The most confusing aspect of Lightroom for photographers new to Adobe Lightroom Classic is understanding how the Lightroom catalog works. It’s not what you’d expect.
Before we get into the details, here are two very important points to note…
- The Lightroom catalog is separate from your actual photos. The catalog works like a key to find and access your photos, with the edits you applied.
- Lightroom is a non-destructive editing program. So, unlike Photoshop, the edits you make to your photos in the Lightroom catalog are not on the actual image files and the original images remain unchanged. Even though it looks changed when you’re working in Lightroom, what you see are image previews of what your final images will look like on export.
These tips are for Lightroom Classic, the desktop version of Adobe Lightroom. We’ll cover:
- What is a Lightroom catalog?
- Where are Lightroom catalogs stored?
- How do I create a Lightroom catalog?
- Lightroom catalog settings
- Where are Lightroom backup catalogs stored?
- How do I find my Lightroom catalog?
- How many Lightroom catalogs should I use?
1. What is a Lightroom catalog?
A Lightroom catalog is a database for storing and organizing photos to edit in Lightroom’s editing software. On opening, Lightroom asks you to select the catalog you want to use. Editing RAW files in Lightroom is like creating a recipe for how you want your photos to look when you export them. After editing you’ll export the final images from Lightroom for printing, posting online, sending to a client etc. Exported images can be in several file formats, for example JPEG, TIFF or PSD.
(I say RAW images, because if you’re using Lightroom you should shoot in RAW rather than JPEG file format so that you have as much data recorded in each image as possible.)
Think of Lightroom as a digital darkroom.
When you import photos into Lightroom, they’re the digital negative files (DNG) of your RAW images. When you export them, they’re the developed images. Just like when using film negatives in the darkroom to create prints, the original file remains unchanged.
Further reading: How to import photos to Lightroom Classic – ultimate beginners guide
2. Where are Lightroom catalogs stored?
Although the default catalog location is on your computer hard drive, the catalog (a .LRCAT file) can be stored wherever you decide to put it. This may not sound helpful, but bear with me and I’ll explain.
The most important thing to remember about Lightroom catalogs is that your photos are separate from your catalog, even though they can be stored in the same main folder. AND when Lightroom performs a backup of your catalog, only the catalog backs up, NOT your photos.
More on that later.
Computer hard drive
As mentioned, your computer hard drive is the default location of Lightroom catalogs and photos and the “Pictures” folder specifically is the default storage place.
If you work from a desktop computer and don’t ever need to use your catalog on another computer, or while travelling, this is a good option.
You can, however, choose to store the catalog anywhere you want on your computer.
If you decide to put your catalog and images on an external drive, you’ll need to select the drive when you set up your catalog, instead of letting Lightroom go with the default settings.
This is what I do, because I work between two computers and also travel for shoots. Sometimes I’m away for a month at a time, so need to be able to upload my images wherever I am.
Main computer and external drive
You can even put your images on your main computer and just your catalog on an external drive.
You’ll be able to plug the drive into another computer to edit images (as long as the computer has Lightroom), even without connecting the drive to the main computer where your images are stored.
When you next plug your external drive into your main computer, the edits will sync across.
Or you can do it the other way around – images on external drive and catalog on your computer.
If you use Dropbox, Google Drive, or a similar cloud based storage system, you can put your catalog there, but make sure that your photos are stored separately, otherwise it will take a really long time to process photos. Also, create smart previews of your photos so that you don’t need to have them connected to the catalog to edit in Lightroom, and sync them at your first opportunity.
Bear in mind too, that a bad internet connection will dramatically slow you down.
I once made the mistake of loading both catalog and images to Dropbox and it took literally days for all images to upload. There were a lot of photos! Then, when I tried to open the catalog to edit some images, it was so slow that it was unusable. So I had to move everything out of Dropbox and start over.
I use Dropbox for Lightroom catalog backups and photo backups only.
With an Adobe subscription, you also get access to the Creative Cloud for photo storage . Because of the number of photos I work with, and the fact that I have the basic plan, I don’t use this option.
3. How do I create a Lightroom catalog?
Ideally, decide on your photo filing system before you create your first Lightroom catalog. A good folder structure is essential to an efficient workflow.
It’s not a train smash if you’ve already created a catalog without thinking through folder structure, because catalogs can be moved and even imported into other catalogs (but that’s a subject for another time).
Set up your Lightroom catalog before importing photos.
5 steps to create a Lightroom catalog:
- Open Lightroom
- Choose “Create a New Catalog” button from the dialog box
- Another dialog box will open, type the catalog name into the first field marked “Save As”
- Select the destination folder for the catalog on your computer or external hard drive, or let Lightroom store it in the default location (Pictures)
- Click “Create”
- A new folder will be created with the name you gave to the catalog and the catalog will be inside this folder
Or create a new Lightroom catalog when already in an existing catalog
- In the Lightroom menu bar click “File”
- Then click “New Catalog”
- Follow steps 3 – 6 above
4. Lightroom catalog settings
Once you’ve created your Lightroom catalog, take a little time to tweak some of the catalog settings.
In the menu bar at the top click on “Lightroom Classic”, then scroll down and click on “Catalog Settings” to open up the Catalog Settings dialog box.
Lightroom catalog settings – backup
The most important catalog setting is the backup of your Lightroom catalogs to safeguard losing all your hard work if the catalog gets corrupted. Go to the General tab of Catalog Settings.
Your backup frequency will depend on how often you use your catalog – ie how often you edit photos.
You can set it to backup every single time you exit, but you’ll very quickly build up a huge number of backup catalogs. If you don’t regularly delete old backups, you’ll quickly fill up your disk space unnecessarily.
Here are my backup frequency suggestions:
- Editing on a daily basis – backup once a day, when exiting Lightroom
- Editing or adding images on a weekly basis – backup once a week, when exiting Lightroom
To change the backup frequency of your catalog at any time in the catalog settings:
In the General tab of the dialog box you’ll see a field with a blue button, click it to open up your options and select one that suits you.
Or change backup frequency when you close Lightroom and get the “Back Up Catalog” prompt
Remember that Lightroom does a backup of your catalog only.
You must do a separate backup of your photos onto at least one other drive and/or in the cloud. (It’s that important, so I’ve repeated myself.)
Lightroom catalog settings – file handling
File handling is the next tab in the dialog box of Catalog Settings. Here’s where you can streamline Lightroom for a more efficient photography workflow.
When I import images I check the Smart Previews box, so I can work without the actual photos connected. I also select Build 1:1 previews which allows me to view images at 100%.
Because it’s done on import, importing takes a little longer, but it saves time during processing as I won’t have to wait for the full size preview (1:1 preview) to load when I zoom in to each image. Plus, after 30 days (by which time my photos have been edited) 1:1 previews are deleted and I’m left with standard previews, which saves space.
So, if this sounds like a system that would work for you, under the file handling tab, just make sure that 1:1 previews are automatically discarded after 30 days, which is the default setting. And make sure you check the Build 1:1 Previews box when importing.
Or change it to the setting that suits your workflow.
Lightroom catalog settings – metadata
Metadata adds to the image file size (even on export) and catalog size, so use this tab to reduce the amount of data stored for each photo.
Include metadata – this is so useful to have to hand in exported JPEG files when you want to upload your photos to social media and make a comment of your settings. I make sure this box is checked. (Even though I later strip the metadata from images by running them through an image optimiser to reduce file size before uploading to The Lens Lounge.)
GPS coordinates – as a portrait photographer these aren’t important to me, so I ensure these boxes are unchecked. (If I was into landscape or wildlife photography, however, I might want to store this information.)
Detect faces – even as a portrait photographer I don’t feel the need for this, so I uncheck it. If you take lots of photos of your family and you want to be able to use this feature to search through a large catalog of images you might want it.
5. Where are Lightroom backup catalogs stored?
The extremely important point to remember is that your .lrcat backup catalogs absolutely must be stored separately from your master catalog.
What if the drive that your master catalog is on, whether it’s an external drive or your computer’s hard disk, is corrupted? If the catalog backups are in the same place, you lose them too.
Lightroom automatically creates a backup folder the first time you exit Lightroom and select backup.
Your backups will automatically be created in a backup folder, titled “Backups” (surprise!), within the original folder you created for your master catalog. Every time you do a backup a new folder will be created in the backups folder.
It’ll automatically be named according to the date and time the backup is performed and will take the format YYYY-MM-DD HHMM. So a backup performed on 2 March 2022 at 10.06pm will be named 2022-03-02 2206.
Your backup will be a zip file inside this folder and will have the same name as your catalog. The only time you ever need to open the zip file is if your main catalog corrupts. Hopefully this will never happen, but if it does, you’ll be fine.
You don’t need to do anything further – other than to move it to a separate location and, a later date, delete it when it’s been superseded by other backups.
Move catalog backups to a separate location
It’s up to you to create a new folder in a different location and to regularly transfer the latest backup to this folder.
It’s very easy to do – just drag the backup folder containing the backup zip file of the latest backup (not the whole backup folder) to your separate location.
I have a folder in Dropbox for all my catalog backups and it’s (very originally) titled Catalog Backups, so is easy to find.
You should also regularly delete old catalog backups to save space.
I like to keep just three backups of each catalog – the latest, plus the previous two (because I’m paranoid after experiencing 2 hard disk failures and 3 external drive failures).
It’s not a matter of if a hard drive will fail, but when.
6. How do I find my Lightroom catalog?
New Lightroom users often get stuck trying to find where their Lightroom Classic catalog (.lrcat file) is on their computer or hard drive. Understandably it’s quite a panicky moment when you think all your work has disappeared.
Default file location of Lightroom catalog
The default Lightroom catalog location on both a Mac and a Windows computer is in the Pictures folder on your hard drive, which you’ll see when you open a new Finder/Explorer window.
If you’ve created a catalog in a different location, but can’t remember where it is…
4 ways to find your Lightroom catalog file location…
Outside of Lightroom
- The quickest way to search your computer or external hard drive is to open up the search tool and enter .lrcat, to look for a .lrcat file, which is the Lightroom catalog file extension.
- Or enter your catalog name into the search tool.
- If you’re in your Lightroom Classic catalog and wonder where it’s stored, right click on the catalog name in the light gray bar at the top (just below the menu bar). A menu opens showing the path to your catalog location.
- Or click on File / Catalog Settings and in the General tab you’ll see the location details. You can even click on the button “Show” to open up the window to your filing structure, with the Lightroom catalog folder selected.
7. How many Lightroom catalogs should I have?
If you ask in a photography Facebook group how many catalogs you should use, you’ll get several different answers. It’s a common question and some of the systems that people suggest just don’t make sense.
So the short answer is that it depends on you, your workflow and how you like to arrange your photos.
It might be a great editing program, but one of Lightroom’s greatest strengths is that it’s a powerful database for storing photos. So we should make the most of it.
This means that you should have as few Lightroom catalogs as possible to store and find your photos efficiently.
If you create a new catalog for every client/shoot you:
- Have to continually open and close catalogs to access photos, which is time consuming and also increases the backup workload
- Aren’t using the database functionality of Lightroom at all, which includes being able to search for photos by keyword, metadata filters, folders and collections
If you have just a single catalog for all photos:
- Large catalogs can be slow
- Your catalog might eventually require a significant amount of storage space
- If working on different computers, or while travelling, having one huge catalog of all photos on an external drive makes all your work vulnerable to loss, damage and disk corruption. Splitting them up into multiple catalogs removes the risk of losing everything in a single catalog (even if you backup).
My catalog system
After much experimenting, here’s what I’ve found works really well for me:
I create a new catalog each year on an external hard drive (backed up to two different drives). I consider this separate catalog as my “working catalog”.
At the end of the year I import that year’s catalog into a larger catalog, on a different drive, made up of up to 5 years (also backed up to two other places).
I used to have a single catalog for all my archived years, but it became too big, so I split it into 5 year blocks. Here’s why…
- My photos fall into three categories for each year – The Lens Lounge, my photography clients and my personal photos
- I can quickly and easily access photos that are relevant and in use for the current year in my working catalog, which travels with me
- I can quickly and easily access archived photos across several years in my archive catalogs, which I usually leave in my office
Further reading: The best way to organize photos, starting with file naming
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