Smart ways to speed up Photoshop and Lightroom on existing hardware

If you are looking for a speed boost when editing, times are tough. AMD’s new 5000 series processors they are amazing and NVIDIA 3000 Series Cards they are lightning fast, but both are incredibly hard to find. Until you can get your hands on new hardware, there are still some clever ways to improve your computer’s performance in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Now, software optimization may not make the huge improvement possible with a significant hardware upgrade, but it’s better than nothing. In my tests, the following optimizations were indeed most noticeable with large images (think complex PSD files, panoramas, and high resolution images), as well as situations where you would otherwise be limited by hardware – they were of less benefit. for basic operations with small images. Regardless, they can only improve performance, so consider applying them to your workflow whenever you’re working with larger files.

Work small, then big

The first approach to getting more performance out of your hardware is to create a drastically smaller copy (in terms of resolution) of your file, test your changes, then copy or reapply these adjustments to your full-size file.

I had to start doing this to allow my copy of Nik’s plugins to work with panoramas. Despite having more than enough RAM, I would end up crashing on files above 150 + MP, with redraw performance also impacted on some 45MP files. Fortunately, I found a solution that not only made any operation in the software faster, but completely avoided the crash problem. Best of all, this step also works perfectly for a variety of other plugins and filters, and even adjustment layers!

To set up this optimization, I found it easier to create an action. Open any image file, duplicate the base layer with Control / Command + J, then start recording the action. From there, merge everything visible into a new layer with Control / Command + Alt + Shift + E. This allows you to generalize the action into a multilayer file, at the cost of “locking” those layers. Then select everything with Control / Command + A, copy with Control / Command + C and create a new document with Control / Command + N.

You should now have a new document with a complete copy of the original image on a single layer, on top of a background. All that’s left now is to merge it with Control / Command + E and resize. For scaling, you can choose a size that works for your computer – I found that 2500 pixels on the long side retain a good amount of detail to control your edit, while still delivering remarkable speed.

After the resize step, don’t forget to turn off action recording! If you’ve accidentally recorded some extra steps, you can drag them to the trash once recording is turned off, without having to re-record everything.

Now that you have this new, smaller document, you are free to experiment with sliders and filters much faster. Global adjustments work better than those that affect smaller structures – something like levels or saturation will be easier to view and reapply than cloning or sharpening. If you’re using an adjustment layer, you can simply select the adjustment layer when you’re happy with the results and copy it back into the original document. If you are using a filter or plugin, you can simply make the original document your active document after applying it to the smaller copy and reapply it via “Last Filter” at the top of the filter menu.

In my tests, this required a delay in opening a plug-in from about 90 seconds to 8 seconds, as well as greatly improving responsiveness when working within the plug-in. On my laptop, it’s also much easier to work with adjustment layers on large documents. Unfortunately, this isn’t a panacea, as you’ll still have to wait for the changes to apply to the original document. What it does, however, is make it much easier to work with these large documents, allowing you to easily separate your work into “active editing” and waiting periods, instead of smearing that delay with every mouse click.

Delete the resolution

On the subject of resolution, did you know that your monitor resolution actually affects your performance in Lightroom? Adobe even explains it for themselves, but it’s buried a supporting document.

The longer edge of the screen determines the minimum resolution that Lightroom renders previews for, so setting a lower resolution in your Windows or OSX settings can allow you to regain some desperately needed performance in Lightroom. This tip came in handy when trying to quickly shoot images on a laptop and is great when the need arises, although it may not be one to run with every day.

To implement it, first release the display resolution. In Windows, you can access the relevant menu by right-clicking on the desktop, then selecting Display Settings. In OSX, go to System Preferences, then to Displays. In the menu, select a resolution lower than the one currently running and apply it. The results aren’t the prettiest, but we’re here for the speed, not the looks (plus, you can go back via this menu once you’re done).

After adjusting the resolution, open Lightroom, then open the catalog settings. The “Standard Preview Size” setting should show the smallest value that is still equal to or greater than the longest edge of the display – if you switch to 1920 × 1080, it should be at least 1920 pixels, for example. While here, you can also set the preview quality to Low.

From here, import your images, browse your catalog, or make your own edits – things should be a little faster. The biggest gains come from a higher resolution, low-power combo, like the iMac 5K or the older Retina Macbook base model. When you’re done, reset your monitor resolution setting and Lightroom catalog preferences and everything should be back to normal.


There’s no real substitute for more horsepower, but if you’re just looking to perform a modification under the time or pressure of hardware, keeping these strategies in mind can gain you a little more performance. They are a little too busy for each editing session, but I found that they made a difference for certain scenarios. More generally, I hope these techniques allow you to explore the menus. There’s no harm in understanding better what makes our most used programs work and you may find that it pays dividends in your next project! Have you found that almost hidden setting that changed the way you work with your editing tools?


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