The RGB Shuffle

In the article "The RAW File Shuffle" (DPP, September/October 2011), we took a look at the process of taking a RAW file to Photoshop for editing and then completing the round trip, bringing the file back to the Lightroom catalog again. This time, we look at that same process for RGB files, which is just a little bit different.
Fig. 1

The ability to have your cataloging tool manage your entire RAW library, together with all the derivative files that you create, is a godsend. On top of that, Lightroom takes care of the back and forth to Photoshop for editing, and in Adobe parlance, this is referred to as Lightroom’s integration with Photoshop. I admit that it sounds a bit complicated, but it’s not really. So what does "integration" mean? At the bottom line, all integration really means is that Lightroom will automate some of the asset management details, keeping track of the RGB files that you create and send back and forth to Photoshop.

Let’s start with the basics. First, it’s important to understand that for the most part, Lightroom treats RGB files very much the same way that it treats RAW files, meaning, it treats them nondestructively. There are subtle differences, such as the fact that by default, XMP settings are written into RGB files, rather than into a sidecar file in the case of read-only RAW files. But that’s about it. And the beauty of having the same nondestructive editing for all of your files is the flexibility that it gives you.


The downside of that flexibility is that your workflow choices become a bit more complicated. With power comes responsibility. When should you apply nondestructive changes to your RGB files in Lightroom, and when is it better to take them over to Photoshop and actually start pushing pixels around? And while the answer to this is a frustrating "it depends," understanding your options is the place to start.

When you select an RGB file in Lightroom and choose the Photo > Edit in Photoshop command, you get three options shown in the dialog box (Figure 1). Choosing any of the three options will send the file over to Photoshop, but each with very different results. The nice thing is that the fine print you see under each option actually tells the entire story.

Option 1: Edit A Copy With Lightroom Adjustments

Option 1: This option has two parts, and Lightroom does just what it says it will do. It makes an entirely new version of your RGB file on disk, baking in your Lightroom adjustments as it creates it. "Baking in" means those infinitely adjustable, nondestructive tweaks you’ve been making to the source file in Lightroom become sort of frozen in time and are locked into the new RGB pixels at the moment the new file is created. Once it’s opened in Photoshop, you can continue to modify and edit it, but then you’re in a completely different world, using different tools. When you save the file and return to Lightroom, the new copy comes in just as if it were a new import, having no Lightroom adjustment settings at all.

Option 2: Edit A Copy

Option 2: This option also duplicates the source RGB file, but notice the fine print below the button: "Lightroom adjustments will not be visible." This simply means any Lightroom adjustments you’ve made aren’t baked in this time, and the newly created file is an exact duplicate of the original, just as if you had made it in the Macintosh Finder or Windows Explorer. Once created, it immediately becomes a new member of your Lightroom catalog and is then handed off to Photoshop for editing. A somewhat wonky behavior that you may notice here is that the new file momentarily inherits the Lightroom adjustments from its source file in the catalog. But Lightroom only keeps those adjustments if you don’t save changes while working on the new file in Photoshop (probably a bug)! The moment that you do save changes in Photoshop, Lightroom reverts the new catalog entry back to its nondestructive defaults for RGB files.

Option 3: Edit Original

Option 3: This last option is a simple handoff; Lightroom hands the source RGB file over to Photoshop, without touching it in any way, and it doesn’t try to track the results, either. So the results of using this option are identical to opening the file in Photoshop from the file system. Having the Edit Original option here in Lightroom is simply a convenience.

Having said that, I find this last option frequently to be the most useful, and that’s precisely because of what it doesn’t do. Reading the fine print again confirms that when handing an RGB file over to Photoshop using this option, Lightroom adjustments won’t be involved. The beauty of that behavior is that it opens the door to the full power of using Photoshop and Lightroom together.

For example, let’s say that you take a RAW file over to Photoshop for editing, maybe to add some text to it, or to add any number of other layers. Simply saving that new, layered RGB file in Photoshop also tells Lightroom to import it into your catalog. And once back in Lightroom, you then can apply any number of nondestructive adjustments to that layered file that you wish. Make it brighter, make it darker, crop it—whatever. Just understand that you’re effectively applying nondestructive edits to the entire composite, layers and all.

Then, later, what if you need to change the text? No problem! Just choose Photo > Edit in Photoshop, and using the bottom option to Edit Original, make whatever edits you like in Photoshop again. Back in Lightroom, all of your nondestructive edits will still be in place, and Lightroom will update the preview to reflect the new Photoshop changes the moment you save it.

And so, grasshopper, this brings us back to the question that I asked at the beginning of the article: How do you know when to apply nondestructive changes to your RGB files in Lightroom, and when is it better to make them over in Photoshop?

When you know the answer to that, you will have truly snatched the pebble from the master’s hand. But if you write to ask me what the answer is, I won’t have it! I’m still working on that one, myself.

George Jardine is a frequent contributor to Digital Photo Pro. You can learn about his tutorials, read his blog and see more of his photography at