Today’s Question: Can you help me better understand when I should be using virtual copies in Lightroom? Should I make a virtual copy every time I am going to apply adjustments to an original photo?
Tim’s Quick Answer: Generally speaking, I would say that Virtual Copies in Lightroom should be used when you want a second interpretation of a photo. For most photographers I would say there is no benefit to creating a virtual copy for every photo you optimize in the Develop module.
More Detail: A Virtual Copy simply represents a second set of adjustment settings for a photo. When you apply adjustments to a photo in the Develop module within Lightroom, you aren’t actually altering the original capture. Instead, the specific adjustment settings for the image are stored in the Lightroom catalog (and possibly in metadata for the image file itself). Those adjustment settings are reflected in the preview of the image you see in Lightroom, and are applied to any derivative image you create by exporting or otherwise sharing a photo.
But again, a Virtual Copy simply represents an additional set of adjustment settings for an image. As a very basic example, you might have one set of adjustments for a color interpretation of the original image, and then a second set of adjustments (in the form of a Virtual Copy) to produce a black and white interpretation of the photo.
When you create a Virtual Copy, it will appear that you have a second copy of your photo in Lightroom. But in fact you simply have a second version of the original source image. That also means you aren’t doubling the amount of storage space required for the image when you create a Virtual Copy, because the only thing you’re actually duplicating is the information about the adjustments being applied to the image.
Some photographers do prefer to create a Virtual Copy in Lightroom every time they start working on one of their images. This provides an easy way to clearly see the difference between the original image without any adjustments beyond the default settings in Lightroom, and the final version of the photo you’ve created through various adjustments in the Develop module.
Personally, I don’t like the notion of creating a Virtual Copy for every image I will work on in the Develop module in Lightroom. I prefer to only create a Virtual Copy when I want to produce an additional interpretation of the image. That could mean I am just experimenting with some refinements to my adjustment, that I’m creating a version of the image that is cropped to a different aspect ratio, that I’m producing a more creative version of an image, or any of a number of other possibilities.
So, I recommend only creating a Virtual Copy when you want a different interpretation of a photo you’ve already optimized, but as noted above some photographers do prefer to use a Virtual Copy every time they work on an image in the Develop module.