We are often asked by people starting out with photo editing about the difference between destructive and non-destructive editing. Let me try to explain the difference in some detail. I’ll describe destructive editing first then move onto non-destructive editing.

Destructive Editing

The term destructive editing does not mean that you actually destroy your image; in most cases, you will improve it. Rather, it refers to the way in which the pixels of the digital photograph are manipulated. When you make changes to a photograph as part of a digital editing process that is destructive, you actually make permanent changes to the pixels. For example, if you darken an area of the image, the pixels within the image will be changed to become darker. When the image is then saved, those darkened pixels will be written into the image permanently and cannot be returned to their original state. Thus, the original state of the pixels is considered to have been destroyed. Hence the term “destructive editing”.

This is the most common way of editing digital photographs and for many years it was the only way. Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Photoshop Elements are the two most common editing software packages on the market and they are both examples of destructive editing applications. It is possible to use Photoshop in such a way that it is non-destructive, but this requires that you have a little more knowledge of Photoshop and know how to take advantage of layers. I will cover this in a separate article and this is a technique that we teach during our workshops.

Non-destructive Editing

With the description of destructive editing in mind, I’m sure you can decipher what non-destructive editing is but I will explain it in some depth. Simply put, non-destructive editing is a process in which the editing software does not change the pixels within the digital photograph. So how does it manage to change the appearance of the image if it doesn’t change any of the pixels?

The software package will create a new file that is linked to the digital photograph. This new file is often referred to as the “sidecar” file and is nothing more than a text file. In this sidecar file, the software package will create a list of instructions that tells the software what changes to make to the original digital photograph. The software package will show you a real-time preview of what the changes will look like, if and when you chose to apply them. The changes you make at this stage can be reversed, increased, decreased or tweaked in countless ways until the image looks exactly how you want it to. Once you are happy with all the changes, you do not simply save the file, as you would do with a destructive workflow, instead you “export” a copy of the photograph.

By exporting an adjusted version of the photograph, you end up with two copies; the original and the adjusted version. This way the original photograph is still intact along with its sidecar file that has all the adjustments you made listed as nothing more than a set of instructions. If you wish, you can reset the original image back to its original state simply by telling the software to delete the set of instructions it holds in the sidecar file. Additionally, and this is one of the huge advantages of a non-destructive workflow, you can tweak the adjustments listed in this sidecar file and produce several copies of the original file.

Let’s say you have a photograph and you can’t decide between a colour version or a black and white version. With a non-destructive workflow, it becomes easy to export two copies of the original photograph; one in colour and one in black and white. This will be covered in a separate article and it is a topic we cover in detail during our Adobe Lightroom one-day courses. If you take a look at our article on colour or black and white you will see an example of exporting different versions of the same file. In this article, we took a portrait and produced four different versions but we still have the original untouched photograph. This way, the client can see several versions and decide which one they prefer.

The advantages of this non-destructive workflow are easy to see; you keep the original file intact. There is a disadvantage to a non-destructive workflow. The sidecar files that are produced and updated by the software can only be read by that one particular software package. If you stop using the software and switch to another brand, you will not be able to see the adjustments you spent so long producing and perfecting. Therefore, it’s vital that you research which brand offers the features most suited to your needs. By far, the most popular and feature-rich package is Adobe Lightroom but ultimately the choice of which non-destructive software package you use will depend upon your budget and your needs. Even when this disadvantage is taken into consideration, I would always recommend you adopt a non-destructive workflow.

The non-destructive workflow is often associated with raw files but can also be used with JPEG images. However, it lends itself better to raw files because of the amount of data contained within a raw file. The adjustments and associated sidecar file do not add a significant amount to the file size but do have much more scope when the original file is a raw file.

Examples of Destructive and Non-destructive Editing Software Packages

The type of software package that you use to edit your photographs will have a bearing on whether you employ a destructive or non-destructive editing workflow. I have listed some examples of each type of software package below but remember that even the destructive editing software packages can be used in a non-destructive way. Albeit, with a little more work and knowledge.

Destructive Editing Software Non-destructive Editing Software
Adobe Photoshop Adobe Lightroom
Adobe Photoshop Elements Adobe Camera Raw (ACR)
Serif PhotoPlus Aperture
Paintshop Pro Bibble
PhotoStudio Capture One

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