One of the biggest advantages Lightroom brings is the ability to build a path of non-destructive editing, and this is especially effective in a workflow that includes camera raw images. You can make changes all day long, close Lightroom, open it next week, make more changes – and every adjustment you’ve made is recorded, and is applied non-destructively. The reason Lightroom can do this is that it is never modifying your original raw file. It creates a list of adjustments, and applies them in a “recipe” to the raw files. It is very easy to back up, take out some ingredients, and even go all the way back to the original.
However, once you’ve rendered a file (into a JPG, PSD or TIFF, for example) you have completely lost the ability to backtrack. So, if you decide to take your image into Photoshop for some creative editing, you press Ctrl-E or Cmd-E (Photo > Edit In > Edit in Adobe Photoshop CS5) – and in so doing, Lightroom takes your recipe of adjustments, renders the edits into actual pixels, and builds a PSD. At that point, you have severed the tie to the original raw file, and have no ability to go back to the underlying Lightroom adjustments.
Or, do you?
As it turns out, there is a way, and it is simpler than you’d think. There is actually more than one way to get a photo into Photoshop and back, and one other way to do it is to open it as a Smart Object in Photoshop. By opening an image as a Smart Object, Lightroom bundles your recipe of adjustments along with the original raw file and passes the entire thing off to Photoshop in one self-contained package.
For example, let’s take the following image in Lightroom. We have done our basic editing, including cropping, and now we want to take this image over to Photoshop for some creative finishing touches. Instead of pressing Ctrl-E/Cmd-E, we right click and choose Edit In > Open As Smart Object in Photoshop…
Once the object opens in Photoshop, we can see from the layers panel that we have a Smart Object. At this point, we can begin our creative editing process – apply filters, add adjustment layers, etc:
So now, at this point, we have added our creative touches – and we realize that we need a further tweak back in the raw workflow. Maybe we need more noise reduction, or less sharpening, or perhaps we need to apply a local adjustment to the sidewalk to tone it down a bit and recover some of the detail there. Just double click the Smart Object icon:
This opens Camera Raw, and we are able to make all the adjustments we want just as if we were still in Lightroom. All the same tools are available, although we’re in the Camera Raw dialog. In this case, we can use the local adjustment brush to paint some negative exposure onto the sidewalk. Once done, we can click on “OK” at the bottom of the dialog:
Finally, in Photoshop, simply use Ctrl-S/Cmd-S (File > Save). Don’t use Save As… or any other method of saving. This sends the finished PSD back to the Lightroom Library, with “-Edit” appended to the filename.
Now, if you want to edit this file in the future, you can simply use the standard Ctrl-E/Cmd-E (Photo > Edit In > Edit in Adobe Photoshop CS5). Make sure that you choose Edit Original when you are prompted.
At this point, we can repeat this process as many times as we want, and we will always have access to the raw data of our original. With Lightroom’s ability to open raw images as Smart Objects in Photoshop, round trip editing with fully preserved raw data is possible. You need never harm another pixel again!
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