Virtual Images Part 1: Snapshots

Some images only require a few adjustments and you're done. Yes. You're that good!

Other images just ask to be taken down different paths. As artists we often try to find the best expression of the moment we captured. But we don't always know the steps from capture to masterpiece. We try different settings. Apply a preset or two. Dive into the adjustment brush. and so on. And, even though Lightroom preserves an endless stream of history on an image we don't always remember at which step we saw one of those "looks" we liked. So what do we do?

Before Lightroom we might have saved multiple copies of an image. One for each different look. Now I know that storage is cheaper these days but how many times do you want to multiply a 25Mb file? Enter the snapshot!

Snapshots are one of the ways Lightroom lets us experiment and keep versions along the way. Even better, snapshots are virtual copies of an image that take up no room (or very very little) on the drive. These are literally snapshots of the settings at the time you take them. Great, huh?

Don't confuse snapshots with Virtual Copies. We'll talk about those in Part 2. So let's see how to make these snapshots.

Lightroom is smart. When you import a new image it automatically creates a snapshot of the state of the image upon import. Just take a look in the snapshots panel in the Develop module. (UPDATE: As Thomas notes in the comments below, since version 3 Lightroom no longer takes a snapshot on import. Apparently, many users complained that this was redundant since the import state is the first step in the history so you can get back to that either through the History panel or by pressing the RESET button. Personally, I think this was a mistake since I find it much easier to have a snapshot of the initial import state and found this feature convenient).

The first step of our journey towards a masterpiece may be converting the image to Black & White. Once we do we can see that step in the history panel.

Beautiful! Let's remember that by taking a snapshot. To do this you can either press Command N (Control N in Windows) or press the + at the top of the snapshots panel. Then give your snapshot a name.

Once you're done your snapshot will appear in the list.

So, next we apply preset. Wow! Even more beautiful! Let's save a snapshot of this one too!

Another way to create a snapshot is to right click on the history step you want the snapshot based on.

Choose Create snapshot and Lightroom fills in the history step as the name. You can accept this or change it.

At this point you may notice that Lightroom lists your snapshots in alphabetical order. If you want them listed in order of creation you can rename them and add 01. 02. 03. etc. to the front of the names to order them.

A quick side note—you may have noticed in the menu when we right clicked the history state that the second option was Copy History Step Settings to Before. This let's you change the before image when you use the before/after view. If you right click on a snapshot there is a similar option to make the snapshot the before image.

Even though snapshots are created in the Develop module, you can access them from the Library module in the same way you can access the develop presets. Right click the image thumbnail and choose Develop Settings. On the subsequent menu you will find the snapshots listed before the presets. Choose one and the thumbnail will change to that snapshot.

Snapshots are extremely useful tools. Their limitation lies in the fact that they are wholly contained within the image and are not really accessible or searchable. All the snapshots are just different views of the same image. Same keywords, same filename, same metadata, same image.

We can't really see different presentations of our image at the same time with snapshots. That's where Virtual Copies step in and create more flexibility with no increased storage requirements. But we'll save that discussion until Part 2. Until then, play with snapshots and see where your ideas take you!

UPDATE: If you use snapshots and want to enhance your workflow then check out the two excellent plugins from Matt's comment below. The first is Matt's own Snapshotter Plugin which will make snapshots of all selected images in a single step! Also, Jeffrey Friedl's Snapshot on Export Plugin which will make a snapshot of each image exported. Thanks Matt!