it on one machine while another is writing to it, or you’ll corrupt the catalog.

  7. Eliud Gil Samaniego August 8, 2014 at 12:51 am - Reply

    Hi there, i have all my photos in my desktop pc, at the hdd. I once have seen that i can save a collection in a usb and work it on my laptop, then put it back in my desktop with my usb and synk the changes i made in the develop module, but i cant find the steps to do that, i remember it uses the smart previews. thanks a lot

  8. AL May 13, 2015 at 11:51 am - Reply

    So, I’ve been using Smart Previews for a while no, having no problem. The other day, I decided to go through my old backup catalogs and delete the less recent ones, and leave the files of Smart Previews. Today, when I restarted Lightroom, it looks like the latest catalog dose not recognize that most of the files have Smart Previews, so most of my library is showing up blank. Do you know how I could re-integrate the existing Smart Previews into my current catalog, or otherwise import the existing Smart Previews? Hope this is a clear description! Thanks

    • Laura Shoe June 3, 2015 at 3:38 pm - Reply

      Hi Al, be sure that the smart previews file has the exact same name as your catalog (with Smart Previews at the end) and is in the same folder.

  9. Carissa January 5, 2016 at 1:27 pm - Reply

    I have my Lightroom catalog and smart previews stored on an external portable drive, and can only open Lightroom when the drive is plugged into either my laptop or my computer. The Master files are stored on my larger mac, but I edit my photos on the go using my laptop. This seems to work for me with smart preview edits, and I haven’t run into any issues with the catalog becoming corrupt because it only knows to open the catalog from that source.

    Any issues you know of, or that you can foresee, using this method?

    • Laura Shoe January 6, 2016 at 12:05 pm - Reply

      That’s fine, Carissa.

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