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Tips for Setting up your Lightroom Preferences

In this article I'm going to go over some of the important things you need to know about your Lightroom preference settings, how I set them up, and why. Lightroom is a powerful tool, but like any tool how you use it makes all the difference.

Tweaking just a couple things in Lightroom can either make it lightning fast, or have you clock watching. Follow these tips and it should help you understand the options a bit better.

A while back I wrote 10 reasons Lightroom rocks, and why it's my photo editing program of choice but today we'll cover Lightroom preferences.

I use Lightroom 5 almost exclusively for about 90% of my editing. Only occasionally do I jump over to Photoshop CS, but most of my editing is done right inside Lightroom.

Note: I've recently reviewed a number of Lightroom alternatives for RAW photo editors for 2018 and I've added a new one into my workflow.

What you need to know about Lightroom 5 preferences

Finding the Preferences dialogue box

Note: I use a Mac so my screen shots will be from a Mac, but I will give you the Windows option as well for each where applicable.

how to find lightroom preferences

On a Mac you will find Preferences under the Lightroom menu, in Windows it is under the Edit menu. If you want to use the keyboard shortcuts it's “Command Comma” on Mac, “Control Comma” on PC. Once you open it you will see something that looks like this . . .

Notice there are five tabs at the top, let's start with General.

General Tab

Settings check boxes: I turn off the check box for “show splash screen during startup”. That just stops the intro coming up every time you launch the program. I leave “Automatically check for updates” turned on so that when there are new versions of the program available it will notify me. It doesn't mean it will automatically install them, or that it's mandatory to do so, it just let's you know there is one and what's in the update so you can decide if it's worth it or not for you to upgrade.

Default Catalogue: Lightroom works like a database and each one is called a “catalog”. You can create multiple catalogs or just use one, and there are various different opinions on which option is best. I'm not going to get into that here now (perhaps in a future article) but just go over choices you have if you do have more than one catalog. You can choose “load the most recent catalog”, or “prompt me when starting Lightroom” or pick one of your catalogs to open on launch. I choose the second option because I have several different catalogs for different projects (personal work, events, portraits, teaching, etc) so I like to pick which one to open myself each time.

Import options: In the screen capture above, you can see that I check off all three options. The first means that Lightroom will detect when you plug in a memory card and the Import dialog box automatically pops up. The second uses camera folder names, and I personally prefer to name the folders on my hard drive myself so I don't use that option.

The final check box is only applicable if you are shooting both RAW and JPG in camera. I don't recommend shooting both unless you need JPGs quickly for something like a slideshow or email. The workflow in Lightroom is exactly the same for both formats so once you get into using it for all your editing, I highly suggest you make the transition into shooting RAW only. But if you are shooting both, checking off that last option will allow Lightroom to see them both. If it is not checked it will just show them as one image or file and it can be a bit confusing.

Presets tab

Here make note that the only one I check off is “apply auto mix when first converting to black and white”. It is a good starting point and it usually gets me pretty close to the tones I want, then I just refine it. I don't use the first option as I prefer to do my adjustments on an image by image basis and I almost never use Auto Tone anyway.

The last two are more advanced settings that I don't have the space to get into here, but the short answer on them is that you can set up your Lightroom preferences to apply certain develop settings upon import based on which camera you are shooting and/or the ISO you used. That can be very useful if you have two camera bodies. You can choose to have one camera's files developed a certain way to bring out the best from its images, and set the second camera to be developed under different settings. Say for example an older model needs more sharpening or saturation added, you can apply those settings only to files imported from that camera. If you shoot at high ISO's you can also apply a preset for that to reduce noise and maybe increase sharpness and saturation.

External Editing Tab

If you also use Photoshop CS or Photoshop Elements or another plugin that works with Lightroom such as Photomatix, this is how you link them up so they can work together. As you can see by my settings above I'm using Photoshop CS5 linked up to Lightroom. Under “File Format” you can choose to work with a TIF or PSD file in Photoshop. Either of them will support layers and high resolution, but I find that TIF files get overly large so I stick with PSD. Under “Color Space” you have three options: ProPhoto RGB; Adobe RGB (1998) and sRGB. I use ProPhoto because it is the largest of the three (uses the most colors) and I always start with the biggest files, and the most information I can get. It can always be downsized or converted into a smaller color space later, but you can't easily go up. Most pros use this option and if you aren't familiar with color space and what that entails, just know that it gives you the highest quality option of the three choices and the other two are in declining order with sRGB being the smallest.

It is important to know that many labs (especially ones in the US) require that you send them files in the sRGB color space. If you send something other than that, you may get results that are not what you expect and less than desirable. If in doubt ask your lab, and do some additional reading on color space.

Bit depth has to do with how many colors the image has as well (but different than color space). What's the big deal you ask, 16 bit is double right? Wrong! 8 bit is 2 to the power of 8 (or 2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2) for 16.8 million colors whereas 16 bit is (2 to the power of 16, I’m not going to expand that for you) for 281 trillion possible colors, that’s a big difference! Again I always start with the best, highest quality option so I opt for 16 bit here.

If you haven't set up an external editor yet click on the “choose” button under the Additional External Editor section and it will bring up a pop up window. Find the location of your photo editing program (on a Mac it will be in your applications folder and will have the “.app” extension, in Windows you'll find it under Programs with a “.exe” ending) and select it to set up the link, then choose each of the options.

If all this is not 100% clear (it's not easy to explain with a screen capture and words so please ask questions in the comments below if you have any), go ahead and watch this short video and I will show you exactly how to link up Photoshop and save it as a preset.

File Handling Tab

There are several sections on this tab but the most important one is: Camera Raw Cache Settings. What you enter in there for settings really sets the tone for how Lightroom runs, and may cause it to lag and drag or speed up depending on what you set here.

I'm not sure what the factory settings are, but I do remember that it was too low (around 5gb I think) and my Lightroom was not performing well at all. I did some research and found out that it was this setting that was the culprit. So, I currently have mine set to 20.0GB. Also notice where it is saved under “Location”, in my case it is on my laptop in my Library folder. You can move it off your computer to an external drive but make sure it has a fast connection like USB 3. If your drive is USB 2 or slower it will make Lightroom drag even more, so if that's the case leave it on your main computer hard drive.

What this setting is doing is telling your computer how much space to use on your hard drive to save camera raw file info so that each time you process a raw file you're working on, it doesn't have to keep reading the original each time. It's sort of like your browser cache when surfing the internet. Your browser “caches” or remembers what the web sites that you most often visit look like and saves small pieces of information about them on your computer so when you go to those sites they load faster. It works the same with the Camera Raw Cache setting.

If you enter a smaller number in the box, it saves less information (thus taking up less space on your hard drive) but it may cause Lightroom to drag and run really slowly (you'll see lots of the dreaded rainbow wheel of hell on a Mac, not good!). If you set it really high it will eat up hard drive space, which can also slow down the program if too much of your drive is full, so you have to find a happy medium. I've settled on 20 gb and seems to be optimal for me and how I work. I've also heard that you want your cache number to be about the same size are your average job you import into Lightroom. If you have lots of hard drive space you can try making it higher and see if it improves speed.

Catalog Settings

I mentioned earlier that Lightroom operates like a database and each one you start is called a “catalog”. There are some preference settings that are catalog specific, and can be adjusted differently for each catalog you create. To find the Catalog Settings you can get to them two ways:

  1. From your already opened Preferences dialog box, on the General tab
  2. On Mac from the Lightroom menu>catalog settings (under Edit in Windows)
  3. Use the keyboard shortcuts: Command Option Comma (on Mac) or Control Alt Comma (Windows)

General Tab Catalog Settings

This tab gives you information about your catalog such as where it is actually located, when it was last back up and optimized and how big the file is on your hard drive. If you ever run into a problem and can't find your catalog, remember that you have go into these settings to get its location. Oops I can see that my last backup was December 6th and this is the 20th – definitely time to run a backup!

The bottom part is “Backup”, and how you want Lightroom to handle reminding you to back up the catalog. I usually leave it set on “Every time Lightroom exits” which means that when I quit or exit the program it will ask me if I want to back up now. I can choose to run it or skip it and do it later. I will usually run it when I'm done for the day and walking away from the computer. Generally I skip it if I'm opening another catalog or still working on my computer and need the memory.

Backing up the catalog is NOT backing up your actual images

***IMPORTANT: when you back up your catalog you need to make note of two things. #1 it's very important to save the backup on a different drive than the original! If your computer crashes you lose both, not good. #2 understand that backing up the catalog is NOT backing up your actual images or image files!!!!

I can't stress this enough as I see many new Lightroom users make this mistake and assume it IS backing up your images. Then a hard drive crashes and they have a catalog full of recipes (that's what Lightroom stores, all the recipes of how you want your images processed and flagged) but NO images. Do not fall into this trap, and if you only get one thing from this article – get this! You MUST back up your image files separately!

Having said all that, if you regularly back up your computer to another drive or online backup system you may not need to do catalog backups. But call me paranoid, I do them both anyway. No one ever said they had a problem from too many back ups, most problems come from not enough, or current ones.

File Handling Tab – Catalog Settings

The things you want to look for here is the Standard Preview Size and Automatically Discard 1:1 Previews. The preview is the size your image will display when you view it in the library module full screen. So it's generally recommended to set this to at least the size of your screen resolution. My screen is 1440 wide so that's what I've chosen. If yours is larger or smaller, pick the appropriate one to match your monitor resolution.

The last option to discard the 1:1 previews gives you four options: Never; after one day, after one week or after 30 days. This is telling Lightroom how long to keep the larger sized 1:1 (or full pixel sized previews) while you are working on a project. I usually set it to 30 days so it gives me time to use the files and if I haven't processed them by then it will delete the large previews which can take up a fair bit of space on your drive. If you work faster you may wish to choose a shorter option. Just be aware that if you choose “Never” your previews file will get really large! For my main catalog which has over 68,000 images in it, the previews are about 23 gb, a smaller one I use for weddings I've photographed is only 1.85gb. So you can see how large that file can get, so it's a good idea to dump the 1:1's regularly. You can also do this manually but this is the default setting Lightroom will always follow.

Metadata Tab – Catalog Settings

The only really important thing to note on this tab is the third option down from the top, “Automatically write changes to XMP”. I recommend having this turned off because what it does is takes the “recipe” you create for your images and instead of saving it in the Lightroom catalog, it creates a separate file called a sidecar or XMP file for each image! Much more confusing and unnecessary, especially if most, or all, of your workflow is in Lightroom.

Backing up the catalog

In an earlier setting we told Lightroom when to remind us to backup, but let's look at how that actually happens. If you've chosen to have it remind you when you exit the program as I have, you will only see this dialog box when you quit or close the program. This is the only place to set this up!

You only have three things to choose here, but they're important. The first, “Backup Folder” determines where you backup will be saved. It defaults to the SAME location as your catalog, but as I mentioned earlier, it is very important you save it elsewhere. So click on “Choose” and pick a different drive, ideally an external one, to save your backup files. Once you've chosen the location, as long as that drive is connected when you exit Lightroom all your backups will go there. It is also a good idea to have both tick boxes checked as well to run those on your catalog. They will make sure there are no errors and it is optimized for fastest running speed.


That was a lot of technical stuff, and I don't know about you but I'm tired just writing it! But hopefully this gives you a better understand of how to set up your Lightroom preferences to make sure you're covering your butt in case of a crash, and having Lightroom running at top speed.

lightroom alternative for photo editing softwareNEW: Adobe has announced changes to their licensing model for their products.

Lightroom Alternative: I've reviewed what I believe to be one of the best lightroom alternatives currently available. I encourage you to check it out before making ANY decisions about your photo editing software choices.

Read: Lightroom Alternative - Is Luminar the Answer?


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