Non-Destructive RAW Workflow

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Today’s Question: Isn’t the RAW file already processed once it’s imported into Lightroom? Or is it just processed in the Lightroom catalog so the original captured file is truly untouched?

Tim’s Quick Answer: When you import a RAW capture into Lightroom, it truly is untouched, other than the actual process of copying that RAW capture file from one location to another.

More Detail: Lightroom employs a non-destructive workflow, which ensures that your original image files are not altered (or potentially damaged) by Lightroom. With a normal workflow Lightroom won’t apply any changes to your original RAW capture, in order to help protect that important original capture data.

The only situation where you might actually enable Lightroom to alter an original RAW capture is if you have enabled the option to update proprietary RAW capture files when you change the capture time for specific images.

By default, all changes you make within Lightroom are only updated within the Lightroom catalog, not with the original image files on your hard drive. There is an option to save metadata to your images, but in the case of RAW captures that will cause an XMP “sidecar” file to be created or updated, without actually altering the original RAW capture file.

However, you can choose to apply changes to the capture time to the original RAW capture files on your hard drive if you prefer. This is the only scenario where you would actually be altering the original RAW capture using Lightroom. This option (along with the option to actually save changes directly to your files) can be found in the Catalog Settings dialog.

But again, importing RAW captures into Lightroom will not cause those original captures to be modified. They are simply copied to the destination you specify, and added to the Lightroom catalog so you can use Lightroom to manage, optimize, and share the photos.