Today’s Question: I am wondering why I would use a history snapshot rather than a virtual copy in Lightroom?
Tim’s Quick Answer: To me the difference between a History Snapshot and a Virtual Copy in Lightroom relates to whether you’re just exploring how you want to interpret a photo or whether you want to have two (or more) different versions of a photo. History snapshots serve the former need, while virtual copies serve the latter.
More Detail: To be sure, history snapshots and virtual copies can appear on the surface to be very similar features. The key difference is that with a virtual copy you see a second instance of your photo, while with a history snapshot you still only have a single instance of your photo, but with additional options for going back in history.
When you apply adjustments to an image, each adjustment creates a history state in the History section of the left panel in the Develop module. One of the challenges of having this type of linear history is that it can be difficult to find the exact history state you want to return to. In some cases you may find that you are exploring a variety of different options for an image, such as black and white versus color as well as with or without a vignette.
During these types of explorations for a photo, a history snapshot enables you to have easy access to a given point in the history of an image. Once you’re happy with the color interpretation and are ready to see if a black and white interpretation might work, you could create a history snapshot for the color “final” and then move on to black and white adjustments. Anytime you think you might have reached a final (or near final) possible interpretation for the image, you could create a history snapshot to record that history state.
When you create a virtual copy you’re adding an additional reference to the source image, so it will appear as though the same image is in your Lightroom catalog twice. Therefore, to me this approach is better when you want to have two different versions of a photo, rather than just different history states you might return to.
To be sure, the distinction here can be a little subtle. But I think of history snapshots as a way to record points in history you think you might want to return to for what will ultimately be a single version of a photo, and I think of virtual copies as a way to have two different interpretations of the same photo (even if that different interpretation is just a different crop).