The Complete Guide To Building Lightroom Previews

The Complete Guide To Lightroom Previews

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Do you know how many types of Preview there are in Lightroom? The answer is six – and they’re all used at various stages of the Lightroom workflow to enable you to see what your photos look like.

Why does Lightroom use Previews?

Lightroom is a Preview based application – no matter which module you’re using, you’re always viewing Previews of photos rather than the photos themselves. But why is that?

The answer is that Lightroom uses parametric image editing (or developing in Lightroom language). This is where the application creates instructions for editing an image, rather than adjusting the photo’s pixels. Lightroom saves the instructions in its database (the Catalog) in the form of text commands that look something like this:

Blacks2012 = 0,
BlueHue = 0,
BlueSaturation = 0,
CameraProfile = “Adobe Standard”,
Clarity2012 = 0,
Contrast2012 = 67,
ConvertToGrayscale = false,
EnableCalibration = true,
EnableColorAdjustments = true,
EnableEffects = true,
EnableSplitToning = true,
GreenHue = 0,
GreenSaturation = 0,
Highlights2012 = -49,

Lightroom applies those text commands to your photo and then builds a Preview that shows you what your photo looks like with those changes. The Preview is updated in real time as you use Lightroom.

Learn more: What Is The Lightroom Catalog?

Types of Lightroom Preview

It’s important to understand the differences between the six types of Lightroom Preview as the way you use them (by telling Lightroom which ones to build) makes a big difference to Lightroom’s speed and efficiency. You need to build the right Previews if you want Lightroom to run at optimal speed. Let’s see how to do that.

Building Previews during import

You can select which types of Preview you want Lightroom to build when you import your photos into Lightroom. You can also build Standard, 1:1 and Smart Previews at any time in the Library module.

The important thing to bear in mind that all of these Previews (with one exception) are used in the Library module (and by extension the Book, Print, Web modules etc.) but not the Develop module, which uses its own type of Preview.

The one exception is Smart Previews, which are used by both the Library and Develop modules under certain conditions.

Learn more: The Ultimate Guide To Using Smart Previews In Lightroom

These are the Previews you can build during import.

1. Minimal Previews

These are the smallest Previews possible. Minimal Previews save space and time but aren’t much good for viewing photos as they are so small. The only reason for using Minimal Previews is because you want to import your photos as quickly as possible.

Lightroom Previews

2. Embedded & Sidecar Previews (Lightroom Classic CC only)

This option tells Lightroom to use the JPEG Preview built into the Raw file, if it exists. It uses the same Preview technology used by applications like Photo Mechanic and is only available in Lightroom Classc CC.

Lightroom Previews

Choose this option if you want the fastest import possible that gives you a Preview that’s good enough to view in the Library module.

Learn more: Import Photos Faster With A Photo Mechanic And Lightroom Workflow

3. Standard Previews

Standard Previews let you view photos in Loupe View, but are not large enough for you to zoom in to examine fine details or focusing accuracy.

Lightroom Previews

It takes longer to build Standard Previews, but they are more accurate than Minimal or Embedded & Sidecar Previews.

You can set the size of standard Previews in the Catalog Settings. The best option to pick is Auto as it tells Lightroom to build Previews that match your monitor’s resolution.

Note: Neither Minimal or Embedded & Sidecar Previews are as accurate as Standard Previews. If you select either option during import Lightroom automatically builds Standard Previews afterwards. This can slow Lightroom down, so for that reason you should only select Minimal or Embedded & Sidecar Previews when you need to import your photos quickly.

4. 1:1 Previews

The best quality Previews of all are 1:1, but they takes longest to build. This are full-size Previews that let you zoom into your photos at 100% when looking at them in Loupe view. With 1:1 Previews there is no delay when you zoom into a photo.

Lightroom Previews

1:1 Previews are larger than Standard Previews and take up a lot of hard drive space. Lightroom handles that by discarding 1:1 Previews after a set amount of time. The default is 30 days, but you can change that in the Catalog settings if you need to.

Lightroom Previews

5. Smart Previews

Adobe introduced Smart Previews in Lightroom 5. A Smart Preview is a high-quality, highly compressed Preview that measures 2540 pixels along the longest edge.

Smart Previews enable photographers to view and develop photos without access to the original photo files. If you’re a Lightroom CC subscriber you also use them to synchronize with Lightroom CC and Lightroom CC for web.

Earlier I said that Smart Previews are both highly compressed and high-quality. This sounds like a contradiction but it’s true – you can’t tell a Smart Preview apart from a full-size Preview in terms of image quality. The only difference is that a Smart Preview is smaller.

Note: You can build Standard, 1:1, or Smart Previews at any time in the Library module by selecting the images and going to Library > Previews and selecting the Preview type required. The option to build Minimal or Embedded & Sidecar Previews only appears in the Import window.

6. Develop module Previews

When you switch from the Library module to the Develop module the Preview Lightroom uses to display your photos changes. Lightroom renders high-quality Previews that let you see the result of actions like adding sharpening, applying noise reduction, and retouching images.

These Previews are cached rather than saved in a Preview file, otherwise, they would rapidly eat up most of your hard drive space.

Creating 1:1 Previews in the Library module makes no difference to the speed at which Lightroom renders Previews in the Develop module. But if a Smart Preview exists for the photo Lightroom uses the Smart Preview instead of rendering a Develop module Preview under one of two conditions.

a. The hard drive containing the original photo file is disconnected from the computer.

b. You have Lightroom CC 2015.7 or Lightroom 6.7 or later, the hard drive containing the original photo file is connected to the computer, and you have the Use Smart Previews instead of Original for image editing preference enabled in Preferences (see below).

Lightroom Previews

Note that if you zoom into 1:1 Lightroom stops using the Smart Preview and renders a full-size Preview instead.

As Smart Previews are smaller than full-size Previews they enable Lightroom’s Develop module to run much faster.

The simple approach to Lightroom Previews

Lightroom Previews are somewhat confusing, especially for beginners. This is hardly surprising considering there are six types! So let’s keep things simple. These are my recommended Previews to use.

  • When you import images into Lightroom, choose either Standard or 1:1 Previews. If you intend to zoom into your images while viewing them in Loupe view, you definitely want to pick 1:1 Previews. Otherwise, pick Standard.
  • If you’re a Lightroom CC subscriber and you want to view the images in Lightroom mobile or Lightroom web then tick the Build Smart Previews box. Do the same if you intend to use Smart Previews in the Develop module.

Further reading

Introducing Lightroom free email course

Learn more about Lightroom by signing up to our Introducing Lightroom free email course. We’ll send you five lessons by email to get you started in your Lightroom journey.

Mastering Lightroom Classic: The Library Module

Our new ebook Mastering Lightroom Classic: The Library Module is available now. This massive 283 page ebook is the ultimate guide to Lightroom’s Library module. It covers everything you need to know, from import to export to organizing and searching your photos.

Click here to buy or learn more about Mastering Lightroom Classic: The Library module

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About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, publisher, traveler, workshop leader and photographer based in the UK. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.


  1. I have always look to Andrew to help or assist with problems relating to Lightroom and sound advice is always ready. Cannot speak too highly of the help I have received in the past.

  2. Andrew, your articles are much appreciated. However, I run LN 5 and not V6, so please be specific as to which version you are referencing in your postings.

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