Offline Photography Workflow With Adobe Lightroom 5 Smart Previews
May 2, 2013
7 comment

One of the exciting features announced with Lightroom 5 and available in the beta is Smart Previews. Smart Previews store a smaller version of an image inside the catalog that can be edited offline. That means you can store your original images on a network drive and the smart previews in the catalog, saving disk space on your local machine. It also means that if you disconnect from your network or external drive, you’ll still be able to make edits to your images that will get applied once you reconnect to your network drive. To take it a step further, if you share your catalog between computers, you’ll be able to extend your Lightroom workflow across a number of systems with the ability to dynamically work offline and synchronize changes across multiple systems.

I wanted to test drive the new feature in a practical way. Let’s say I was a photographer that had a main workstation in my office and a laptop to take on the road. My originals get uploaded to a network drive that both computers can see while in the office. Under Lightroom 4, as soon as I lose connectivity to the original images on the network drive, I lose the ability to edit my images, but I really want to be able to process some images while I’m on the plane to my next job. I could copy the original images from my network drive on to my laptop, but that involves extra copies of my images, and if I have a solid state drive, I might not have enough space.

Lightroom Fanatic - Missing Original Image

Lightroom Fanatic – Missing Original Image

Enter Lightroom 5 and the magic of Smart Previews…

My Configuration

  • Mac Mini running LR 5 Beta
  • MacBook Pro running LR 5 Beta
  • DropBox (affiliate link)

The Setup

For this exercise, I created a new Lightroom catalog and stored it on DropBox. This could easily be any shared space, such as a network drive. The beauty of something like DropBox (or iCloud, or similar) is that it can be easily synchronized across any network, extending my workflow outside of my network. Remember that the edits are stored in the catalog, so you’ll want to make it as easy as possible to pass changes to the catalog across all your systems.

The images that I am importing are stored on my Mac Mini, which makes them inaccessible to my MacBook. This could have just as easily been a network or external drive that the laptop does not have access to. The point is that the catalog need to be shared between the two devices, but the original image files don’t until you want to apply the changes to those originals.

Building Smart Previews

During Import

Lightroom gives you the ability to create Smart Previews during the import process. If you plan on taking advantage of Smart Previews, this is probably the easiest way to have them created. It will create them for every image, though, so, while the previews are smaller than the originals, having one for every image might balloon the size of the catalog file.

Lightroom Fanatic - Build Smart Previews on Import Dialog

Lightroom Fanatic – Build Smart Previews on Import Dialog

If you check the Build Smart Previews option on the import dialog, Lightroom will import your images and create the Smart Previews.

Lightroom Fanatic - Building Smart Previews

Lightroom Fanatic – Building Smart Previews

When all the Smart Previews have been created, Lightroom will display the dialog below.

Lightroom Fanatic - Smart Previews Built

Lightroom Fanatic – Smart Previews Built


If you want to create Smart Previews for images that are already in your catalog or selectively create them for certain images, you can manually create them either one at a time or for groups of images.

One At A Time

If you are working on an image without a Smart Preview, you will only see Original Image label underneath the histogram.

Lightroom Fanatic - Original Image Only

Lightroom Fanatic – Original Image Only

If you click on the label, Lightroom will prompt you to create a Smart Preview. Click Build Smart Preview to create one.

Lightroom Fanatic - Build Smart Preview

Lightroom Fanatic – Build Smart Preview


You can also select multiple images and create Smart Previews for each of them by selecting your images and clicking Library > Previews > Build Smart Previews. This would be ideal when you want to selectively create Smart Previews for editing, such as only for those images of a certain ranking for editing the “keepers” offline, or via a collection.

Once the previews are created, you will see the dialog below.

Lightroom Fanatic - Smart Previews Built

Lightroom Fanatic – Smart Previews Built

The Offline Workflow

Home Base

At this point on my main workstation, I have imported images and generated Smart Previews for them. Lightroom will indicate that an image has a Smart Preview by including the label underneath the histogram. In this case, Lightroom has both a preview and access to the original image.

Lightroom Fanatic - Original + Smart Preview

Lightroom Fanatic – Original + Smart Preview

Disconnected Laptop

On my laptop, I let DropBox synchronize the catalog, and then I loaded the catalog in to Lightroom. As you can see in the screen capture below, Lightroom indicates that I only have access to the Smart Preview, but the edit tools are available! I made a number of changes to the image, including the crop and exposure adjustment, then headed back to my Mini.

Lightroom Fanatic - Editing a Smart Preview

Lightroom Fanatic – Editing a Smart Preview

Back Home

When I opened Lightroom back on the Mini, the changes that I made to the Smart Preview on the laptop were visible! Lightroom also indicated that I had access to the Original + Smart Preview, so  not only were my edits reflected, but I could also see the edits applied to the original image. From here, I could continue my workflow and export, or print, or archive the changes.

Deleting Smart Previews

Similar to how we created the Smart Previews, you can delete them by either clicking on the Original + Smart Preview label underneath the histogram, or by clicking Library > Previews > Discard Smart Previews.


Smart Previews open up a number of potential use cases for extending my workflow offline. While on the disconnected MacBook, I was able to do all the things I could do while on the Mini, including creating and editing virtual copies, adding keywords, and managing metadata. But there are a few areas where Smart Previews won’t help.

Editing in Photoshop – Obviously, without access to the original image, editing in an external application doesn’t make a lot of sense. Otherwise, you’ll be editing the lower quality Smart Preview, which won’t yield the best results.

Library management – Again, without access to the actual files, moving or deleting images is not possible. You can, however, remove images from the catalog.

That said, if your intent is to be able to process your images while disconnected and do the heavier editing and library management from your workstation, Smart Previews are the answer.

Extending The Workflow To Other Devices

The technology behind Smart Previews lends itself to also extending my workflow to a mobile device, primarily because of the smaller image sizes and the ability to work disconnected. While this won’t work on an iPad yet, based on the demo from Tom Hogarty (@LR_Tom) yesterday on The Grid, I suspect we’ll see something on mobile devices soon. For more on the demo and my thoughts on what it means, check out Thoughts On Integrating A Mobile Device In To An Adobe Lightroom Workflow.

I also posted a YouTube video walking through this process, which you can find below.

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There are 7 comments

  • Brilliant! I’ve tried using LR4 and Dropbox for a while now. However, with Smart Previews in Lightroom 5, I can finally work on my images from multiple computers! Thanks for the article!

    • dave says:

      Thanks for visiting and posting, Dustin. I’ve got another post coming out tomorrow with my new LR5 workflow that expands on this a bit, but I’m loving the smart previews. Opens up a whole new world of possibilities for being productive on the road.

  • Great Article. I’m currently shuffling my catalog between 2 computers (home & office) in the same way, ie with Smart Previews & a single LRCAT File.
    However the issue I have is that when I was using Dropbox (DX) to sync the catalog and keep the Catalog LRCAT file in the Dropbox folder itself, the resultant preview files eat up all my bandwidth and the Upload/ Download Data Limit Quota.
    So how do you manage this?
    The system I’ve evolved is I keep the LRCAT file and the resultant Preview & Smart Preview files in a folder outside DX Folder on both the PC’s. Then whenever I’ve been done working on either of the 2 machines, I take a backup and archive(RAR) the LRCAT file onto the DX folder. This saves a ton of space, but has the headache of taking backup each and each time I do any edits on either of the 2 machines.
    Any suggestion on how I could improve this?

    • dave says:

      I haven’t reached the limit yet…my Dropbox catalog is just my working images, and I don’t do enough to reach any transfer limits. I read another recommendation about moving the preview file to a non-dropbox location but keeping the smart preview file and the catalog on drop box. If each Lightroom install has its own preview file, it should be able to generate any necessary previews from the smart preview data.

      You might also try disabling the Dropbox sync while you are editing so that it’s not sending in the incremental changes and then enable Dropbox when you’re done and let it update there. I think that would just cause DX to handle the final version of the file.

  • […] on my laptop even when I’m not at home and don’t have access to the original files (see this article for […]