Understanding Adobe Photohop Lightroom’s Nondestructive Image Enhancement System

December 11, 2008 | | Comments 8
Nondestructive Image Enhancement in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

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After teaching Lightroom for almost two years, I have noticed some places where new users get confused. One of the main problem areas involves Lightroom’s nondestructive image enhancement system.

Ironically, I see more confusion on this topic amongst experienced Photoshop users rather than students with no previous exposure to any digital imaging software. There are some assumptions about how the software works, especially with experienced Photoshop users, that need to be clarified before you can fully understand Lightroom’s power and flexibility.

In Adobe Photoshop CS4 and Photoshop Elements it is easy to make permanent, and irreversible, changes to your original file. If a professional taught you Photoshop, then I bet that you were trained to use either the Photoshop command “Image > Duplicate Image” or “File > Save As” right away whenever you started work on a new file. For years, I have tried to beat the “File > Save As” routine into my students. With Photoshop this is a critical first step.

We all learned this routine in Photoshop because it is possible to do irreparable harm to your precious original image. With Photoshop, if you make some terrible mistake and overwrite your original file, then you have really messed things up. The original file can be ruined because Photoshop will not stop you from overwriting your precious original pixels.

Again, experienced Photoshop users have learned to prevent this potential disaster by always working on a separate copy of their original file. With Lightroom there is no need for this routine because file protection is built into the roots of the program and Lightroom cannot overwrite your original file. By design, Lightroom is unable to change your file’s pixels.

When you change the look of a file in Lightroom what you are really doing is creating a simulation. When you mess with the sliders in Lightroom’s Develop Module you are creating a simulation of what could happen but, no matter what control you adjust, none of your original pixels are being altered.

The thumbnail that you see in Lightroom, after you have changed anything in the Develop Module, is an approximation of what you would have if you were to ask Lightroom to create a new copy, a separate copy, of your file right now. What you see on the screen, after you have monkeyed around in the Develop Module, is the way that your new file would look if it were created right now.

All Lightroom does in its Develop Module is build simulations. When I eventually find the simulation, the mock-up that I like, then I tell Lightroom to make it into a real file. In Lightroom jargon, this is what the word “Export” means. Exporting is this program’s version of “File > Save As.” When I hit export, I am asking Lightroom to create a brand new file that looks like the simulation that I created with the Develop Module. A new file is born when you export, but your original image has not been altered or permanently overwritten.

This is why I love using Lightroom as my first-stage image enhancement program. I love it more than Photoshop because I know that I cannot harm my original image in any way. I can try anything, literally push any button, and never have to worry about the health of my original capture.

Throughout this article, experienced digital photographers have probably been saying to themselves, “This sounds a lot like what happens when I open a digital camera raw file using the Adobe Camera Raw conversion engine.” Indeed, this is the same programming logic and the same exact code. Lightroom’s Develop Module is just an extension on the Adobe Camera Raw model that some of us have been using since Photoshop 7.0! The interface looks different, but the logic is the same.

So go fire up Lightroom and experiment. Pick out one of your favorite photos and try to make it even better. Try experimenting with one of your photographic “mistakes” to see if you can turn it into something far more interesting! Try anything on any file. If you don’t like the results, you can always wipe out your simulation just by pressing the big “Reset” button in the lower right-hand corner of the Lightroom Develop module. Give anything in Lightroom’s Develop Module a try with no fear of harming your original file.

Still confused?  Would you like to see all of this in action?  If so, then please watch this short video tutorial.

Nondestuctive Editing with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom from David Marx and Scott Rouse on Vimeo.


Filed Under: (05) Lightroom Image Enhancement (Basic)Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Tutorials


About the Author: David Marx is a digital photography instructor whose engaging teaching style inspires photographers of all skill levels. David is an Adobe Certified Lightroom Expert. To learn more about David's Adobe Photoshop Lightroom software training seminars and digital photography field workshops please visit or follow David Marx on Google+.