Turn This Lightroom Setting ON!

I have been neck deep in Lightroom lately (AKA I just “might” be working like a mad man on the Lightroom class you've all been asking for).  There are hundreds of settings and buttons and thingamajigs in the software, but there is one simple check box that will cause you extreme frustration if you overlook it.  This setting is buried in the settings and most photographers have no idea it's even there.  It's not checked by default and it really should be.

First, a little background

In most photo editing programs, you make changes to the photo (color, cropping, etc) and when you click save, the original file is overwritten with your changes.  Lightroom works differently.  Lightroom works off what is called a reference library, or reference database.  This means all of your photos remain entirely unchanged when you edit them in Lightroom.  In fact, the program does not even save a photo with the changes at all.  Lightroom merely remembers where you put all the sliders when working on a particular photo and saves the edits into the Lightroom database.

If you change a photo in Lightroom and then go find where the original photo is stored on your computer you'll see that photo does not reflect the changes you made in Lightroom.  In order to create a photo with your changes, you have to use the export feature in Lightroom which applies the changes to the original file and saves a new file with the changes that you can email, upload, share, etc.

I mentioned that Lightroom saves your edits in the Lightroom database.  This is a file stored on your computer with the file extension .lrcat.  This database holds all of the work you've ever done in Lightroom, so it is critical that you never lose it.  That's why Lightroom is always asking you to back up your database.

The Problem

Suppose you use Lightroom for the next five years.  Then, another company comes out with a better product than Lightroom and you want to switch.  Or, suppose Adobe jacks up prices over time and you want to stop using Lightroom.  You can leave, but you will lose every change you've ever done to any photo you've ever taken.  Ouch!  Other programs do not simply import your Lightroom settings.

Now it's time for the geeks to geek out about that last paragraph.  Not a geek?  Just skip to “The Solution” and trust me that you made the right choice.

The Lightroom database is not proprietary.  Or more accurately, it's not completely proprietary.  The Lightroom database is built using SQLite, so it looks acts and feels a lot like any old SQL database.  With a database browser, you can easily look into your .lrcat file and see exactly what information it is saving about the edits you make.  In theory, it would be possible for someone to create a new software solution in five years that could import a Lightroom catalog and you'd be set.   The trouble is that person would have to reverse engineer each setting and create other software that mirrors the changes that Lightroom makes.  That would be extremely difficult, and the reverse engineering bit could definitely wake up the patent trolls.

So it is entirely inaccurate to say that the Lightroom database is proprietary–it's not.  However, the very nature of how the program works and the wealth of information about each edit and change to thousands of photos may make it practically impossible to achieve.  That part isn't Adobe's fault–it's just the nature of how it works.  If this were easy and would not cause patent issues, Apple would have built a Lightroom Import feature into Aperture long ago.  So while the database isn't proprietary, it doesn't mean there is a practical way of making your Lightroom catalog of changes available to other programs.

The box "Automatically write changes into XMP" should be CHECKED ON!
The box “Automatically write changes into XMP” should be CHECKED ON!

The Solution

Wouldn't it be awesome if you could make a change to a photo in Lightroom and have the changes stored right along side the file?  Easily done with just three clicks inside Lightroom.

Click one: Go to Edit (on PC) or Lightroom (on Mac) in the top menu of Lightroom.

Click two: Choose “Catalog Settings.”

Click three: Click the box that says “Automatically write changes into XMP.”

Now every time you make a change to a photo, Lightroom creates a tiny XMP file (an Adobe text file that is an open standard) that goes beside your original photo.  If you open the file up in another program–even a non-Adobe program–you will see the changes have been applied.

The Solution is Incomplete

The problems we saw with reverse engineering the edits made in Lightroom are still very real with an XMP file.  The same information is simply stored in a different way.  I'd like to see a good fix for this, but frankly I'm not sure if someone could do it without getting sued for patent infringement, and they would essentially need to recreate the entire Lightroom program to make the changes to your file to work in the other program.  Finding the simple things such as a crop are probably not patentable if someone found out which table in the database that was stored in and imported that change.  However, other changes may be more likely to be patented in the exact way that Adobe does it.  So even if you could make the metadata apply a similar action but using your own algorithm, it would mean changing the way the edits are made.  Who would want to import their Lightroom catalog into software that will only import the gist of your edits?!?!

What this solution does do, however, is makes the information more readily available for viewing your photos in another program.  If in the years to come we all decide to switch over to a new photo editing program, I have to think you would be far more likely to keep your edits if you have the information stored in sidecar XMP files than if the new program had to match up the photo with the particular row in your LRCAT database and reverse engineer how the photo is edited.

But even if this step does turn out to be unnecessary, you get two nice side benefits: (1) Your photos will include metadata information from Lightroom when you open them in other programs even right now, and (2) You have a built-in backup of your database, because all of your edits are stored twice–once in the lrcat file and once as a sidecar XMP.  If your Lightroom catalog gets corrupted or goes on vacation, you still have your edits saved safely beside each original photo.

Your thoughts?

45 thoughts on “Turn This Lightroom Setting ON!”

    1. @Daniel – I have wondered the same thing but have not yet seen it happen despite having a database of tens of thousands of photos. Things don’t seem to have noticeably slowed for me.

    1. @Steve – I’m not sure. I don’t use Aperture but maybe someone on here will have an answer for you.

  1. I’m finding it’s taking a long time to write the XMP file. Also, it’s worth noting that if you have multiple catalogs, you’ll have to repeat the process on every catalog you have. I’m thinking this might be more worthwhile to do down the line, IF I ever need it.

    1. @Deb – Are you using a slower computer? I haven’t seen any reduction in performance. Good point about multiple catalogs.

  2. Will I still get the xmp file if I have my photos saved as dng files? I noticed that I have xmp files when my files are save as cr files, but if I save then as dng, I only have the one file. With this solution, will I now have xmp with the dng as well?

      1. I’d like to follow up on Barb’s question. I’m using DNG and haven’t saved the CR2 RAW files. Since it doesn’t create the XMP file, are the settings stored in Adobe’s DNG file? The reason why I ask is I’d like to copy a set of photos in DNG format onto a CD and give them as a gift to another photographer friend who introduced me to Lightroom. Can she open the DNG files in Lightroom and see all the settings?

  3. I do all my editing in Lightroom and use aperture for my cataloging and storing my photos. I export original from aperture to a folder i made on my desktop labeled aperture exports. I then import it from there in lightroom, do my edits, and finally export that file at full quality from lighroom to a sub folder in my aperture export folder labeled lightroom edits. I then open that up and drag it back to aperture and it works like a charm.

    1. Rob, excuse my lack of knowledge, but what is the advantage of using another program to catalog your images when LR does the same thing? I use a PC desktop and a Mac Pro laptop so I’m interested in the advantage. Thanks

      1. haha, yea I know Jim, but it works for me… I only edit a select few out of a bunch, and some editing i will do with on one software plugins for aperture. Hey totally off subject Jim, but a great topic to cover would be age old question of raw vs jpeg. I started working for this wedding photographer being the second shooter. Because i listen to so many photography podcast, it was shocked to hear her tell me she shoots in jpeg and wants me to do the same. She said if you can get it right in the camera, the little edits you will do later, jpeg info will be enough. She is an amazing photographer so I did what she said. (http://www.ef-photography.com/) what is your take on it? I get what she is saying, but maybe landscapes i would still shoot in raw… also – this is what another photographer I know showed me – http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/raw.htm

        thank you for all that you do! awesome website and podcast


  4. I guess I just like the look and feel of aperture for cataloging and organizing my pictures, but I find that Lightroom to be a superior editor. (At least as of Lightroom 5, and aperture yet to have a significant new release) I use a lot of aperture for all my sharing, book making and show casing… I understand it seems redundant to have both programs but I them both for different reasons.

  5. The easier option is to convert you raw files to DNG on import. All of lughtrooms non destructive information is stored in the DNG…no extra files, too easy.

    1. @Murray – There are pros and cons to DNG, but I don’t trust Adobe enough to give them my file format. That’s the whole purpose of this.

  6. oh boy… I finally checked the XMP box (I had done a previous search on the web but was not satisfied with the awnser, or should I say I did not trust the source) and my laptop went nuts! Beware those of you who have a slow machine. This little checkbox will suck the life out of your machine. My LR catalogue is fairly big (+100 000 pics) and I am running on an Acer 1st gen I5 CPU, 8MB RAM and 750GB 5400 rmp disk. It has been running for 5 hours…

    1. @Eric Duquette – I haven’t had the same experience. For me there is no slowness at all. I can’t tell any speed difference with or without it.

  7. Aside from less time and less data space, what are the pros of XMP compared to simply exporting your photos once you’re done editing?

  8. Jim;
    Do you have an idea yet when you’ll be ready to roll-out your Lightroom class? I’m looking to take a class or two online this winter, and this one sounds like a good option if you have it available during the winter months.

  9. I use a Windows computer with Intel i7 Extreme CPU with 6 cores. Turning this feature on does slow down Lightroom. I have a dedicated 7200 RPM hard disk for my photographs and the Lightroom catalog. It is too bad, because XMP files also pass the adjustments to applications like Adobe Bridge or Adobe Camera RAW without passing the file to them from Lightroom.

  10. I save all my XMP files of my RAW files but I do it a little differently. I edit the RAW file as normal, then right click, “metadata” “save metadata to files”. It writes a XMP file right next to my RAW file. If I have more than one photo I do a select all then save metadata to files. 100 photos takes about 10 seconds to save the XMPs and that’s with a 2008 Macbook Pro.

    Hope this helps.

  11. Hi-
    Thanks for the info! Once I set this up will it work retroactively? Or do I have to go to back to all my old catalogs?
    Laura Badger

  12. I just changed this feature in my LR. What I was doing before was doing this: Metadata > Save Metadata to File. Your version is easier. Thanks.

  13. Maybe I don’t understand, but if you can export the files in LR with the changes you made, why not just export the files if you decide to leave LR. That way you would’t need the side car files. Just asking?

  14. I don’t believe you should check that box at all. Here is why:
    All changes you make to a photo are written to the catalog as soon as you make them. If you check that box those same changes will also be written to either the dng or xmp sidecar. This will be a performance issue only if the catalog and the raw files are on the same disk but it will certainly be an unnecessary wear on your hard drive having to write and rewrite every second what is essentially backup data. Instead leave the box unchecked and the at the end of an editing session hit cmd+s and presto, all the edits you have made to any photo will be saved as xmp-data to the dng/siecar in one go.

    And as to dng vs. [your camera] raw you might find that dng is a pretty good options as it is the only major raw format that isn’t proprietary. Dng is an open format and as such has the better potential of being supported 30 years from now.

  15. I believe even Adobe now recommend its left off to improve performance to reduce the I/O load on the PC. If you ever decide to move to another program you can always just select all the photo’s and press CTRL+S to write the metadata to the XMP file.

    DNG may be an open format but it’s not open source so Adobe own it and licence it. That is one reason why so few people have taken it up as an alternative format – lack of trust in Adobe.

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