Photoshop’s Hidden Gem Revealed: How to Save Large Files in Seconds, Not Minutes

It’s no secret that with each new camera release, we’re seeing more megapixels, increased dynamic range and overall more information in our files. So what does that mean for professional photographers and retouchers who are working in the field today?

It means that while we have much more information and latitude in our files, we also have much larger files sizes. When working in Photoshop these days, it’s not uncommon that your PSD files to turn into PSB files (Photoshop’s Large File Format). In recent months, I’ve found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with Adobe Photoshop CC for various reasons, more specifically, with the amount of time it takes to both open and save files. As it turns out, I’m not the only one. 

Does A Faster Hard Drive Give You Faster Performance in Photoshop?

The short answer is yes and no as I’ll explain further in this article. As part of my workflow, I primarily work off of external hard drives as a lot of creatives often do. When you have terabytes of files, it just makes sense. Over a period of time, I started becoming increasingly aware of the insane amount of time it was taking me just to open and save files in Photoshop. In fact, out of my entire retouching workflow, this was the most dreadful part of working on any given job. Despite having a pretty fast computer with the some of the latest hardware, I still found myself waiting an uncomfortably long time for my PSD and PSB files to both open and save in Photoshop. There had to be a solution to this problem and I was determined to find it. 

Initial Testing

I began running a series of tests to see how I might be able to improve my performance when working with large files in Photoshop. Being that my main machine is an iMac and I’m unable to easily upgrade anything outside of the RAM, I thought that it would make sense to start with the external hard drives that I was using, and after all, that's where all of my files are stored. We all know that SSD drives have much faster read and write speeds than traditional HDDs. There’s no shortage of ways to test this theory. In fact, you can download free software that helps you benchmark read and write speeds. You can also do practical real world tests like transferring files from one drive to another. 

First things first, I went out and purchased several external hard drives spanning from RAID 0 HDDs to SSDs, each with various read and write speeds. I also wanted to test different connections like thunderbolt 2, thunderbolt 3 and USB 3. Lastly, I also wanted to test the internal fusion drive on my iMac as well as my internal SSD drive on my MacBook Pro.  

Not The Results I Expected

In order to keep consistency between these tests, I opened the same exact file on each of these hard drives. The faster the read and write speeds are on the hard drive, the faster the files should both open and save inside of Photoshop. Makes sense right? The first PSD file that I tested was 2.14GB in size. The results were not at all what I had expected. I found that regardless of which hard drive I used, this particular file took 1 minute and 20 seconds to open. That’s right, the same exact amount of time, each and every time, regardless of whether I was using the super fast internal SSD on my MacBook Pro or a RAID 0 HDD using a USB 3 connection on my iMac. It’s almost as if this information was baked into the file. Again, that was just to open the file, saving the file took even longer.

What Gives?

Given the circumstances of my results, I consulted with many of my friends who know a lot more about computer hardware than I do. Each of them gave me mixed answers. I eventually came to the conclusion that this had to be a software issue, not a hardware issue. The bottleneck had to be Adobe Photoshop, not necessarily the hard drives that I was using. Just to be sure, I called Apple, Western Digital, and Adobe to see if I could get some answers. After talking with all 3 companies over a phone call, nobody had an answer, not even Adobe themselves. 

Needless to say, I was getting discouraged. I had spent countless hours experimenting with some of fastest hard drives money can buy; internal, external, using USB 3, and even thunderbolt technology. I couldn’t figure out why Photoshop was taking so long to open and save files. Why is it that having faster hard drives did absolutely nothing when it comes to opening and saving files inside of Photoshop? 

The Solution

After all of this testing and no clear solution to my problem, I had almost given up. Eventually an architectural photographer by the name of Mark Den Hartog who’s in my private Facebook group for “The Hero Shot,” told me about this checkbox in the preference menu that completely changed the way I’m currently working inside of Photoshop! If you want to see a significant performance increase in Photoshop’s abilities to open and save files, go into the preferences menu and select the File Handling tab. At the bottom of this tab is a checkbox that reads "Disable Compression of PSD and PSB Files.” This checkbox will change your life! 

Equipped with this new information, I did some additional research. According to a source that I found online (Mac Performance Guide) Photoshop uses a "slow single CPU core operation" when saving compressed files. By default, Photoshop uses this compression method when saving files. Adding compression to PSD and PSB files means smaller file sizes, which in turn take up less space on your hard drive. However, the problem is that it’s really slow and takes way too long to complete this task. This article also suggested Disabling Compression of PSD and PSB files.  

Real World Results

Below are some real world test results from a single file that I tested, first with compression turned on and then with compression disabled. (Please note, this is not the same file that I tested in the video above - So I recommend watching the video as well). 

Hero-Shot-Test.psb (5.38GB file size With Photoshop Compression On)

Time it takes to open:

  • Time it takes to open: iMac w/external HDD Raid 0 Drive - USB 3 - 54 seconds 

  • Time it takes to open: iMac w/external SSD Drive - USB 3 - 49 seconds

  • Time it takes to open: MacBook Pro Internal SSD - 48 seconds

Time it takes to save:

  • Time it takes to save: iMac w/external HDD Raid 0 Drive - USB 3 - 3:49

  • Time it takes to save: iMac w/external SSD Drive - USB 3 - 3:28

  • Time it takes to save: MacBook Pro Internal SSD - 3:52

Hero-Shot-Test-uncompressed.psb (9.7GB file size With Photoshop Compression Disabled)

Time it takes to open:

  • Time it takes to open: iMac w/external HDD Raid 0 Drive - USB 3 - 50 seconds 

  • Time it takes to open: iMac w/external SSD Drive - USB 3 - 36 seconds

  • Time it takes to open: MacBook Pro Internal SSD - 13 seconds!

Time it takes to save:

  • Time it takes to save: iMac w/external HDD Raid 0 Drive - USB 3 - 1:40

  • Time it takes to save: iMac w/external SSD Drive - USB 3 - 47 seconds 

  • Time it takes to save: MacBook Pro Internal SSD - 1:18 

The Pros

Disabling compression of PSD and PSB files will increase your speed significantly because Photoshop is now skipping the process of compression (the bottleneck). With compression disabled, you will now see an increase in speed. The amount of speed increase will be dependent on how fast your hard drive is. Typically you will find faster speeds by utilizing internal drives, especially SSD. Disabling compression also increases the speed of auto saves that Photoshop performs in the background. 

The Cons

The only caveat that I have found using this method is that file sizes are significantly increased. This means your files will now take up much more space on your hard drive.

The DPC Workflow (Disabled Photoshop Compression)

Significantly speed up your workflow by disabling Photoshop compression while you’re actively working on files. When compression is disabled, you’ll see a huge performance increase when opening and saving files. Keep in mind, the amount of speed increase you see, will be dependent on the hard drive you're using. For example, a fast internal SSD should yield the best results. Once you’re finished retouching and you’ve exported all of your final files for client delivery, simply turn compression back on in order to compress the file and save on hard drive space.

If you don’t want to go into the Photoshop Preferences each and every time you want to turn this feature on and off, simply make a Photoshop Action and assign a keyboard shortcut for quicker access. You’ll want to make an action for each; one action for turning on compression and one action for disabling compression. Adobe has also created a plugin that you can access here:

Conclusion: What I’ve Learned From My Research

At the time of writing this article and in my experience, I have found that regardless of how much money I chose to spend on faster hard drives, I did not see any performance increase in Photoshop when file compression was turned on. To reiterate, compression is turned on by default. If you really want to take advantage of the faster read and write speeds that your hard drives may offer, be sure to disable compression of PSD and PSB files. 

I’ll admit, I was skeptical when I first learned about this Disable Compression checkbox. When I saw that my file sizes began bloating up significantly, I said to myself “Nope. Can’t do it. Those files are way too large.” I had files reaching 20GB in size! It wasn’t until I gave it another chance and completed an entire job utilizing the Disable Compression checkbox that I really integrated it into my workflow. The speed increase and the efficiency that it provided had won me over and I really saw the value in using it. Since that time, I've adjusted my workflow so that any current jobs I’m working on now live on my internal drive of my Mac (my fastest drive) until the job is complete. Once the job is completed, the files then get compressed and transferred to an external drive for cataloging and archiving.

Look, I’m not a programmer. I’m a commercial photographer and digital artist who uses Photoshop extensively. I have mad respect for the software engineers and programmers who make these products possible. But I have to say, I’m looking forward to a day when the team at Adobe offers a compression method that both saves on hard drive space and matches the speed of the disabled compression checkbox... PSB support in Lightroom would be great as well.

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the video above!

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Previous comments
Spy Black's picture

"Photoshop uses a "slow single CPU core operation" when saving compressed files."

Probably legacy code in PS that Adobe is too lazy to update, simply because they know they don't have to give a fuck. All sorts of ancient code is scattered around PS, probably Illustrator too, although I'm not a user of that program.

I freelance in environments where I don't have a say in such things, but writing PS files from a Mac over a network (to a Mac server, no less) is a test of your patience. That server is already taxed for storage, so I suspect this idea wouldn't fly too well there.

Brian Rodgers Jr.'s picture

Spy Black, writing files over a network can definitely take longer to transfer and save files. Maybe give this technique a try though, who knows, it might save faster over a network than the default compression. I'll have to give this a try myself as well.

Dave Fisher's picture

You may just have solved a huge problem for me - I’m only an amateur but I composite many layers and continuously run into file size problems a., when saving and b., whilst working. Often it becomes obvious things are happening in the background of the computer that I cannot identify - you made me realise this is probably auto-save, and using smart objects is guaranteed to eventually grind things to a halt. Uncompressed here I come! Many thanks.

Brian Rodgers Jr.'s picture

Awesome Dave Fisher, that's what I like to hear! As a commercial photographer working professionally in the field, this Photoshop issue has become a huge frustration for me and has literally cost me money in buying new hard drives as well as taken me many hours to finally find a solution. I knew I wasn't the only person having this issue. Thanks for the comment and I really glad to hear that this is helping you out! Cheers!

Edward De Bruyn's picture

Thank you for sharing this, of great help and will be my way to go. Lightroom is my preferred program and so I’ve another question since I like to make pano’s made of vertical shots (with the Sony A7r4 now) .
But I’ve trouble for finding back my assembled panorama files. They are simply not visible in LR like you mentioned before.
So even without layers they are most of the time greater than 2 Gb and often 4 Gb (certainly now).
Made already a directory named “big files” where I can keep them. But even then found myself reassembling the same panorama twice…
Came around with another idea to simply keep a smaller Jpeg file (1000px high) with a huge inscription on it: “See PSB big file” in the original directory.
Or is there another possibility thank you for any help.

Brian Rodgers Jr.'s picture

Thanks for the comment Edward De Bruyn! Overtime, I've created my own workflow and folder structure that I use consistently throughout any job that I'm working on. When it comes to PSB files, it's really unfortunate that LR doesn't support Adobes own format. It's a long overdue update that Adobe needs to make.

Here's what I do for PSBs:
What I typically do inside LR is create a folder somewhere inside of my project folder structure called PSBs. I do this inside of LR, because then the folder itself will show up in LR. If I make this folder outside of LR at the system level of your computer's OS, LR will not see this folder. So it's important to create this folder in LR so you know that it's there. Anytime I have a PSB file that I need to save from PS, I'll put it in the PSB folder. Even though the PSB folder in LR will have a "0" next to it and look like there aren't any files in there, I know that there are.

When I'm in LR, I simply right click on the PSB folder, and choose "Show in Finder" This will open a new window on Mac OS showing me the PSB folder. I simply double click on that folder to show all of my PSB files. If you're on a windows computer, you'll probably just right click and choose "show in explorer."

As far as your panos go, if you're creating the pano in LR and it creates a DNG file, I'm not sure why it wouldn't show up in LR. I shoot with the Sony A7R2, and I've stitched plenty of really large panos together and have never had any issues with a DNG pano showing up.

Hopefully this helps!

Joseph Heil's picture

I also use Lightroom and I normally save everything as an uncompressed tiff file (I didn't realize there was an option to turn off compression for PSDs and PSBs) but I run into the 4GB problem when working with composites.

When I hit the 4GB limit I save as a PSB. I found this PS/LR work around documented by Sean Bagshaw / Joost Daniels that addresses the issue in an elegant enough fashion.

Brian Rodgers Jr.'s picture

Thanks for the info Joseph. I never use TIFFs. I usually just stick with PSB and PSD files. I'd say 95% of the time I'm creating uncompressed PSB files. TIFFs are limited to 4GB in size, and my files are always larger than that. So PSBs just make sense. That being said, I also make semi flattened final images and save them as compressed PSDs so I can easily access them in LR. If I need to go back to my master files (PSBs) I use the Lightroom tip that I mentioned above.

Though I haven't tried it yet, I have actually stumbled onto this video before. I'm familiar with this linked smart object workflow for building files, however, I've never used it for the purposes of viewing them in LR. I'll have to give this a try and see how it fits into my workflow.