What is a Non-destructive Image Editor & Why Should You Care?

What used to scare me about editing photos is that everything I did to my images seemed so final.

I was using very low-tech editors like Picasa or Windows Photo Viewer and whatever changes I made were made forever because the original file was overwritten.

Japanese Shinto prayer plaques

Japanese Shinto prayer plaques in Tokyo

If I cropped an image, then I lost the data I cropped out.

If I made an image black and white, I could say goodbye to the color version.

I started feeling like this was a really dumb thing to do, so my next step was to simply make copies of every image I wanted to edit and then save the changes to the copy, leaving the original intact. But that takes up space and then you have two files of basically the same image floating around. Kind of a hassle to organize and keep straight.

Even though space is becoming less of an issue, I still knew there had to be a better way. So, what was my solution? It was an all-in-one image organizer and non-destructive editor.

Let’s go deeper into what an image organizer and non-destructive editor is and why it’ll help you.

The Benefits of Using a Non-destructive Editor/Organizer

There are so many things I love about using non-destructive editors, and one of them is their ability to let you make adjustments to your images without harming the original. It basically lets you go back at any time to the original file you downloaded from your camera without you needing to make an additional copy of the file.

Programs like Lightroom and Aperture do just that. They simply store your adjustments in a database as a set of instructions to apply to the image if you ever need or want to save and use your images outside of the program.

Here are the main benefits of using a non-destructive editor like Lightroom or Aperture.

1. You Can Always Go Back to the Original

In my scenario above, if I crop an image or tweak it in some way, the original photo is overwritten and whatever changes I make are now permanent.

With a non-destructive editor, the same changes would all be reversible. You can essentially undo everything and start back at the beginning with your unedited image.

Take this image, for example. It started out in color but say I wanted to try out black and white. I can make some adjustments in Lightroom and then see how it looks. All of my edits are displayed in the order I applied them as a stack in the “History” panel on the left (see image below).


Making adjustments in Lightroom's Develop Mode

Making adjustments in Lightroom’s Develop Mode

Now let’s say I’m not liking the black and white conversion. I can simply click on the starting point in the History panel (left arrow below) and it will undo adjustments up to that point (in this case, the “Update to Current Process” is the beginning step). Or, alternatively, I can click on the “Reset” button (bottom right arrow below).

Undo the Develop Adjustments in Lightroom

Undo the Develop Adjustments in Lightroom

Now it’s as if I haven’t done any adjustments to my image and can start over new.

2. Save Space

Another great thing about Lightroom is that the changes you make don’t really take up all that much extra room.

Hard disk driving nearing capacity

Hard disk driving nearing capacity

All Lightroom does is save your adjustments as a set of instructions in its database. None of these edits (adjustments) are actually applied to your photos until you export or save your image for use outside of Lightroom. Once you do export, your adjustments, along with keywords, ratings, etc., will be applied to your images.

So, instead of my old-school method of creating a duplicate copy of the original and then altering the copy, I can still have an edited file and have access to my original image, too. Just in case I want it.

And all of this takes up very little extra space on your Hard Drive (provided you don’t export two copies of your file (one being the original and one being the edited version, which would defeat the whole purpose, anyway).

Why Not Just Use Photoshop?

You may be wondering why you couldn’t just use Photoshop, instead.

For a few reasons I think Lightroom or Aperture are far better.

  1. Photoshop is expensive. Not everyone can afford Photoshop but Lightroom and Aperture are pretty reasonable. I purchased Lightroom 4 for $105 and it does so much for my overall photo editing and management.
  2. Photoshop’s hard to learn. In my opinion, a program like Lightroom is much easier to learn (I’ve yet to use Aperture, though I’ve been told it’s very similar to Lightroom). I learned how to use Lightroom quickly and now feel really comfortable with it. Photoshop, on the other hand, is quite elaborate and I still don’t know what a good number of tools do or how to use them effectively.
  3. Not all Photoshop tools are non-destructive. I don’t exactly know which tools/methods are non-destructive and which aren’t, but for most people’s needs, I think Lightroom or Aperture will be more than sufficient and it’s a much safer route.
  4. Photoshop doesn’t help you organize your photos. I LOVE that I’m much more organized with Lightroom. Instead of using long filenames to describe an image, I can simply add keywords and easily find images later.

I will say that if you have the extra cash and if you really want to give some of your images the extra punch, then Photoshop is a great way to polish them off.

To Sum Up

Lightroom and Aperture’s nondestructive editing methods can help you save space, are easier and more intuitive to learn, and will let you undo any changes you made. And it’s way cheaper than something like Photoshop and more full-featured than free programs. I don’t think you can go wrong.

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