Lightroom Q&A: Snapshots Vs. Virtual Copies

A common question I get is what the difference between Lightroom’s Snapshots and Virtual Copies. While you could use them interchangeably in some ways, they really have two separate uses. Here goes:

What’s a Snapshot?
Think of a snapshot as something you’d use when editing a photo and you have a few different paths, editing ideas, or effects you want to try on the photo. It’d be silly to keep hitting the reset button and start over again each time. And if you found a good point where you liked how the photo looked, but wanted to try something difference just in case, you’d run the risk of forgetting what the settings where if you tried to revert back to it. Well, that’s where a Snapshot comes in handy. Basically, you’d get to a point where you like the photo and create a Snapshot in the Snapshots panel in the Develop module.


Lightroom creates a “Snapshot” of all of the current settings you have for that image at that exact point in time. Then you can go down another editing path. If you decide you like Path B, better than Path A, then you can leave things as they are. But if you decide you’d like to revert back to Path A, then you just go to the Snapshots panel and click the one you created for it. Lightroom reverts all of the settings to whatever you had when you created it. It’s essentially a tool to help with experimentation.

A popular follow up question to this is why not just go to the History panel and click on the History state where you liked the image best. I guess you could do it, but then you’d have to remember exactly what history state you liked which could be a pain.

Okay, Then What’s a Virtual Copy?
A Virtual Copy is Lightroom’s way to create versions. Let’s say you want to edit a photo and have a color version, a black and white version, and maybe a black and white with a slight color tint to it (done in the Split Toning panel). You could use Snapshots but you’d have to click from one, to the other each time you wanted to see the different “versions” of the photo. Most likely, when you have versions, you want to compare them next to each other or show some one else the different versions so they can pick their favorite. That’s where Virtual Copies help out a lot. You just right-click on the photo and choose Create Virtual Copy. Lightroom makes a copy of the photo. If you look in the filmstrip, you’ll know the virtual copy from the others because it has a little page curl icon on it.


At this point, go ahead and change the settings to the black and white. Then right-click again and create another virtual copy and add the tint you want to the photo. Now you have 3 virtual copies or “versions” of your photo so you can compare them next to each other and pick your favorite. What’s really nice is that virtual copies are, well, virtual. They don’t take up extra space and it’s not a real duplicate copy of the photo. But you can experiment as much as you’d like and you can even save JPEGs or print from the Virtual Copies.

I hope this helps clear up a few things. I know it’s a common question I get on my Lightroom seminars so hopefully it helps clear up some confusion. Have a great day!


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  1. I agree with you! Since I have been in college, I haven’t seen some of my old firdnes in years. Just the other day I ran into an old friend. We met in preschool and I probably have not seen her since 8th grade. It was great to see how she grew up, what kind of person she is today. The has also allowed me to see what some of my old firdnes are like now. See their interest and what is their major. People remember me as a tomboy and now people say I am more girlie than one can get!Old firdnes are great. Its so nice to reminisce.

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  2. Yes, this is awesome! I’ve been doing some ‘old school’ efforts to compare my results. Question I didn’t see answered yet: So, I edited the shot, created a snapshot of it, how do I go back to the original shot to start my other versions of edits? I’m guilt of undoing my work, after saving a copy, while this has worked, i just knew there was another way. But now, with snapshot, I edit, snapshot, then what? How do I go back to the original without undoing the snapshot capture? Thank you!

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  3. One cool trick is to combine both virtual copies and snapshots in order to have everything saved on disk rather than only in the lightroom catalog.

    Snapshots are saved in the RAW file (for DNGs) or in a sidecar (XMP) file for other RAW formats.
    All the snapshots created on virtual copies are visible in the snapshots list of the original photo.

    I use this in combination with the ‘always save metadata to XMP’ option in order to be sure that losing my catalog won’t mean losing all my editing work.

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  4. Re: virtual copies and snapshots: Does LR generate previews for virtual copies? For snapshots?

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  5. Susan, are you importing RAW files? If so then likely what is happening is that for a second you are seeing the “preview” version of the file, much like you see on the back of your camera LCD when you take the shot, which often sharpened, with increased contrast, and perhaps some other changes. However, after loading the full file, the ‘raw’ raw image is presented, which is often more boring looking, but allows you to tweak a lot more than a jpeg does. It could also be that you have a setting in the library set that is applying something to the image on import.

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  6. A Lightroom question, please Matt: Why when I import images into LR5 (sorry not 4, 4 is over) do they get a stop darker? I have develop settings set to “none”. Yet when I import a CR2 image for a brief second it loads slightly lighter and then almost instantly changes to a darker version, which is what I am left with. It’s very annoying, so was wondering if anybody else has come across this anomaly?


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  7. Thanks for all the useful info. I am new to all this so look forward to future discussions and info. Took a webinar last weekend which was good but way short on details.

    When I import old files into library I think it would be great to be able to set the color space to “camera normal” instead of the standard “adobe normal”. Would save me a step when developing them. How can I do that?

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  8. One trap I fell into was creating a virtual copy, editing that copy then forgetting that it was a virtual copy I deleted the original which took the virtual copy with it!

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  9. Just starting to use snapshots so thanks for the tip!

    Another way that I use VCs is for different print sizes: 4×6, 5×7, 8×10, etc. of the same shot.

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  10. [edit – fixed messed up link]

    Remember that virtual copies exist only in the LR catalog, whereas snapshots get written into the photo’s metadata. Whenever I end up creating virtual copies that I want to keep, I always create a snapshot of them as well.

    This also helps in cases where I need to edit the photo’s metadata outside of LR. I use an exiftool-based Automator app to add lens info for old manual focus lenses, and if I forget to apply that before making virutal copies, it makes it much easier to have snapshots ready to easily update the VCs if needed (for more info see this post I wrote a while ago).

    I’d also highly recommend Jeffrey Friedl’s Snapshot on Export plugin for automatically creating snapshots on export, and The Photo Geek’s Snapshotter plugin for creating snapshots of multiple photos at once.

    Oh, and don’t forget to set the Copy Name under the Metadata panel for each VC (useful to differentiate exported file names and snapshot names using the above plugins)!

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  11. Is there any way to set the default sort order in Lightroom to “capture time” – instead of the current “user order”? (I use capture time a great deal to sort photos I want to use in competitions, etc.)


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  12. Hey Matt,

    Didn’t know about Snapshots … ugh my bad! :-) Does the snapshots get saved to the HHD? I’ve always used Virtual Copies. Thanks for the info! Question for you. When you go back and forth with plug-ins and PS, what to you do with the copies once your satisfied with the photo? Do you (Matt) keep the stack or delete them and keep the final copy only? I’m asking because the copies all get saved on the hard drive and consume HHD space.

    Thanks again for the snapshot info!


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  13. Really useful, thanks – I use Virtual Copies, but hadn’t picked up on the additional Snapshot usages.

    I guess a couple of follow up questions I’d have would be:

    1) If you end up with multiple snapshots, is it possible to view them side by side to decide which is ultimately the “best”?

    2) Again, with multiple snapshots, supposing you like more than one, how simple is it then to spawn off virtual copies of your selected snapshots?

    I suppose both questions come from the experience I’ve had whereby I often don’t realise I want virtual copies until I’ve started to experiment in the develop mode.

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    • Hey Mike –

      1) Nope, no way to view them side by side unless…
      2) Yes, just right-click the Snapshot and choose Create Virtual copy. In which case, you could probably do #1 if you wanted

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