Non-destructive editing sounds like a no-brainer. This is where your software stores your edits as processing instructions which can be updated, changed or removed at any time. It’s used by Lightroom, Capture One, Exposure X, ON1 Photo RAW, Luminar and DxO PhotoLab. It’s the modern way to work. Here are some advantages:
- You can change your mind about how you want to process your image you can go right back in and change anything or everything you’ve done.
- Your original image remains unmodified throughout. You always have the original to fall back on if you need it.
- You create ‘virtual copies’ in most programs (a.k.a. ‘variants’ or ‘versions’) so that you can try out different looks and effects without having to duplicate the original image.
- Non-destructive editing is very space-efficient. You’re not creating any new image files, you’re just working with the ones you’ve got.
So what’s the problem with non-destructive editing?
There is one very clear and definite problem, but there are some more subtler problems beyond that. But let’s start with the big one.
- You’re locked in to your software. Your adjustments are only visible and can only be modified in that specific application. There is some crossover in the Adobe ecosystem so that Lightroom adjustments can be seen and modified in Adobe Camera Raw, but otherwise every application is an island. Only Capture One can show your Capture One edits, only Luminar can show Luminar adjustments… and so on.
- There’s a danger your photographs are never ‘finished’. This is a subtler argument based on personal experience rather than any scientific proof! When you can keep going back to change things, you will keep going back and doing it. The old ‘shoot – edit – share’ workflow can easily turn into a ‘shoot – endlessly re-edit – never quite decide’ workflow. Maybe that’s just me.
- You may compromise on the wrong tools. I’m sure everyone, like me, has seen countless Lightroom tutorials for doing amazing work with the limited tools available, even adding light leak and lens flare effects in a program never designed to do that. Amazing. But regular ‘destructive’ software is just better at so many of the things we want or need to do – it just means COMMITTING TO A FINISHED IMAGE. You can end up reluctant to swap from a non-destructive tool to a regular tool, even when the regular tool is better. And your pictures aren’t as good.
- Your catalog is a mess. (Well, my catalog is a mess, anyway.) With non-destructive editing I can make as many variations as I like on a single image. Combine that with the extra physical shots I take (just to be on the safe side, you know how it is) and my habitual RAW+JPEG pairs, and it becomes exponentially more difficult to work out which are my best shots, which are unfinished experiments, which are processed JPEGS and TIFFs and which are ‘virtual’ edits which will need exporting… etc. Non-destructive editing can encourage this kind of proliferation to a tipping point where it’s too late to cull all these different alternatives because the job has become too big.
Non-destructive editing: the verdict
The advantages of non-destructive editing are obvious and highly appealing. The disadvantages are less obvious but, I would suggest, increasingly problematic in the long term.
The big one is that you are locked in to a specific software application, and the longer you use it, the more non-destructive edits you accumulate and the more locked in you become.
The subtler issue is what this does to your workflow. Unless you are highly disciplined, images are no longer ‘finished’ in the same way and you can end up favoring weaker non-destructive tools over far more effective ‘destructive’ ones.
Above all, I would say, don’t use non-destructive editing as an excuse to avoid making proper and final editing decisions! (That is also a note to myself.)