Mastering Lightroom: How to Use Virtual Copies

As all previous versions of Adobe’s popular photography management and post-processing software, Lightroom 4 offers catalog system. Such a choice has both positives and negatives. One of the positives is non-destructive editing, which basically means the original image file remains intact no matter what you do to it within Lightroom environment (you can, however, delete the file entirely if you wish so). A side result is a very useful feature called Virtual Copies. In this Mastering Lightroom series article, I will explain how to use Virtual Copies. By the end of the tutorial you will learn how to copy, delete and compare them, as well as see different situations when creating a Virtual Copy can be very useful.

Mastering Lightroom: How to Use Virtual Copies

1) What are Virtual Copies and Why Should I Use Them?

As the name suggests, Virtual Copies are copies of an image file created virtually. In other words, they are copies created within Lightroom environment only. Creating a Virtual Copy does not copy the source file physically. Lightroom only stores editing information within its catalog. Among other things, such an approach also saves disk space (you only need to store information about the adjustments, not both that and a copy of the RAW file itself).

What Virtual Copies allow photographers to do is create several versions of a single photograph, post-process them differently and compare them or export both. Before taking a photograph, I often know whether I want it in color or B&W, but sometimes I prefer to see the end result before deciding which approach works best. In some cases, I will keep both images as I feel either processing adds something different to a photograph. These are just two of the cases when Virtual Copies are life-savers, because they are so easy to set up and compare. Take a look at the following image. In the Filmstrip, you will see 5 Virtual Copies of a single photograph, all processed differently:

Lightroom Virtual Copies in Filmstrip

I also prefer to use Virtual Copies while working on new presets for my images. As I’ve already mentioned in one of my previous Mastering Lightroom articles, presets allow one to process images much more quickly. In turn, Virtual Copies allow me to fine-tune settings before saving a preset much more efficiently. Why? Well, eyes tend to become less sensitive to color and tone the longer you work with photographs without taking a break. Thus, noticing subtle adjustment differences progressively becomes more difficult. One way to counter such an effect (to an extent) is to compare adjustments directly. So, Virtual Copies are useful when choosing between final photographs or particular adjustments.

For those of you interested in HDR photography, Virtual Copies allow you to export several images with different exposure settings made out of one RAW file simultaneously.

2) Using Virtual Copies

Now that we know what Virtual Copies are for and how they work, let’s see how to actually manage them in Lightroom 4.

2.1) Create a Single or Multiple Virtual Copies

Create Virtual CopyIn order to create a Virtual Copy of a particular image, all you need to do is right-click on that image in the Filmstrip panel and choose “Create Virtual Copy” as shown in the screenshot. Alternatively, you can right-click on the enlarged photograph in the Develop and Library module or even the thumbnail in Library module. For those of you used to hotkeys, combination of Ctrl + ‘ does the same thing, only quicker. To create a second Virtual Copy, just repeat the action. You can create as many Copies as you like. The number of Copies created will be shown at the upper left corner of the image thumbnail in Library module or Filmstrip panel. Left-click the number to stack Virtual Copies for a more tidy view, left-click again to return to previous view.

Creating Virtual Copies of several different photographs is just as straightforward – just select the photographs you want to copy and repeat the above described action.

Now, let’s say you’ve already achieved a desired B&W look, and then one in color using a Virtual Copy of that same image. The one in color looks nice, and you are debating whether it’s good enough as an end result. At this stage, if you want to keep that color image, but also work from there and see if you can do better, creating a Virtual Copy of that color version and using it as a starting point makes sense. If you want to copy an existing Virtual Copy and then proceed from there with further adjustments, you should right-click on that particular image instead of the first one, which is called Master photograph, within the Filmstrip. This is especially useful when you want to be able to go back to an already achieved look quickly and revise your changes if something doesn’t go as you hoped. All you need to do is go to History Tab on the left-side Panel and choose the bottom-most entry. Your Virtual Copy will once more look like the image it was made of so that there’s no need to apply initial settings again on your own.

2.2) Removing Unnecessary Virtual Copies

Set Copy as MasterOn one hand, deleting Copies is very simple. Just select the photograph you don’t need and hit “Delete” on your keyboard. Alternatively, you can right-click on it and choose corresponding option from the menu. There is one caveat, however. While you can remove Virtual Copies in basically any order, you can not remove Master photograph and keep the Copies. Master photograph is the original imported image. If you remove it, all Virtual Copies will be removed as well. You can change which Virtual Copy acts as Master photograph. Go to your Library module, select the Virtual Copy you want to set as Master, choose “Set Copy as Master” from the “Photo” drop-down menu. Upon removal of Master photograph, Lightroom will ask whether you want to remove it from Lightroom catalog only, or delete it altogether from your hard drive. Master photograph is always the first one and is marked “1 of #” (where # is the total number of that photograph’s Virtual Copies) in the upper left corner of a thumbnail image, as described in previous section.

2.3) Compare Virtual Copies

If you created a Virtual Copy using an already edited image as a starting point (as, for example, in situations described in last paragraph of “1) Create a Single or Multiple Virtual Copies” section), pressing “Y” on your keyboard will engage “Before/After” view mode. On the left side you will see the image as it was when the Virtual Copy was created, be it an already processed photograph or a raw, unedited one. On the right side of the screen you will see current image with the latest adjustments. This is especially useful if you are not sure whether you liked the previous adjustment more. Pressing “Y” with Master photograph selected will show how an image looked like upon Import in comparison to how it looks with current adjustments.

Placing two images within the screen in “Before/After” view will, of course, make them smaller. If you’d prefer to keep maximum image size within your screen so as to better judge it, you may press “\” on your keyboard to switch between the two views.

Compare Virtual Copies

Obviously, you can simply scroll through Virtual Copies and compare them, but such an approach is just not nearly as convenient in many situations.

3) Final Words

Creating Virtual Copies is one of the most flexible and easy ways of comparing and/or exporting different image looks within Lightroom. They are also highly useful when working on new presets, because you get to see subtle changes to the image and compare them without having to cancel out any settings. Not sure if you like a particular image in B&W or color? Make a Virtual Copy and compare. You may even find that both images work just as well and export them together. It is a quick and efficient way of working with several image versions with different adjustments within Lightroom environment and makes experimenting with different looks that much easier.


  1. January 20, 2013 at 3:56 am

    Good article, thanks. Virtual copies are really useful.

    Another shortcut to make a virtual copy is Ctrl + ‘ (on PC) I find it really handy.

    Another handy option with virtual copies is to make the copy the master. Select the virtual copy then click on the top menu Photo>Set Copy As Master.

    • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin 1.1) Romanas Naryškin
      January 20, 2013 at 4:19 am

      I knew I forgot something, thanks, John!

  2. January 20, 2013 at 7:58 am

    Yet another very useful post, thanks. I’ve been sending from Lightroom4 to Photoshop via the “rightclickthumbnail”>>editin> dialog, then saving my processed image back to lightroom 4. I don’t always want to do out of Lightroom editing, but just look at the image with various adjustments e.g. B&W. Now I can do that via a virtual copy.

    Something else I’ve learned. Nice one Romanas.


  3. 3) Jan
    January 20, 2013 at 9:22 am

    this is exactly the post that i needed. i was looking in my scott kelby book and couldn’t find an explanation like this. thank you!

    if i like both the master and the virtual copy (in my case the master was in color and the virtual copy was in black and white and i love them both) and export them both, does it matter that the virtual copy remains a virtual copy in lightroom? both were exported just fine to my smugmug. wondering if i need to make both the images a master copy somehow within lightroom. thank you!

    • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin 3.1) Romanas Naryškin
      January 20, 2013 at 10:38 am

      Only one image can be Master, Jam, but exporting works the same way in all cases.

      • 3.1.1) Jan
        January 24, 2013 at 1:00 pm

        i’m getting a pop up that talks about the file being renamed into two different applications (this occurs when i’m uploading a master and a virtual copy to smugmug). that’s not the exact wording, but i don’t understand what it’s saying. any thoughts on this? both uploaded though.

  4. 4) dr vijay kumar
    January 20, 2013 at 9:57 am

    very useful and deep insight informatoin.

  5. 5) Ferhat
    January 20, 2013 at 11:02 am

    Thank you Romanas, it’s been great article.

  6. 6) Lyn Rankine
    January 20, 2013 at 7:08 pm

    I am tossing up whether to get PS Elements 11 or Lightroom 4 and after reading your info was wondering if edited photos are non-destructive also in Elements 11.


    • 6.1) TimR
      January 26, 2013 at 9:57 pm

      Elements is a light version of photoshop CS6 geared for beginners and families to apply fun effects, filters to your vacation photos, family photos graduations parties etc. Lightroom is a more advanced program for cataloging, advanced photo editing, creating books, maps, slideshows, direct uploads to your favorite online databases like flicker, facebook and smugmug. My best advise to go to the Adobe website and you can learn more about these 2 programs that will suit your needs.

      As for your second question, all adobe programs are non-destructive to both original and edited photos. You can make as many changes as you like without destroying them.


      • 6.1.1) Lyn Rankine
        January 26, 2013 at 10:11 pm

        Much appreciated for your info, will follow your advice.

      • Profile photo of Romanas Naryškin 6.1.2) Romanas Naryškin
        January 27, 2013 at 12:47 am

        “all adobe programs are non-destructive to both original and edited photos. You can make as many changes as you like without destroying them.”

        That is not strictly true. Lightroom will always leave the original image untouched, even if it’s a jpeg, and will always save a copy. With other programs, you may, due to human error, save your work overwriting the original photograph.

  7. 7) Jane
    January 20, 2013 at 9:56 pm

    Thanks for this article. Virtual copies are one of the things I love most about Lightroom.

    I hope you don’t mind me asking an unrelated question regarding catalogs. I’ve been setting up my catalogs chronologically, one per calendar year. Is there any way to get Lightroom to include multiple catalogs when you create a Smart Collection? I haven’t found a way, but wanted to ask before completely giving up. I’d love to have a way to have a few big Smart Collections that include all of my catalogs.

  8. 8) Wolfgang
    January 21, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    I couldn’t find a shortcut for the Mac version of LR to create a virtual copy. Have I missed something?

  9. 9) Jason
    January 24, 2013 at 11:17 am

    I currently am still using Lightroom 3, but have always enjoyed this feature to be able to make a lot of changes and either export multiple versions of the same photograph or the ability to start over from scratch easily. One thing I also like this feature for is to do different crops of the same photograph. For example a tight crop on a bird or child and also have the full picture as well.
    Thanks for the nice post.
    Best regards, Jason

  10. February 5, 2013 at 6:17 am

    I never even knew this existed. Especially annoying as I often give clients both B&W and Colour copies and reprocess them all.

    Haha! Thanks for sharing, will definitely be doing this in future!

  11. 11) Bob
    February 20, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    I was thinking about a quick way to select (and export) a selection of virtual copies. There is an option “select virtual copies” but if you create 2 or more versions of each photograph, say 1 BW and 1 sepia, and keep the original file in color, how can you quicly select the BWs or sepias ? I do apply the LR blue color filter to BW virtual copies, then create sepia copies with the red LR color filter.. It does work but it feels quite DIY approach . Haven’t find anything smarter yet.. Do you have any ideas friends ? Bonjour de France

  12. December 18, 2013 at 9:46 pm

    Hi! Great article on virtual copies, which I love. I’ve run into a problem though, I am trying to get more organized with my workflow and I started following Scott Kelby’s tips, one of which was to immediately go through the photos and either hit “p” for pick, or “x” for trash. Then select your picks and put them in a collection to make it easier and more organized. It has worked and I kind of love it. BUT… I went into the collection, picked all of the photos I wanted to make virtual copies of, and hit “make virtual copies” and it wouldn’t do it. ?? Any ideas? Is it because they are in a collection?

    Thank you and happy holidays!

  13. 13) Larrych
    January 31, 2014 at 12:00 am

    I have the same problem as KatWalsh, which you never really answered: when working within a collection, how can you make a virtual copy and have it available within the collection. (The copy is going in with the originals, but not into the collection.)

    • February 1, 2014 at 4:08 am


      if you create the copy whilst in Collection, it will be part of that Collection. Otherwise you can always drag-and-drop it to wherever you like.

  14. 14) Kate
    November 24, 2014 at 4:49 pm

    My toddler was playing with my keyboard and now every photo I edit in Lightroom 5 in the Develop screen makes an auto virtual copy. How do I get LR to stop making virtual copies of every photo I edit?

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