I am a huge Lightroom (3.6) user, and have a 2006 2.15 Ghz Core 2 Duo 24" iMac, running Lion. This Mac it limited to 3GB RAM max, but does have dedicated graphics. I have about 50GB left on my harddrive. I have over 21,000 images in my LR catalog. The catalog itself is local on my iMac hard drive, but images are on attached storage.

My issue is that I have been having some noticeable performance issues with Lightroom. Dragging sliders can be jumpy at times, and sometimes switching modules has significant delays. I suspect that overhead in Lion is somewhat to blame, but it may also be all the files and apps on my Mac.

So, question is: does anyone have tested evidence of an SSD vs harddrive on Lightroom performance? How dependent is Mac OSX on free hard drive space when it pages to virtual memory? How much free space is preferred?

Or is my issue more related to LR itself, in that I have over 21,000 images in my LR catalog? Would I see noticeable improvement in the interface with a smaller catalog?

Trying to decide if the pain of opening my iMac and installing an SSD is worth it, or if I should instead save the $$ and put it toward an updated iMac in the future.

  • Measurable: almost certainly yes. But noticeable to you, the user, is what I assume you're really after. I took the liberty of editing, but if you really are asking about measurableness, please revert.
    – Reid
    Jan 16 '12 at 2:12
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    This article is suggested by the Adobe help document on Lightroom performance: computer-darkroom.com/blog/…
    – dpollitt
    Jan 19 '12 at 3:47
  • 2
    To sum it up: The article above disagrees with most of the answers below - in that SSDs are not really the magic bullet many users suggest.
    – dpollitt
    Jan 19 '12 at 3:53
  • this matches my observations. My limit of 3GB is likely my biggest issue
    – cmason
    Jan 19 '12 at 13:19

I recently got an SSD drive for my primary boot drive. It was a moderately fast one, with consistent 270mb/s read and write speeds. I've used lightroom with the catalog both on the SSD and on a normal HDD, and I did not see a whole lot of performance improvement for my catalog, which is about 12,000 photos or so.

As I started investigating how to improve the performance of Lightroom, I realized that the most significant factor that affected performance was the Camera RAW Cache size (Preferences -> File Handling -> Camera Raw Cache Settings -> Maximum Size). It defaults to 1Gb, however when working with a large number of RAW photos, a 1Gb cache is FAR, FAR too small. Increasing it to at least 20Gb offered good improvement, and increasing it to 50Gb offered considerable improvement. The improvement was a bit better on the SSD, however given the value of SSD space, I again moved the cache off onto a normal HDD. The performance gains are still evident, and I'm quite happy using LR with all of its data on a normal hard drive.

It should be noted that SSD's come in a very BROAD range of speeds and capabilities. Some are fairly slow relative to an HDD (which can usually offer around 60mb/s burst rates), where as some are insanely fast. SSD burst rates can range from as low as around 100mb/s or even lower for really cheap drives, to as high as 700mb/s or even more for highly specialized designs...such as those that fit into a PCI-E slot. Some SSD's include built-in high-speed secondary caches, some have better data distribution algorithms that optimize read or write speeds, etc. All these factors can affect whether an SSD might show a significant improvement for Lightroom performance or not. Lightroom generally stores the working image in memory, so if you are worried about single-image development speed, an SSD is not going to help much. The performance gains that can be realized from faster storage drive speeds happen when moving between files, performing multi-file operations, etc. The bottom line is...the more money you are willing to spend for better SSD technology and faster burst rate, the more likely you are to see an improvement.

  • thanks @jrista, I have never seen the Cache settings before. Any idea if this would work best locally vs Firewire 800 attached drive?
    – cmason
    Jan 13 '12 at 19:04
  • @cmason: It should have an impact regardless. The problem with a small cache is that, when working with a large amount of large files, you thrash the cache. The creates a lot of disk churn, which in turn pretty much defeats the point of the cache in the first place. Increasing the size of the cache by a lot, like to 50Gb, greatly reduces thrashing, which in turn helps performance. I think its pretty logical to conclude that the faster the storage for the cache, the better the overall performance. So storing it on a Firewire drive vs. a normal HDD vs. an SSD will still have a small impact.
    – jrista
    Jan 13 '12 at 19:08
  • Thanks for input. I did some testing, and found that I was more memory and cpu bound than anything. However I did move my cache to 50GB and put it on an external drive.
    – cmason
    Jan 15 '12 at 16:45

A SSD will boost all read and write operations to and from disk. The data transfer rate on a SSD is, depending on the model, between 100MB/s and 500 MB/s, while hard disks provide about 100MB/s. Latency and access times to your data on the disk are massively faster than on a hard disk.

Early SSD models did lose speed the fuller the disk got, current models have clever mechanisms and software algorithms to avoid that.

So, the bottom line is, a Mac with a SSD will start up (i mean boot not just wake up) fast, will launch applications faster (i.e. Lightroom) and open files faster (i.e. images in Lightroom). It will not compute (i.e. apply image manipulations, batch convert RAW files) faster nor will it behave better for high memory consumption (i.e. HDR pano in tiff format).

Although I am an Aperture user, my guess would be that a SSD would only improve your slider issue slightly if at all. The fact that your LR catalog is on an external drive has probably also it's share with your issue (depending if USB, FireWire800 or however it is attached). In your case, I guess RAM is the main bottleneck and since your Mac only makes usage of 3GB RAM max you'd be probably best up to save the cash for a new Mac. Unfortunately a 6 year old computer is - even for a Mac - old in "Computer Age" :-(


The SSD makes a really huge difference on my system but it is a Windows 7 64-bit machine, so the file-system is different from yours.

The thing is I kept the regular HDD for the boot drive and another two (RAID-0) for data (not photos). The SSD is used by Lightroom exclusively :) and it does not have much room left already since I could only afford 240GB but it sustains read and write speeds above 500 MB/s according to the specs.

Previously all the same files were on the RAID-0 and it is night-and-day difference. The most noticeable is with huge files like panoramas. It took several minutes before to load fully and not maybe half a minute.

  • Can you explain what you mean by "The SSD is used by Lightroom exclusively"? Do you mean the catalog, adobe camera raw, image previews, master images, installation of the software, or what mix of the above?
    – dpollitt
    Jan 14 '12 at 22:54
  • I meant only Lightroom uses the SSD because that is where all the image files and catalog is. Lightroom itself is on the single HDD. I am not sure where the cache is, I would imagine with the catalog on the SSD (or does LR use the system drive for that?)
    – Zak
    Jan 15 '12 at 15:15
  • I would suggest looking at that, as moving the camera raw cache to your SSD, and increasing its size should give you a large boost in performance. You can check the location by going to Preferences> File Handling> Camera Raw Cache Settings
    – dpollitt
    Jan 15 '12 at 16:51
  • Strangely, it is set to my RAID-0 but the directory is completely empty. Maybe it only applies if you use RAW.
    – Zak
    Jan 19 '12 at 3:24
  • Yes, this is just for raw images. If you don't use raw images in Lightroom, then you dont need to worry about that folder.
    – dpollitt
    Jan 19 '12 at 3:46

You can run the Activity Monitor (found in Applications > Utilities) to get a feel for what your system is doing. Watch Disk Activity and I bet you'll see that working with Lightroom causes some peaks to appear, but most of the activity is very low at just a few kB/sec. An SSD will speed all of that up, but if you're not sustaining long reads or writes (and with Lightroom you're almost definitely not) it won't really be noticeable.

Hop over to the System Memory tab and you can see your memory usage and get a feel for if you're bumping up against the 3 GB you have. FWIW, I've got a LR catalog with 32k photos and typically see about 1 GB of use from LR; I often have to close Firefox to have everything run smoothly.

  • 1
    Thanks, I did do that, but found an even better tool: I ran Instruments, (Developer/Applications/Instruments, part of XCode) which provides even better info on exactly what is causing bottlenecks. In my case, it was system memory, as I was immediately filling the virtual cache. Disappointing
    – cmason
    Feb 15 '12 at 16:33
  • I did not know about Instruments before, being just an XCode dilettante. Thank you!
    – Michael H.
    Feb 15 '12 at 18:11

Hmm, a difficult question - but I have a suspicion that in your case it might not help.

First of all, I'm a Windows user and view Macs as evil, but still - I shall try to be objective.

On my laptop I switched my HDD for an Intel SSD (fast on small random reads and writes - these are more important than sequential reads and writes which mainly make for nice specifications and little else) and Photoshop (which sometimes uses large temp files) became a fair bit faster at some tasks. Adobe Bridge possibly also did when it comes to opening Photographs in CameraRAW - and for all intents and purposes Bridge and Lightroom are similar, but Lightroom adds the catalog and "in house" conversion to JPEG which Bridge delegates to Photoshop. Overall, the performance with CS4 (CameraRAW 5) is fine on a 32Bit OS, 2,5GHz Core2Duo with 3GB of usable RAM, editing 21MP RAW files from a Canon 5D MK II.

Now I tried Photoshop CS5 - after a new OS install because I broke my OS (yes, my fault - nothing wrong with Windows otherwise), so if anything it should have run well. Well, it ran worse than CS4 ever did. Slower and laggier.

What I suspect has happened is, that Adobe piles on functions, which while they make the software more powerful, also make it a lot more laggy. It really should not have run worse, considering that I would happily edit files in batches on CameraRAW 5 and got immediate feedback, but it did... Where does the SSD come into this? The answer is, it doesn't. The file that you are currently editing should reside in the RAM - or rather a copy of it. The most you will be writing while changing setting is metadata or an external .xmp file. There is no need for access to the harddrive.

So there is no apparent reason for the worse performance, other than more overhead in the Adobe Software.

Ironically enough though, by 2010, the changes from 2008 had not been too significant in the area of computing, at least on most mainstream machines, and my laptop was fairly powerful for 2008.

What I deduct from that is, that most likely Adobe as just piled in too many functions with too few optimizations into the newer version. This would happen on any OS - Windows, the apple OS etc.

As a result I highly suspect that if you have issues changing settings on individual images, the overhead in Lightroom 3 is just too much for your computer and an older version of Lightroom would possibly work better.

  • 4
    Not really sure what the point was with all the rambling, but I don't think there is actually an answer in here. I recommend getting rid of all the windows vs. mac crud, eliminate the rambling, and just provide a targeted answer that explains whether an SSD can or cannot help the situation.
    – jrista
    Jan 14 '12 at 18:02
  • @jrista: He wrotes Lightroom 3 is too much. Better use Lightroom 2. Difficult to understand?
    – Micromega
    Jan 14 '12 at 19:24
  • @jrista - as David has correctly pointed out. I suspect Lightroom 3 is too "bloated" to run well on an older computer and laid out my argument from my experience. Also, in terms of "Windows vs. Mac" - there is exactly one line where I mentioned it, the one where I state that I use Windows and dislike Macs, that's it. It helps if one actually reads.
    – DetlevCM
    Jan 14 '12 at 19:39
  • @DetlevCM: I would dispute that LR2 is faster than LR3. LR3 has had quite a few performance improvements made over the previous versions, and the software is by no means "bloated". The app has a custom UI, however that has been the case since version 1, and while that does impose a bit of a drag, its not significant enough to be too slow with a 2Ghz Core 2 Duo when there is hardware graphics. The most significant hardware issue with the OP's computer is the limited memory, however increasing the CameraRAW cache should help alleviate drag caused by that.
    – jrista
    Jan 14 '12 at 21:43
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    @Imre: CameraRAW relies heavily on a disk cache, so disk access most definitely DOES play a role. Saying that the SSD does not factor inti the equation at all is simply incorrect. I also do not believe that Adobe has piled on a ton of features that would slow down successive versions of Lightroom...on the contrary, as far as I can tell, Adobe has primarily been refining their algorithms to produce better results and function faster. So I don't think this answer is particularly accurate, and it did spend a fair amount of time noting the "worthiness" of Windows, which entirely beside the point.
    – jrista
    Jan 15 '12 at 0:02

Since you are on Mac and I'm on Linux I recommend to change some kernel options. In Linux factory options is very slow and not good for a practical usage. I wouldn't understimate a good kernel tweaking and I would doubt if a SSD would help a lot. The newest conventional hard disk is a terabyte 2"5 factor and has only 2 splatter and therefore the bits sits really tight. Hence a terabyte or a hybrid disk is maybe the better choice. But I recommend you to buy more ram!!! That would help a lot and there is a good chance that you can install more ram. I don't know about Mac Os but in Linux you can install a 64 bit version that can use more memory then the 4GB limit. I recently upgraded a 2008 pc laptop to 6GB ram and every source was saying it isn't working. Hence don't trust the media and try it yourself and ram isn't very expensive.

  • I wish I could add RAM, but my model Mac only supports 3GB, due to the chipsets.
    – cmason
    Jan 14 '12 at 22:48
  • @cmason: It's usually the bios and the os that can make a difference. With 3GB you can add 3x 4GB so-dimm hence it makes sense to try this first. It's cheaper then a SSD. But check your kernel settings it can work also in some cases. Or install Linux. Then I can help you more. If you buy a SSD you must consider that it can be faster then your chipset, That doesn't hurt that much but I wouldn't expect wonders especially they are expensive and the capacity is small compared to a conventional hard disk.
    – Micromega
    Jan 15 '12 at 1:58
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    this is a limit of the hardware, it can not be updated in firmware (bios) or the OS. This limit was removed in later iMacs when they changed chips used...and RAM got cheaper. Adding more memory won't help as only 3GB is accessible, and others have found adding more memory can lead to instability. Sadly, some newer Macs have been found to 'unofficially' support more memory, but mine is not one of those. : support.apple.com/kb/HT2821
    – cmason
    Jan 15 '12 at 16:12
  • @cmasom: Why this downvote?
    – Micromega
    Jan 15 '12 at 22:28
  • @cmason: In Windows there is an option /pae it can be enabled to use the memory above 3GB for a ram disk because Windows 32 Bit can use only 3GB either. I've looked a bit for Mac but I didn't found anything. Maybe you are out of luck and it's a hardware problem. I can only repeat that my box didn't meant to load 4GB+ either.
    – Micromega
    Jan 15 '12 at 23:31

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