Using Smart Previews in Lightroom 5


Smart Previews in Lightroom opener

If you’ve ever encountered a “The Folder Could Not Be Found” message in the Lightroom Develop module or seen a question mark over a folder name in the Library module you’ll love the new Smart Previews in Lightroom 5.

Smart Previews are an editable preview image and they make working with Lightroom when you are using removable drives a cinch.

Here I’ll explain what smart previews are and why you might use them.

Understanding the problem
Lightroom can only work with images that have been imported into its catalog. When your import your images Lightroom notes where the images are on your disk so it can access them when you want to edit them.

As Lightroom doesn’t store the actual images you will encounter problems if the drive the images are stored on is not connected to your computer when you try to edit them. In this case, you will see a preview of the image in the Library module but if you select the image and open the Develop module you will see a message saying “The folder could not be found”. The editing tools are all disabled and you can’t proceed.

Lightroom 5 smart previews 2

If you look at that same folder of images in the Library, the folder name will appear in the Folders panel but with a question mark over it. This is because the folder is on a drive that is not currently attached to your computer.

Lightroom 5 smart previews 2

In earlier versions of Lightroom, the only solution for this issue was to reattach the drive so the original images would be available to Lightroom.

With Lightroom 5 the situation has changed to the extent that, with a little forethought and some spare disk space, you can edit images even if they are stored on a disk not attached to your computer. The solution is provided by the new Smart Previews feature.

What are Smart Previews in Lightroom?

Smart Previews are lossy DNG files which are a maximum size of 2540 pixels on their longest edge. They are created from the original raw files and they are stored in a folder in the same location as the Lightroom catalog.

You can use these Smart Previews if the original images are not available not only in the Library module but also in the Develop module.

If you have Smart Previews rendered for an images you will still see a question mark in the Library module indicating that the folder is not available but below the histogram there will be a small white icon indicating that a Smart Preview is available for this image. The Smart Preview can be edited in the Develop module just like the original image and it can be exported too.

Lightroom 5 smart previews 3

Smart Previews can be created for DNG and for Camera Raw images as well as for TIF and JPG. You can create them on import by selecting the Create Smart Preview checkbox in the Import dialog.

Lightroom 5 smart previews 4

You should note that Smart Previews and regular Previews are two different types of previews so you should continue to choose the same option in the Render Preview list that you have chosen in the past. So, I choose to Render Standard previews at a size appropriate for my monitor size – as well as rendering Smart Previews for those images I want to be able to edit even if the drive they are stored on is not connected.

You can also create Smart Previews at any time – provided the original images are available at the time you are making them – using a menu option in the Library module. To do this, select the images to build Smart Previews for and choose Library > Previews > Build Smart Previews. You’ll be prompted to build smart previews for all photos or just one. Select Build All to create smart previews for all the selected images.

Lightroom 5 smart previews 5

You can also build smart previews using an icon in the histogram. For example if you select either a folder of images or a selection of images in the Library module you can learn the smart preview status of those images by reading the information below the histogram. You’ll see the number of images without smart previews and the number with.

Lightroom 5 smart previews 6

Click the originals without smart previews box and you’ll be prompted to build smart previews for these images. There is a slight glitch with the numbering – if you have a large number of images selected then the actual numbers in the histogram won’t be correct but the process still works for all the selected images.

Lightroom 5 smart previews 7

If you have rendered Smart Previews for your images and if you later decide you no longer want them you can delete them by clicking the smart preview indicator below the histogram.

Editing Smart Previews

You can edit an image for which you have rendered a Smart Preview in the Develop module. The smart preview will only be used if the original image is not available. Any changes you make to the smart preview will be written back into the original image when it is next available in Lightroom.

In this case I am editing the Smart Preview as the original is not available:

Lightroom 5 smart previews 8

Here both the original and smart preview are available, so the original is being edited:

Lightroom 5 smart previews 9

In this case there is no smart preview available, the original is being edited and if it were not available, then editing would not be possible:

Lightroom 5 smart previews 10

If you store all your photos on the same drive as you store your Lightroom catalog then you may find you have no use for smart previews. However if you, like me, store your images or some of them on a drive other than the one on which your Lightroom catalog is stored then you’ll find that smart previews useful. Create smart previews for those images that are not stored on the same drive as your Lightroom catalog and you will have those images accessible and editable even when the originals are not available.

Read more from our Post Production category

Helen Bradley is a Lifestyle journalist who divides her time between the real and digital worlds, picking the best from both. She writes and produces video instruction for Photoshop and digital photography for magazines and online providers world wide. She has also written four books on photo crafts and blogs at

  • marius2die4

    Excellent description of this new function!

  • 1107photography

    How much extra space does a Smart Preview take up on your hard drive? That is the main reason i move my files to an external–to save hard drive space.

  • GrowSoulBeauty

    Do you need to do anything once you “reconnect” the external hard drive? Should I delete the smart previews and/or does it automatically save the changes to the files? I typically write XMP changes so they are saved with each file. Thanks- i’m excited about this feature, just trying to figure out exactly how to use it.

  • Helen Bradley

    The file sizes are a fraction of the full raw image file size – around 5% of the size.

  • Helen Bradley

    You don’t need to do anything and you don’t delete the Smart Previews – yo may need them again. Just reconnect and Lightroom will pick up that the original files are there.

  • Nico

    Helen girl – you just answered my question. Love you!

  • billy-o

    A small tip… One problem with smart previews is that they are rendered in SRGB which is fine if you have a regular monitor, but if you have a photographic monitor that renders in Adobe RGB, they can look pretty funky. It’s not something that’s well known and I had to do a lot of searching to find out what was going on and how to fix it.

  • Helen Bradley

    Thank you! Great comment Billy-o

  • AL

    So, I’ve been using Smart Previews for a while no, having no problem. The other day, I decided to go through my old backup catalogs and delete the less recent ones, and leave the files of Smart Previews. Today, when I restarted Lightroom, it looks like the latest catalog dose not recognize that most of the files have Smart Previews, so most of my library is showing up blank. Do you know how I could re-integrate the existing Smart Previews into my current catalog, or otherwise import the existing Smart Previews? Hope this is a clear description! Thanks

  • Can you provide detailed instructions on how to share smart previews between 2 computers? Say I import the original RAW files and have smart previews created, then I want to share the smart previews only with my laptop as I am on the go. How do I get the changes made on the laptop smart previews to then be re-associated with their original files on my desktop computer?

  • Let’s say I already have a smart preview rendered but then I make edits to the original file. Will those edits on the original be automatically applied to the smart preview or do I have to render a new smart preview file to show the newest changes?

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