Have you ever browsed your back catalog of images, re-discovered one with some edits that you really love… but you can’t remember how you did it? For someone like me who uses all sorts of software for all sorts of different techniques (and has a memory like mine) it’s a real issue.
I’ve written articles about the hidden pitfalls of non-destructive editing, how your edits aren’t ‘real’ and exist only in the software you used, and the danger that one day your adjustment metadata might become separated from your images. Just imagine, if your Lightroom catalog failed or got lost and with it went tens of thousands of image edits!
All that is true, and yet non-destructive editors bring advantages that it’s very difficult to live without. One is that you can go back at any time to change your adjustments; another is that you can create ‘virtual copies’ to try out different looks on the same image file. And then the other day I realized that there was a third thing potentially more important – to me, at least – than the others.
I can go back and see what I did, and then do it again.
Image-editing is a bit like programming
Please, bear with me. In programming you have to construct very elegant lines of code, possibly so intricate that you might never again remember how you did it, so (if you follow best practice) you comment your code so that you and others can see what you did.
It’s the same with CSS web design or PHP functions on a WordPress site like this one. If the code’s not commented, it’s much harder to figure out what it does and how it works.
It’s just the same with complex image editing techniques. This is more of a visual art than a programming problem, obviously, but any effect you create will often depend on a whole series of interlocking adjustments which you probably won’t remember later.
Photo editing software does not let you add ‘comment’ lines. You might be able to tap something into the Description field in the image’s IPTC metadata, but imagine writing down exactly what you did in words. That would be as long as one of Life after Photoshop’s tutorials (and they’re long enough, right?)
Non-destructive editors never forget
But with a non-destructive editor, you CAN go back, you CAN see exactly what you did and, if you like it that much, you can save it as a preset so that you can re-use it indefinitely in the future.
So for sure, non-destructive editing has a whole series of drawbacks that aren’t always obvious and you definitely need to know about. But it remembers everything that you did so that you can do it again.
My top tip would be: when you finish an edit you’re really happy with, export it as a JPEG or a TIFF so that you have a permanent, shareable copy just in case, but ALSO keep all your edits in your non-destructive editor.
- Non-destructive editing and how it works
- Non-destructive editing: does it cause more problems than it solves?
- The ticking time-bomb of non-destructive editing
Great non-destructive editors
- Capture One: My favorite for RAW processing quality, adjustment tools and its layers and masking system
- Lightroom/Lightroom Classic: The go-to cataloging/processing/editing tool for many, though I wish its RAW processing was a little better
- DxO PhotoLab: Not so hot on the organizing side, but the best RAW processing and lens corrections out there
- ON1 Photo RAW: Can be a bit clunky and complex here and there, but an absolute powerhouse of non-destructive photo effects
- Exposure X: The Clark Kent of image editors. Mild and unassuming by day, but an editing superhero when it needs to be
- DxO Nik Collection: Non-destructive? Really? Well yes, if you use DxO’s clever multipage TIFFs. They’re big files, but they let you go back and check/change your plug-in settings. Who even imagined that would be possible?