Working Photographers use Smart Previews

Working Photographers use Smart Previews
Powerful animals benefit most from very low camera angles. This brings the bulk of the animal up above the theoretical horizon line and taps into editors and art buyers unconcious assumptions about these animals: big, powerful, strong, imposing, etc. 

Are you using Smart Previews in Lightroom? If not, you may be missing out on one of the best features Adobe built into this program for professionals.

As a working photographer, I spend most of the year traveling. Pre-pandemic, this looked like 8-10 months a year that I was on the road. And while most photographers pride themselves on how many days a year they were in the field, being a working wildlife photographer means that I usually celebrate the opposite of that: how many days a year I get to be home.

With this sort of breakneck schedule at times, it becomes nearly impossible to keep up on editing photos. In a single busy afternoon, like one I recently had in the boreal forest photographing great gray owls, it’s not uncommon to come back with something in the neighborhood of 4,000 images.

Especially now, with cameras shooting as fast as 20-30 fps, the job of “keeping up” is even more challenging than it was just 5 years ago.

This is where Smart Previews comes into play.

Lightroom originally created this feature to help photographers speed up their catalogs, but many of us have come to recognize other extraordinary benefits along the way.

The concept is pretty simple.

When you import your photos, you can tell Lightroom to create a Smart Preview with the photographs. There is no impact on your original files whatsoever. When you tell Lightroom to import those photos to the catalog and copy them to your hard drives, it does exactly as you wish. However, in addition to this, Lightroom will also create a small 2560px DNG file of your image and then embed that into the catalog as well.

This IS NOT THE SAME as the option at the top of the import dialogue box to COPY TO DNG (which I highly recommend against ever doing).

This 2560px DNG (digital negative) is much smaller than the original raw file (my Z9 is over 8000px) and therefore much faster for Lightroom and your computer to read and work with. Thus, the Smart Preview translates to significant speed increases when it comes to loading and editing your photos.

This benefit alone is worth it. Time is money. And the more time you have to sit waiting for files to load, the less time you have to be doing all the other things it takes to make a living at this.

As you edit the DNG files, lightroom is storing that information alongside of the data it keeps on the original raw file you imported. And so, when you go to export a photograph, you are doing so from the original raw file, but with all the adjustments you made on the DNG file.

But here is the real benefit for many of us professionals. . .

Because Lightroom is embedding that DNG file into the catalog itself, you can work on and edit the DNG file at any time, not matter where you are, as long as you have your catalog with you.

So, what does this mean?

Like most working professionals, I work with RAID drives that live in my office permanently. This is the master collection of all my photographs. It’s where my entire life’s work lives. When I come back to the office after an assignment or workshop, I move all my photographs off the 2 SSD travel drives I carry with me on trips, and onto that RAID drive. From here, I use a service called Backblaze to make an additional backup of those drives to the cloud.

But here is the catch: what happens when I am not home long enough to actually go through all of those images?

Let’s take the winter of 2021 / 2022 as an example.

I hopped on a plane Dec 1, 2021, for Panama. I returned to my office on Dec 22. Then, on Dec 26th, I left for Yellowstone National Park, where I spent the next 2 full months. After Yellowstone, I immediately traveled to northern Minnesota to work on a project photographing owls. From here, I returned to my office and “dumped” 3.5 months’ worth of work onto my RAID drives. But with only 1 single week in the office before having to head south to the Gulf Coast of Florida for several weeks of photography, when am I going to have time to cull through, let alone actually edit, any of those photographs from Panama, Yellowstone, and Minnesota? Especially since I am getting ready to likely add another 20,000 images to my travel drives in Florida!

Smart Previews to the rescue.

Because these Smart Previews are embedded in the Lightroom catalog, I can keep up with editing my photos no matter how many thousands of miles I happen to be from my RAID drives containing those photos.

Long flights? No problem. Sleepless nights in hotels? A perfect time to edit. Or, maybe when I am home, I just want to actually sit down on my own couch with my feet up instead of being perched on the edge of an office chair chained to a desk.

Smart Previews allows me to work anywhere and anytime I want to, regardless of where my photographs are.

Now, since the DNG files created in this process are 2560 pixels, this means that I can even export jpeg images from this at that same size while on the road.

This is important. The preferred file size for Facebook is 2048 pixels. I size all my photos that accompany emails at 1000 pixels. And when I am creating a lightbox for magazine editors or other clients to review, I don’t need anything larger than 2560 pixels as proof of concept.

If I need bigger files, I have already done all the edits on the Smart Preview and when I return to the office, I can then just export the photo at whatever size I need to from the actual raw file.


Me, I have one laptop to do all my work. When I am in the office, I simply dock my MacBook Pro and connect it to a 32” editing display and my RAID drives. Since I use one computer to handle all of my travel and in-the-office work, I simply keep my Lightroom catalog on the MacBook’s internal drive. This means that as long as I have my laptop with me, I have my catalog with me and can work on images via those Smart Previews.

Not everyone has this same setup, however. Some of you reading this may prefer to keep a laptop for travel, but a desktop computer at home where everything lives permanently.

If this is the case, you are in luck. There is a simple solution.

Adobe allows you to have two working copies of Lightroom for this very reason – one on a laptop and one on a desktop.

All you have to do is store your’ catalog on a travel SSD drive.

Since you can have a working copy of LR on the laptop and desktop at the same time, you need only plug in your SSD to access the catalog. Sitting on your couch with a laptop? Plug in the little pocket-sized SSD and you are ready to go. Sitting at your desktop with a large color calibrated display? Just plug in that little SSD drive and you are ready to go.

Smart Previews really are a life saver for many of us in so many ways. Not only does it speed up Lightroom CONSIDERABLY, but it also allows us the freedom to work on and edit our photographs with Lightroom Classic no matter where in the world we happen to be, and no matter how long we are going to be away from our master drives.