I had a horrible thought today.

Like everyone else, I’ve been saying non-destructive editing is fantastic. It’s smart, it’s efficient, and it changes the way we work. It’s the most important innovation in digital imaging this century…

But wait a minute. What if I had to stop using Lightroom or Aperture tomorrow? How many images have I non-destructively enhanced in these applications, and what would happen to them?

I also use Capture One and DxO Optics Pro, so how many more ‘virtual adjustments’ have I applied in these programs, too?

The trouble with non-destructive adjustments is that they’re proprietary. Adobe’s adjustments will make no sense to Capture One, DxO’s won’t mean anything to Aperture.

I’ve realised I have thousands of ‘edits’ locked in to specific applications, with no ‘exit strategy’ for any of them.

How big is the problem?

Let’s see the scale of the problem with my own Lightroom catalog. This contains just under 50,000 images, many of which will have been edited within Lightroom… and it’s easy to find out how many.

First, I create a new Smart Collection, choose ‘Has Adjustments’ as your parameter and ‘is true’ as the condition. My new Smart Collection displays the number of matching images alongside, and it’s really quite worrying.

Non-destructive editing

Wow. My Lightroom catalog has nearly 9,000 images which have been edited in some way. So, um, what happens to those edits if I stop using Lightroom…

I know all these images have one or more non-destructive adjustments, but I don’t know what they are, how important they are or whether I can afford to lose them. I could set up more sophisticated Smart Collections to tell me what I’ve done, but that would take a long time, so for now let’s treat this as a simple problem: I’ve got nearly 9,000 edits I’m going to lose if I don’t do something.

Your non-destructive exit strategy

Whether you’re using Lightroom, Aperture, Capture One or DxO Optics Pro, your exit strategy will be the same. You need to export your editing images as new, ‘universal’ files, like JPEGs or TIFFs.

Let’s say I go for high-quality JPEGs. I’m guessing they’ll come out at around 5Mb each, which gives me a total of around 45GB. That’s not so bad. I can easily find that on the external drive I use for my image library.

But what if I want better quality? What if I want 16-bit TIFFs? They’re the closest thing to a high-quality ‘universal’ format. Don’t get me started on DNGs – that’s a whole new post, and I’m steeling myself for a debate about JPEGs vs TIFFs, too, so watch this space.

Anyway, if I try exporting a 16-bit TIFF with a 24-megapixel image I shot recently, I get a 125MB TIFF file, even with zip compression. Ouch! If I do this with all my edits, I’m going to need anywhere from 500GB to 1TB.

But let’s get real about this. We must all be reaching the point where we need to start storing our images on external drives (it’s what I do), and once you make that decision, space isn’t the issue it once was.

I use a 1TB portable drive for my image library and it’s plenty. The time will come when it’s not, but you can already get 2TB portable drives, so I’m not too worried.

My point is, though, that if I know I’m going to face this issue at some point in the future (I won’t  be using all these apps forever), why don’t I change the way I work today? Why don’t I just save ‘real’ files as I go along?

It’s true that I won’t  be able to change them again afterwards in the same way, but I’ve been looking closely at the way I work and I’ve realised I edit non-destructively ‘just in case’. But in practice, I don’t re-edit work I’ve done already at all. What actually happens is that if I see a better way to do something, I almost always start from scratch with the original file.

Has this changed my mind?

Actually it has. Previously, I’ve been advocating non-destructive editing just like everyone else, but I’m not sure this is right. I’m starting to think I want permanent records (i.e. files) of the adjustments I’ve made, and I want them to be available to all my apps, not just the one I used to make them.

I’m starting to think that if an editing task was worth doing, it’s worth saving – and not just as some proprietary metadata in a virtual ‘limbo’, but as an actual real-world image file.

I’m starting to think I should have an exit strategy for all the non-destructive apps I use, and that it makes sense to start now, rather than face a crisis later on.

Non-destructive editing is indeed fantastic. It is smart, it is efficient, and it has changed the way we work. But be warned: while you’re saving space, you could be storing trouble.