5 Ways to Use Lightroom Virtual Copies Better

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Virtual Copies in Lightroom

Virtual Copies in Lightroom

Imagine that you have just processed a colour image and you are happy with the result, but you’d also like to experiment with it a little. Perhaps you’re curious to see how it will look if you convert it to black and white. Maybe you’d like to apply a Develop Preset or two, or crop to the square format, or even all three.

It’s easy in Lightroom. All you have to do is make a Virtual Copy and experiment.

A Virtual Copy is an exact replica of the original photo, including all edits made in Lightroom. Once you have made a Virtual Copy you can process it any way you like without affecting the original.

Virtual Copies are a fantastic tool because they let you make multiple copies of a single image, while using very little hard drive space (it only makes a new thumbnail it doesn’t duplicate your image file). You can try out different techniques, and keep all the results. Each Virtual Copy exists as a set of text commands in the Lightroom Catalog, an addition measured in kilobytes rather than megabytes.

You can review this by reading A Brief Introduction to Lightroom if you are unsure how it works.

Are you making the most of Virtual Copies? Here are five ways to use them better in Lightroom.

Creating Virtual Copies

There are four ways to create a Virtual Copy.

Start in Grid View in the Library module (press the G key to go there from any part of Lightroom). Select the image (or images) that you want to make Virtual Copies of:

1. Go to Photo > Create Virtual Copy. Lightroom creates the Virtual Copies and places them in the same Collection as the original images.

2. Alternatively, use the keyboard shortcut. If you’re using Windows press Ctrl plus apostrophe (Ctrl + ‘), on a Mac press Command plus apostrophe (Cmd + ‘).

3. Alternatively, right click on one of the selected photos and choose Create Virtual Copy.

Virtual Copies in Lightroom

When you create a Virtual Copy it appears alongside the original in Grid View, and is identical in every way. You can make as many changes to the Virtual Copy as you lik,e without affecting the original.

4. The fourth way is to go to Library > New Collection. The Create Collection window opens. Under Options, tick the Include Selected Photos and Make New Virtual Copies boxes. Lightroom creates a new Collection (with the name you give it), and adds Virtual Copies of the selected images.

Virtual Copies in Lightroom

Using Virtual Copies Better

Now you know how to create Virtual Copies, let’s look at some ways you can use them better in Lightroom.

1. To create multiple versions of the same photo

This is the main reason that you would want to create Virtual Copies – so you can process the same photo, a number of different ways. The photo shown below is a great example. I created a colour version first, then made a Virtual Copy and converted it to black and white. Then I made some more Virtual Copies and experimented with different Develop Presets and split tones. I ended up with 22 different versions in a mixture of colour and black and white.

Virtual Copies in Lightroom

2. Stacking Virtual Copies

You can use Stacks to simplify the thumbnails displayed in Grid View. In this example I’m going to create two Stacks – one containing colour photos, and the other black and white.

  • Select the photos you want to place in the same stack. Click and drag thumbnails to rearrange them in Grid View if you need to. Here, I grouped all the colour photos together.

Virtual Copies in Lightroom

  • Go to Photo > Stacking > Group into Stack. You can also find this option by right-clicking a thumbnail. Or use the keyboard shortcuts, Ctrl+G (Windows) or Cmd+G (Mac).

Lightroom places the photos into a Stack. The first photo in the selection is used as the cover image. The Stack icon is displayed in the top left corner of the thumbnail (marked below). The number inside tells you how many photos are in the Stack.

Virtual Copies in Lightroom

Repeat if you want to group other Virtual Copies into another stack. Below, you can see that I did the same with the black and white versions.

Virtual Copies in Lightroom

To view the photos in a Stack, click on the Stack icon in the thumbnail. Click it again to hide the stacked photos.

Virtual Copies in Lightroom

3. For working with plug-ins and Photoshop

If you want to send a photo to a plug-in or Photoshop, the recommended approach is to process it in Lightroom first (applying at least basic settings such as Camera Calibration, Lens Corrections and tonal adjustments in the Basic panel).

Before the export, make a Virtual Copy and send the Virtual Copy to the plug-in or Photoshop. Then, when you return to Lightroom, you can compare the two. You can also make more Virtual Copies from the original to send to other plug-ins, or to work on in Lightroom.

4. Set up View Options to show which images are Virtual Copies

In the screen shot below, you can see that the image on the right is a Virtual Copy as it is labelled Copy 22. The image on the left is the original and just has the file name.

Virtual Copies in Lightroom

You can set this up in View Options (View > View Options or Ctrl+J/Cmd+J). Tick the Show Grid Extras and Top Label boxes (marked below). Set Show Grid Extras to Expanded Cells and set Top Label to File Base Name and Copy Name (the other options in the same section do a similar thing).

Virtual Copies in Lightroom

5. Use the Excessor plug-in to create a Collection of photos processed with different Develop Presets

The Excessor plug-in creates Virtual Copies and applies a different Develop Preset to each one. This is how to use it:

  • Select the photo you want to work with. Go to Library > Plug-in Extras > Excessor.
  • The Excessor window opens. Use the top menu to select a Develop Presets folder. Select Preset name from the bottom menu to give each Virtual Copy the name of the Develop Preset used to process it. Press OK.

Virtual Copies in Lightroom

  • Lightroom creates a Virtual Copy for each Develop Preset in the selected folder.

Virtual Copies in Lightroom

Tip: Create Preset folders containing your favourite Develop Presets. You can create different folders for different subjects: e.g., a folder for portraits, another for landscapes, another for black and white, another for vintage presets, and so on. Then you can use the Excessor plug-in as a shortcut to applying your favourite presets to a photo.

Your turn

These are my five suggestions for using Virtual Copies better in Lightroom, but how do you use them? Have you come up with anything that I haven’t thought of? Let me know in the comments.


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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

  • Mr. Ed

    I frequently use Virtual Copies to create different crop ratios. For example, out of the camera the ratio is 2×3 (which works fine for 4×6 prints), but another virtual copy could be for an 8×10 / 16×20 print, another for 5×7, another for square crop, another for 16×9 ratio for display on monitors or TV, etc.

  • That’s a great use for Virtual Copies! Thanks for sharing.

  • Glad to help. Will see what we can do about soft proofing!

  • Dewan Demmer

    Virtual Copies is (are?) your friend, well they mine ate any rate. I use virtual copies to do anything from a Black and white duplicate to creating an alternate result.
    As was mentioned in the article it is a great way to test out a different look or extra edit without changing your original finished edit. While you can stack I do find that creating to many virtual copies ( generally of separate images ) can start to make things messy and opens the door for mistakes to creep in.

    This made me think of a set of images I have, with this set I really got into the virtual copies. It was also with this set I learned to many virtual copies can be messy. Now With the set of images I created a few varied sets. The Main couple photos I created Virtual copies from the original and used these to create Black and White and a seperate ‘dusty’ version. The nice thing with Virtual Copies is on export all these different versions can be exported with no extra effort.
    ( http://www.dewandemmer.com/a-trafalgar-tavern-wedding-in-greenwich/ )
    If you browser through you will see a few dusty in amongst the clear types. I do not show a direct comparison but I thought it could be a fair ‘real’ example

  • Thanks for sharing Dewan. Nice photos!

  • kenyongerbrandt

    Sometimes I use virtual copies to create an HDR (if you shoot and import RAW files) especially now that LR has the merge to HDR function built in.

  • Yup I do that too!

  • To save time, I often process the subject one way, then the BG in another way, select them both and edit them in PS as layers so that I can simply and quickly merge the two.

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