Virtual Copies are really useful. They let you try out a whole load of different processing variations on a single image without having to create new files, saving time and disk space in the process and keeping all your adjustments ‘editable’.

But there are drawbacks too. One this that none of your edits are visible outside of your Lightroom catalog. Like all non-destructive editing processes they rely on proprietary data that makes no sense to any other program. If you want to be able to share your images with other users or applications, you have to export them as ‘real’ TIFFs or JPEGs.

This gives rise to a more worrying problem, from my point of view – these images don’t ‘exist’ yet. Or rather they do exist, but only as metadata within my Lightroom catalog. It’s true that Lightroom can embed processing XML metadata in or alongside the image files on your hard disks, but any Virtual Copies exist only within Lightroom’s catalog file.

Non-destructive editing saves you time in the short term but are you just building problems for the future? I’ve got more to say about this in my article The ticking time-bomb of non-destructive editing.

So I decided to clear all the Virtual Copies from my catalog and create ‘real’ images instead. It’s actually quite easy to do. However…

Warning: Removing Virtual Copies can affect your Collections. If you use Virtual Copies in Collections, you’ll will need to rebuild them after this process.

01 How do you isolate your Virtual Copies?

Lightroom Virtual Copies

This is actually pretty easy to find out. First, switch to the Library module. Now open the Catalog panel and select All Photographs. In the Filter bar, select Attribute. Now, over on the far right of the Filter bar you’ll see three small icons representing, in order, regular master files, Virtual Copies and video files. If you select the Virtual Copies icon, the main window will show only the Virtual Copies in your library.

02 How many Virtual Copies do you have?

Lightroom Virtual Copies

This is pretty easy to find out too. All you have to do is select all the Virtual Copies in the main window, create a new Collection and make sure you check the Include selected photos box. The new Collection is a handy place to store your Virtual Copies for now, and it also tell you how many there are. I have 1,548. That’s 1,548 images I’ve obviously taken the time to work on, but which don’t exist yet except as metadata/processing instructions inside my catalog. That can’t be good!

03 How to export ‘real’ images

Lightroom Virtual Copies

Yes, it’s handy to have all my adjustments remaining ‘virtual’ so that I can change my mind later. In practice, however, I never do – I just go back to my original RAW or JPEG master image and try a different editing process from scratch. So now’s the time to export all these Virtual Copies as new, processed files on my hard disk both for their own security and for easy sharing.

So the first step is to select all these Virtual Copies again – I can do this from my new Collection – and then to use the File > Export command. This opens the Export dialog, which contains a whole bunch of presets for how and where processed images are saved. I’ll save an in-depth explanation of this for another time, but there are a couple of key settings here which will help later.

The first is the Export location. If you choose Same folder as original photo, the processed images will be saved alongside the originals, saving you a lot of manual re-filing later on.

04 Filenames

Lightroom Virtual Copies

You can choose different filenames during the export process, which is good for avoiding duplication. The File naming panel can be a little tricky (another topic to save for another time), but all I’ve done here is to create a new preset with the Edit… option and use the original filename followed by _lr to indicate that the new images have been processed by Lightroom.

The final step, not shown here, was to choose a file format. I’ve gone for JPEGs at 90% quality.

05 Now sit back and wait…

This can take a while. My 1,548 images took about three hours to process and export.

06 Re-import your processed images

Lightroom Virtual Copies

Your newly exported images won’t automatically re-import back into Lightroom, but it’s a straightforward process. Straightforward for you, that is – it might take Lightroom a little while once you’ve told it what to do.

You don’t need the Import dialog for this. Instead, right-click on your top-level folder in the Folders panel and choose Synchronize Folder from the menu.

Lightroom will now check all the folders and images in its catalog against the folders and images actually on your hard disk. The point is that the photos are already in the right folders, thanks to the Export settings.

07 Check the number

Lightroom Virtual Copies

After it’s checked your image folders, Lightroom will display its Synchronize Folder dialog which tells us how many new photos it’s found. There are more here than I just exported, but that’s OK. There are clearly some other stragglers that have accumulated over time.

08 Importing and culling

Lightroom Virtual Copies

The import process takes a little while, but when it’s done you now have ‘real’ versions of your edited images, not Virtual Copies. Once you’re sure that all the images are accounted for, you can then go back to the Virtual Copies Collection you created earlier and remove them from the catalog, saving unnecessary clutter and duplication.