The speed of Lightroom – or the lack thereof – is one of the most popular topics among photographers. You may have asked questions such as “why is Lightroom so painfully slow?” and “how do I speed up Lightroom?” or “how do I make Lightroom run faster?”
Browsing the web, you’ll find thousands of suggestions on ways to speed Lightroom up. Some of the suggestions work. Others are complete myths. Some suggestions can even make Lightroom slower.
Simply saying, “Lightroom is slow” doesn’t help, because different areas of the program benefit from different optimizations. For example, if you’re finding it slow in the Develop module, rendering 1:1 previews won’t help. To fine-tune performance, you need to understand what Lightroom’s doing under the hood.
Lightroom Performance Series
In this Lightroom Performance series of posts, we’re going to take a close look at the different factors that affect Lightroom’s performance.
First, we’re going to discuss and debunk a few of the myths from other blogs, which I discovered while researching this series.
Next, we’re going to discuss Lightroom’s hardware requirements, and in case you’re buying a new computer, we’ll also understand which hardware has the greatest effect on different areas of the program.
Over the following weeks, there’s a run of four posts, covering the tweaks you can make to your existing computer to improve Lightroom’s performance, including general operating system maintenance, settings within Lightroom itself, which of Lightroom’s previews and caches you need to utilize, and finally, ways you can tweak your workflow to shave off extra time.
Finally, we’re going to end with a summary of how to improve the speed in specific areas of Lightroom.
If you’re itching to speed up Lightroom right now, and don’t want to wait a couple of months to complete the series of posts, you’ll find all of the information in the Improving Performance section of my Lightroom CC/6 book on pages 551-563. The book also includes detailed flow charts and tables that will not be featuring in these blog posts.
Before we start optimizing Lightroom, however, it’s important to understand what we can expect from Lightroom. I frequently hear people say, “But my computer runs fine with everything else,” only to then discover that they’re only running web browsers and office software, which use minimal resources. Others complain that Photoshop runs fine, but when they try to do the same tasks in Lightroom, it crawls.
It’s important to understand the nature of Lightroom’s non-destructive editing, compared to most other program’s pixel-based editing*. Imagine a conversation between you and your computer:
You: “Computer, increase Exposure to +1.0”
Photoshop: “Ok, Exposure +1.0”
Lightroom: “Ok, Exposure +1.0”
You: “Computer, add Clarity +20”
Photoshop: “Ok, Clarity +20”
Lightroom: “Ok, Exposure +1.0, Clarity +20”
Now carry on working for a while, and we’ll catch up towards the end of the edit…
You: “Computer, remove that dust spot”
Photoshop: “Ok, dust spot removed”
Lightroom: “Ok, Exposure +1.0, Clarity +20, Contrast +24, Temperature 5600, Tint 23, Highlights -40, Shadows +34, Vibrance +13, Tone Curve Strong Contrast, Lens Corrections on, Chromatic Aberration Removal on, Noise Reduction +20, Sharpening Amount +20, Vignette -10, HSL Blue Luminance -23, Upright Auto, Local Adjustment Gradient top to bottom with X settings, Brush mask with long list of coordinates, another brush mask with long list of coordinates, another brush mask with long list of coordinates, first brush spot, second brush spot, third brush spot, fourth brush spot…. ok, that new dust spot removed now too.”
Spot the difference?
Pixel editors such as Photoshop* run a task once, applying the changes to the pixels of the image itself. Each time you make another adjustment, it carries on from the current set of pixels. (That’s a generalization as you can use smart objects or adjustment layers, but let’s keep things simple for now, as these would also have performance implications.)
Lightroom, on the other hand, is a parametric editor. This means that every time you make an adjustment, it runs a series of text instructions. The more adjustments you make to the image, the more text instructions it has to run each time you make a change. The more complex the instructions, the longer they take to run. (Lightroom silently caches some editing stages to ease this issue, but again, let’s keep things simple.)
There are pros and cons to both options:
File Size – Lightroom’s text instructions are tiny, and since it doesn’t touch the original image pixels, you only have the text instructions and the original image file to store (plus backups, of course). In Photoshop, the edits are applied to the pixels, so you need to work on a copy of the photo, and if you start saving additional layers, the file size can balloon even further. Winner – Lightroom.
Changing Edits – If you make an edit one day in Lightroom, and change your mind the next day, you can simply move the slider back. No pixels were harmed in the process. In Photoshop, on the other hand, you either have to start all over again from the original, or if the change isn’t too huge, you may be able to tweak the edited file, albeit with a lower quality result. (Or if you were really sensible, you may have used layers in Photoshop, at the cost of a larger file.) Winner – Lightroom.
Quality – Photoshop applies adjustments in the order you make them. If you lighten a photo and then darken some areas of it, you can’t pull back the detail you’ve lost in that earlier step (without layers, etc.). Lightroom has the advantage of working on the raw data and silently applies the edits in the optimum order when exporting, with a higher quality result. Winner – Lightroom.
Speed – As we’ve seen, Lightroom has to constantly re-run text instructions, whereas Photoshop applies them immediately and directly to the pixels. For global edits, that’s not too noticeable, but Lightroom can start to drag when using multiple local adjustments and retouching multiple spots. For this reason, pixel editors such as Photoshop and Elements are still better suited to more detailed retouching. On the other hand, when you’re doing global edits to a large number of photos, Lightroom is far quicker than opening each of the photos in Photoshop. Winner – for editing lots of photos, Lightroom wins, but for detailed local edits, Photoshop wins.
It’s simply a case of understanding their strengths and weaknesses. For editing most of your photos, Lightroom wins hands-down. For building complex local adjustment masks, doing detailed retouching or even removing numerous dust spots from scans, Photoshop is still the better tool for the job.
* In this context, we’re referring to Photoshop itself, as an example of a pixel editor. The ACR plug-in uses non-destructive editing principles like Lightroom.
Next week, let’s debunk some Lightroom performance myths.