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Lightroom Virtual Copies: The Ultimate Guide

How to use Virtual Copies in Lightroom

This article was updated in June 2024 with contributions from Andrew S Gibson, Post Production Pye, and Helen Bradley.

Imagine that you have just processed a color image and you are happy with the result, but you’d also like to experiment a little. Perhaps you’re curious to see how the file 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.

Fortunately, in Lightroom Classic, this kind of experimentation is really, really easy. All you have to do is make a Virtual Copy.

And in this article, I explain everything you need to know, including what Virtual Copies are, how to create them, and five ways you can use Virtual Copies to improve your Lightroom workflow.

Let’s dive right in!

What is a Lightroom 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 like without affecting the original.

Virtual Copies are not copies of the original RAW file (that’s actually what makes them so awesome to begin with). Instead, a virtual copy is only a copy of the Develop settings, represented as a new image within the Lightroom catalog.

In other words, a Virtual Copy is a 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.

Lightroom Virtual Copies

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 rather than duplicating 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.

How to create a Virtual Copy in Lightroom

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) you want to make Virtual Copies of.

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

2. Use the keyboard shortcut. If you’re using Windows, press Ctrl+’; on a Mac press Cmd+’.

3. Right-click on a selected photo and choose Create Virtual Copy from the dropdown menu.

Lightroom Virtual Copies

4. Choose 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.

Lightroom Virtual Copies

How to use Virtual Copies for the best results

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

1. Process 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 several different ways. The photo shown below is a great example.

I created a color 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 color and black and white.

Virtual Copies in Lightroom

2. Stack your Virtual Copies

When you create Virtual Copies, your Lightroom interface might start to feel a little cluttered – but you can use Stacks to simplify the thumbnails displayed in Grid View. In this example, I’m going to create two Stacks of my Virtual Copies: one containing color photos, and the other containing black-and-white images.

First, 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 color 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 then 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 (see the arrow in the image below!). The number inside tells you how many photos are in the Stack.

Virtual Copies in Lightroom

If you want to group other Virtual Copies into another stack, you can always select a new set of images, and then repeat. Below, you can see that I’ve also stacked the black-and-white versions:

Virtual Copies in Lightroom
Now I have two stacks of images, each with a set of Virtual Copies.

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

Virtual Copies in Lightroom

3. Use Virtual Copies with plug-ins and Photoshop

If you want to send a photo to a plug-in or Photoshop, my 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).

Then, before the export, make a Virtual Copy and send the Virtual Copy to the plug-in or Photoshop. That way, when you return to Lightroom, you can compare the two versions. 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 screenshot below, you can see that the image on the right is a Virtual Copy, as it is labeled “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 the View Options dialog (View>View Options or Ctrl/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

That way, it’s easy to see whether you’re dealing with a Virtual Copy or an original!

5. Filter by Virtual Copy

At times, it might be beneficial to view all the Virtual Copies within our Lightroom catalog. To aid us, we can actually filter by Virtual Copies in Lightroom.

First, you need to bring up your Filter menu. To do this, head to the Library module. Once there, make sure that Filters are enabled (hit Ctrl/Cmd+L), then select Attribute:

Lightroom Virtual Copies

On the far right, you’ll see three little box icons. To specifically filter by Virtual Copies, click on the middle box:

Lightroom Virtual Copies

And you’ll see all the Virtual Copies in your selected folder or Collection!

Filtering by Virtual Copies is very handy if, for instance, you wish to clear out all of the Virtual Copies in your catalog. I also like to filter by Virtual Copies when I want to create presets from the Develop settings for all of my Virtual Copies.

Virtual Copies vs Snapshots

Lightroom Virtual Copies

I’m often asked about the difference between a Snapshot and a Virtual Copy. Given that both functions are used to save different looks for an image, these can seem similar. However, in reality, these two functions are very different, particularly when it comes to exporting.

When you create different looks via Snapshots, only the “active” or selected Snapshot Develop settings will be exported to the final image. Let’s illustrate with an example.

Let’s say we have an image with 3 different looks created with Snapshots, and another image with 3 different looks created with Virtual Copies.

When we export the image with the three different Snapshots, Lightroom will create one exported image with the Develop settings from the active snapshot.

When we export the image with the three different Virtual Copies, Lightroom will actually create three separate exported images using the Develop settings from each Virtual Copy.

To keep it simple: Virtual Copies will create additional exported images while Snapshots will not.

Lightroom Virtual Copies: final words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about Virtual Copies in Lightroom – what they are, how to create them, and most importantly, how to use them for the best Lightroom workflow.

My advice is to head over to Lightroom and test out the Virtual Copy function. Create a few Copies and have fun experimenting with different edits. Pretty soon, creating Virtual Copies will be second nature (and if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to use them all the time!).

Now over to you:

How do you plan to use Virtual Copies in your workflow? Do you have any tips that I missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Andrew S. Gibson
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!

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