5 Tips to Speed Up Lightroom
Hey everybody, this is a quick and rough adaptation of a Photo Taco podcast episode called “5 Tips to Speed Up Lightroom” you can listen to here. I offered a couple of tips for squeezing the most speed out of Lightroom that you can. As I recorded the episode in mid-November 2016, the most current version of Lightroom is 2015.7 in the Creative Cloud version and 6.7 in the stand-alone version, and so that is what these tips will apply to – although the tips are pretty much the same from version 5 on and a lot even apply to Lightroom version 4.
Maybe that is the place to start on this, how it is very disappointing that these tips do apply so broadly to so many versions. From version 4.0 that was first released back in March of 2012 to today nearly 4 ½ years later, the basic makeup of Lightroom from a performance perspective is mostly unchanged. Quite a few functional enhancements have come in that time, but even though Adobe has claimed performance improvements with each of the major releases and even some of the minor releases over the past 4 years, there really hasn’t been much. The biggest attempt to make a significant change was when Adobe added GPU acceleration to Lightroom in version 6 back in April of 2015.
GPU stands for graphics processing unit, and it is something that is a real focus in higher end computers. GPU has become absolutely critical in gaming as a way to make the graphics look more detailed and move more smoothly over the years, yet a lot of post-processing software has yet to truly take advantage of a GPU. Even though Adobe attempted to tap into that power in the release of Lightroom 6, since it only works in specific things within the Develop module and even then only works well with a few specific video cards, I wouldn’t say Lightroom really makes good use of the GPU today. I’ll talk a little more about this in a moment, but it is really disappointing for me to think that in 4 years this is the most meaningful thing Adobe has done to try and address performance issues with their Lightroom software. As a result, Lightroom is showing it’s age and certainly has a number of performance challenges. Today I want to give a few tips on how to get the very most performance out of Lightroom you can.
With good reason, every time I talk about Lightroom I hear from many photographers who have had it. They have given up on the product and switched to one of the competitors. They are sure to let me know every time I talk about Lightroom about how much better it is on the other side, with whatever product they have chosen to move to. While I am not a professional photographer, relying on photography to pay my bills, it is a really serious hobby for me and the hours I have to do that hobby are very limited. Even though my livelihood doesn’t depend on how fast Lightroom is working, I understand very well how frustrating it is to have it crawl along as you attempt to edit a session. I totally understand photographers looking to other products, but that is not what this episode is about. In this episode I need to set aside that whole argument about switching away from Lightroom being the best way to get more performance. Certainly is in an option, and if you want to go that route, go right ahead. But for this episode I want to focus on what can be done to make Lightroom work as good as it possibly can which means assuming that for some reason you have decided to stick with it.
The other thing I want to quickly mention right here is a little bit about why Lightroom is so slow. I am not saying Adobe and their engineers should be given a pass here, I think they could do a lot to make it faster by better incorporating today’s technology with multi-threading and GPU. I think they could also make a massive improvement in adding a “Cull” module where JPEG previews embedded within RAW files can be used to make that process MUCH faster – Adobe, if you are listening, feel free to contact me on this idea. But the job Lightroom is doing is quite a bit harder than what most other post-processing software attempts to take on and I think there is a value in my analogy here so let’s try it out and see what you think. Lightroom stores a “recipe” of sorts for every photo in your catalog. I am sure you have heard it said that it is a “non-destructive” editor. It doesn’t alter anything about the original photo as you edit the photo. So, if we compared a photo to a cake, then using Lightroom is a little like saying you are going to pull the ingredients needed to bake a cake out and bake it fresh vs. opening the lid on a cake holder and cutting yourself a slice. Of course baking a cake fresh each time you want one is much harder and takes more time than having an already fully baked cake in the pantry. Again, want to be clear, I am 100% confident that Lightroom could be made significantly faster and I hope that Adobe will focus on that more than adding more features to the product in coming releases. I just want you to understand that it has a pretty big job to do.
You need a good computer. Maybe an obvious tip for many who have been trying to run Lightroom for a while, but it doesn’t matter what settings you use in Lightroom if you are trying to run the software an old or inexpensive computer. By old I mean anything more than about 3 or 4 years. Inexpensive means you need to plan to spend at least $1,000 on a computer. With “Black Friday” coming up here soon in the United States, you may see deals on computers for far less money than that being advertised and I can tell you before even seeing the specifics on any deals that they will not be good enough to really do a good job of running Lightroom. For the sake of time I am going to move on to the next tip here because I have already done a Photo Taco podcast on this specific topic called “Photo Editing Computer Hardware” that you can find a link to in the show notes or by doing a Google search of “photo taco computer hardware.” I also have a lot of detail in a couple of articles over at improvephotography.com that you can find links to in the show notes are again search on the Google for “Windows Photo Editing SUPER Guide” and “ Mac vs. PC for Photographers.”
Edit Photos From a Fast Hard Drive. Even though this is really part of Tip #1, it is important enough and so often something photographers are doing wrong by using slow external hard drives, that I thought it should be it’s own tip here. There are other pieces of the computer that are important but this tends to end up being a challenge for many photographers because we fill up hard drives pretty fast. Especially now that super fast SSD drives have been put in so many computers, often as the only drive in the computer. Not a bad thing from a performance perspective, it can really help your computer be much faster with not only post-processing software but just with your computer overall. The problem is that those fast SSD drives are really small compared to the storage you can get in slower HDD drives. I have said before in the podcast that the first wall a photographer hits in post-processing is a storage wall. When you first get into photography you aren’t prepared for the disk space you need to keep all of the RAW photos you capture and suddenly you are faced with a message saying your hard drive is full. So, to solve the problem, you go buy an external hard drive. Which will solve your storage problem. Well, delay it for a while. But making that move can have a seriously negative impact the performance of Lightroom. I won’t go into more details on this tip either as I have two Photo Taco episodes on the topic you can listen to that you will find links to in the show notes or by searching “photo taco hard drive full” and “photo taco photography and storage”. I also have an article at improvephotography.com called “The Ultimate Backup Workflow for Photographers”.
Use Smart Previews. At the beginning of this episode, when I made a big deal about Adobe not doing much with Lightroom to address performance problems over the past 4 years, that wasn’t entirely true. They did make what I believe to be a meaningful change in the way Smart Previews can be used with the very latest minor update to Lightroom 6.7 / CC 2015.7. Adobe added a checkbox to allow people to automate a “hack” I personally saw make Lightroom go 4x faster by making it use Smart Previews. You can hear about that “hack” in the Photo Taco episode called “Lightroom Smart Previews” by hitting the link in the show notes or searching “photo taco smart previews.” Lightroom works significantly faster off of Smart Previews than it does the massive original files you have on your computer. Especially massive RAW files. You can think of Smart Previews as mini RAW files. They are much smaller in file size on your hard drive, which makes them much easier for Lightroom to open up and run the recipe of the sliders and adjustments you have made. For most photographers the RAW files you have are so large in fact that you can’t even fit every pixel in the photo on the screen, yet Lightroom has to spend a ton of time reading every single one of those pixels and figure out how to present it. It is almost always wasted computation time that you don’t need. I highly recommend enabling the checkbox to use Smart Previews in the Develop module by going to Edit->Preferences on PC or Lightroom->Preferences on Mac, then the Performance tab, and checking the “Use Smart Previews instead of Originals for image editing” option. Although I have to say here that I would have liked to see Adobe go a bit further with this than they did and for me I see more of a speed improvement by still doing the “hack” of renaming the folder with the original files as I outlined in the Photo Taco Smart Previews episode and I will continue to do that myself.
Whether using the “hack” or the Performance checkbox in the Preferences window, in order for Smart Previews to help you do have to generate them. This is a pain and it is not only too slow today there seems to be a pretty well observed bug constantly talked about in the Adobe forums about how Lightroom gets slower and slower as you generate Smart Previews. Meaning that the first time you do them on import it goes OK. Not speedy by any stretch, but OK. But if you leave Lightroom open over a period of days to weeks and keep doing imports that process of generating the previews gets worse and worse. The bug has actually been tied more to generating 1:1 previews than Smart Previews, but I have anecdotally observed this with Smart Previews as well. So, along with having Lightroom know to actually use the Smart Previews, I recommend closing the application completely after every editing session to avoid this bug.
Speaking of importing and generating previews, let me give you recommendations that I still consider to be part of this Tip #3. I would definitely generate Smart Previews on import. They can be built later of course, but they make such a massive difference in performance it is worth the wait to have them generated on import. OK, so generate Smart Previews on import, what about 1:1 previews? Is it worthwhile to generate those on import as well? First off, you need to know that 1:1 previews are not used in any way in the Develop module. So 1:1 previews are only valuable if you do a lot of zooming in within the Library module. I have compared the performance in the Library module between generating 1:1 previews and using my “hack” to force Lightroom to use Smart Previews (remember the new checkbox to use Smart Previews only applies the Develop module) and Smart Previews is faster for me. So I never generate 1:1 previews on import or otherwise because I don’t zoom into photos in the Library module.
Disable Graphics Acceleration. If you were following along and went into the Performance tab of the Preferences window to enable the use of Smart Previews for image editing, you likely saw the option just above it to Use Graphics Processor. For a huge percentage of you my advice is to disable that option by leaving it unchecked. As I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, the intention here was that Lightroom would tap into the power that is available in modern graphics cards but even with the feature added in Lightroom 6 it was fairly narrowly implemented. Meaning Lightroom only goes to the GPU for some features in the Develop module and it was really engineered to make a positive difference only when using a display with resolutions HIGHER than 2K. If you are running a 4K or 5K display then you should definitely give it a try with the Graphics Acceleration feature enabled by checking the checkbox there in the Performance tab of the Preferences window. Other than that, if you are using a display that is full HD (1920×1080), even WQHD (2560×1400) or WQXGA (2560×1600) enabling GPU acceleration is more likely going to make things slower rather than faster. What if you have a 4K display and after checking that box things are terrible? The next best thing, and this is another hack for sure, is to uncheck the box and then don’t run Lightroom full screen. If you run the app sized down so that the window is smaller than 2560×1600 then performance will be better. I sure hope that in Lightroom 7 Adobe figures out how to tap into the power of the GPU and really makes the real-time response of the sliders react instantaneously in the Develop module.
Workflow Matters. The last tip I will share in this episode may be the hardest one to work through because it could mean changing your workflow. There are some things you can do as part of processing a photo that are harder for Lightroom to do than others, and if you do one of those things first then even the things that are relatively easy for Lightroom now become hard and you will be more frustrated. I think this is probably the most common problem why people feel like Lightroom has “bad days” sometimes. I don’t know, maybe it really does, but what I do know is that if you do things in a specific order you will help Lightroom be as fast as it can be. Terrible that you have to do this, tools for creatives need to allow for the creativity to happen in whatever order it comes, but if you want it to perform then you have to play the game here.
The first one has to do with presets. I love presets. I don’t use them nearly enough in my workflow, but every year Jim produces a fantastic collection of presets that he practically gives away as part of a Black Friday sale. Speaking of which, that is coming up really soon and you need to watch for that sale at improvephotography.com to get your hands on an excellent set for a very low price. Anyway, if you are going to apply the same preset to all or most of the photos in a session, you either need to apply that preset on import or don’t generate previews until AFTER you have applied the preset. If you apply a preset across a lot of photos that you are editing that will mean that all of the previews also have to be re-generated. So if you generate previews on import, and then apply the same preset to all of the shots you just imported, you get to generate the previews on all of those photos again! Don’t do that.
Next, in a performance optimized workflow, you should disable all background tasks. The most current version of Lightroom will Sync with Lightroom Mobile, do Address lookups, and Face detection in the background after import. All of that will really slow down your editing with that running in the background. So, pause those background features while you are editing. To do that, click on the Identity Plate in the top left corner and press the Pause buttons in the Activity Center. Don’t forget to start them again when you’ve finished.
Probably no big change thus far to your workflow, but the next part of a performance optimized workflow has to do with the order of the edits in the Develop module. For this I am going to steal the suggestion straight from my friend Victoria Bampton, also known as The Lightroom Queen who in a fairly recent blog post over at lightroomqueen.com recommended a very specific order:
- Tonal Adjustments (e.g. Basic panel, etc.) can be done at any stage, but are often done first
- Spot Healing
- Lens Corrections (Profile, Manual Transform sliders, Upright, etc.)
- Local Corrections (Adjustment Brush, Graduated Filter, Radial Filter)
- Detail Corrections (Noise Reduction, Sharpening)
My own workflow mostly followed that pattern because the panels are laid out that way, and maybe that tells us why it is the panels are ordered the way there are. But as I am editing my photos I try things out in different orders all the time. So, if you find that going back into the Basic panel to do some slider edits is behaving really slowly, a trick you can use if you think of it is to turn off the panels that are further down the list. Turn off the Details panel temporarily and then go back and do that change you were working on. To temporarily turn off the edits in the Detail panel you click on the little light switch looking icon to the left of the title where it says Detail. With the switch up, the “light” is on and Lightroom will render the sliders in the panel. With the switch down, the “light” is off and the settings of the sliders will remain but Lightroom won’t spend time working on rendering the effects of those sliders making other things faster.
Another note about this list order is that if you are going to do a lot with spot healing or adjustment brushes, it will ultimately be faster to round-trip over into Photoshop and make those adjustments there. I have become far more comfortable with this approach in the past year and prefer not only the speed but the vastly superior functionality available in Photoshop to do these edits. In fact, I actually skip spot healing and much of the adjustment brushes in Lightroom now because I prefer how those features function in Photoshop over the more limited function in Lightroom. I know for many the goal is to stay out of Photoshop because it slows your workflow down, but I am also sure you have seen how slow Lightroom gets as you add more and more spot healing or adjustment brushes to a photo. If you aren’t going to round-trip into Photoshop to do those edits, you definitely want to save them for last.
Other Resources to Check Out:
- Photo Taco – Photo Editing Computer Hardware: https://improvephotography.com/41219/photo-taco-photo-editing-computer-hardware/
- Windows Photo Editing Super Guide: https://improvephotography.com/35216/windows-photo-editing-super-guide/
- Mac vs. PC for Photographers: The ULTIMATE Guide: https://improvephotography.com/31242/mac-vs-pc-for-photographers/
- Photo Taco – Hard Drive Full: https://improvephotography.com/40460/photo-taco-hard-drive-full/
- Photo Taco – Photography and Storage: https://improvephotography.com/37834/photo-taco-photography-storage/
- The ULTIMATE Backup Workflow for Photographers: https://improvephotography.com/33562/how-to-manage-storage-storage-workflow/
- Photo Taco – Lightroom Smart Previews: https://improvephotography.com/39724/photo-taco-lightroom-smart-previews/
- Lightroom Performance – Workflow Tweaks (Victoria Bampton – The Lightroom Queen): https://www.lightroomqueen.com/lightroom-performance-workflow-tweaks/