Picture the scene. You’re having a bit of a braindead moment, quietly doodling the traditional moustache, eyebrows, glasses, vampire teeth and scars on the photo of last weekend’s blushing bride while you wait for the coffee to kick in. Somebody you didn’t realise was there says something right behind you and, in a moment of pure panic-induced finger-memory, you hit the shortcuts for “Save” and “Quit” while you watch, aghast, in that slow-motion zoomy horror-movie camera view.
We’ve all been there.
And how, exactly, does this tie in to virtual copies? Read on…
What makes a copy virtual?
Let’s start with the simpler question of “what makes a virtual copy”. Easy – the “Create Virtual Copy” menu command on the Photos menu, and one or two other things like creating collections. Try it – pick a photo and create a virtual copy of it. The virtual copy will appear right next to the original and will look identical except for a little folded-over corner.
Yes, but what makes it virtual? Well, imagine you’ve done this in a completely different way, by using Explorer or Finder to copy the actual image file on disk. You’ve now got two completely separate, independent copies of the photo with different filenames. There’s two significant points here; first, you’ve used twice the diskspace, and second, you’ve got two totally independent files which just by coincidence have mostly the same contents. This would be an old-fashioned simple non-virtual copy.
And the Virtual bit?
This is where Lightroom gets a bit sneaky. I’m sure you’ve noticed the “History” pane in the Develop module, which lists all the changes you’ve made to the photo. This ties strongly into Lightroom’s method of working which, unlike Photoshop/Gimp/Paint etc., works on the principle of “non-destructive editing”. (I’m getting to the virtual bit, honest). You might think that “non-destructive editing” is just a fancy way of saying “Undo”, but it isn’t.
Traditional paint programs work by moving the pixels around and, when you save the image, those changes go with it. Lightroom works kind of backwards; it leaves the original pixels alone, no matter what you do in the Develop module, and just remembers the instructions you give it. This gives you lots of benefits; your precious originals are never altered, you don’t need to wrangle separate RAW/JPEG copies if you want to save your changes, and most significantly you can just run up and down the list of instructions anytime you like, including after you’ve quit and restarted Lightroom.
If you’ve never used or noticed the Develop module’s History pane, go play with it for a while. It’s not just a list of what you’ve done, you can click on any stage you like to go straight to what the photo looked like when you made that change. It’s in the left-hand pane underneath the Presets and Snapshots bits.
So, you were saying about the Virtual bit?
Right. Hopefully now you can see your photo in a slightly different way. Instead of the photo being the end result of a load of tweaks stretching out behind it, imagine it from the other end of the process as a static, unchanging photo with a list of tweaks just waiting to be applied to it. (This, incidentally, is why the Develop module can seem a bit like wading through treacle from time to time; it’s re-applying all the changes you’ve made in the past before making the current adjustment). In other words, when you use the History list in the Develop module you’re not working backwards in time through an “Undo” list, you’re working forwards in time through a list of instructions.
Now we get to the virtual bit.
You’ve seen that you can step backwards and forwards though the develop history without destroying any of it, or the underlying photo. What happens if you want to try various different versions of develop history though? Well, since the base photo is unchanged, wouldn’t it be great to be able to take a second copy of that develop history and fiddle with it without changing the first copy?
So, in your original, you made your basic adjustments, cropped etc. You decide that the photo would look good in square format black and white, but want to keep the current edited copy too. Not a problem – create a virtual copy. Lightroom’s now created a second copy, not of the photo, but of all the other information about the photo including the edit states. You can change the virtual copy all you like and the original will stay as it is. A third virtual copy which is based on the square black and white one but also has ultra-high contrast? No problem, you can create virtual copies of virtual copies. Remember, all Lightroom is doing is creating a new set of history and state records to be applied to a single image file on disk.
Come to think of it, you could say that all of Lightroom’s photos are virtual and that it just creates the first one automatically when the file is imported. Manually creating a virtual copy is nothing more than creating a new and independent set of changes to be applied to the same base file.
It’s not just Develop module data that gets copied, it works just the same on the other stuff like captions and keywords in the Library module so you could, if it floated your particular boat, have virtual copies which were visually identical but which had different sets of keywords. The key point is that as far as Lightroom is concerned, a virtual copy is an independent photo which can have anything done to it, just like any other, without affecting any other, and all this comes out of the concept of non-destructive editing. Also known as “not saving the moustache and glasses over the original”.
Hopefully now that “Create Virtual Copies” tickbox in the Static Collection dialogs makes more sense. What it’s doing is creating virtual copies of the photos as they are right now. Any changes you make in the future to the original photo don’t matter, because the collection will contain the virtual copy instead which you now know references the same file but uses an entirely independent set of changes to be applied to that file. You might not want to do this, of course, but if your collection is something like a portfolio which has specific edits or requirements, this can be very useful because it means that the photos won’t get changed accidentally.