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Understand The Lightroom Catalog System in 10 Minutes

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Taking control of your image files and the Lightroom catalog is fundamental to achieving a good workflow in the program. However, it’s not uncommon to come across people who have been using Lightroom for months or years without having a clue where their photos are actually located. Invariably, their filing system is bloated and disorganized with many subfolders that each contain only a few photos.
It’s easily possible to use Lightroom’s default suggestions for folder names and locations. You can then jump straight to the more interesting subject of image editing. This is all well and good until something goes wrong. Taking the trouble to set up a well-organised filing structure (or to tidy up a messy one), is an important step.
Organising your files will be a huge help if you ever want to access photos from outside Lightroom. Or if you want to backup your photos and share them with others.

Organizing Photos in Lightroom

When it comes to organising photos in Lightroom, it’s important to understand that there are two main factors to consider—the Lightroom catalog and the photos themselves.
These are completely separate entities. This article will help you understand what a Lightroom catalog is and how it works. You’ll then be more efficient when it comes to organising your photos.

The Lightroom Catalog

As you may know if you are familiar with software, the Lightroom catalog is an SQLite database. If the term ‘database’ means little to you, it’s helpful to regard it as a box of index cards similar to the type you might have encountered in an old-fashioned public library or art gallery.
Every painting has a corresponding card in the tray that contains details about the properties and location of the painting to which it refers.
Each painting is unique but in theory, a gallery might have more than one tray of index cards, some of which may reference the same painting.
The tray itself might be located in the same room as the paintings but it doesn’t have to be. It could be located in a different room, building, or country and still tell you where the master paintings are located.

Understanding the Lightroom catalog: Visual analogy showing index cards referring to actual visual works and comparing them to Lightroom catalog
The Lightroom catalog is like a tray of index cards each effectively ‘pointing to’ a master painting.

Individual cards within the tray could be replicated and modified in various ways – the entire tray may be replicated if needed or maybe a selection of cards could be copied and stored in a new tray without affecting  the actual paintings at all.
In the same way, you can move, copy and rename Lightroom catalogs without affecting the photos to which they refer.
In the illustration above, note that the cards contain a JPEG thumbnail of their corresponding photo not the photo itself.
This means that the whole catalog is much smaller than the sum of the photos it references and can easily be stored on your computer’s main internal hard drive.

How Many Catalogs do I Need?

When you open Lightroom for the first time, it’ll prompt you to make a new catalog and you’ll be able to specify the catalog name and location there and then.
By default, Lightroom puts the catalog on your computer’s main internal hard drive in the ‘Pictures’ folder.
I have come across instances of people making a new catalog every time they import some photos. This is very bad practice as it will make it nearly impossible to search your entire photo collection effectively.
Lightroom can only have one catalog open at any time. And it only knows about the photos referenced in the currently open catalog.
You could, for example, have a different catalog for every individual country you’ve visited. But if you wanted to find all photos you’d ever taken of lakes and waterfalls, you’d have to laboriously open each catalog, search for the appropriate photos and then open the next catalog, search again and so on until you’d been through all your catalogs.
In addition, any presets you’d set up in one catalog would not carry over to the other catalogs. Any publish services you use would need to be set up separately for each individual catalog.
Earlier versions of Lightroom used to slow down when the catalog was asked to handle over 10,000 photos and so people often made several smaller catalogs rather than one large catalog in order to keep things running faster.
This is no longer such an issue and the advantages of being able to search all your photos from a single catalog far outweigh any perceived performance benefits.
Although juggling multiple Lightroom catalogs can be a chore, there are instances where managing a few separate catalogs makes sense, for example:

  1. Private/Commercial – If you take photos for clients on a regular basis it makes sense to separate them from your family photos – that way, you’ll never have to look at pictures of heavy industrial valves or medical equipment while scanning for photos of your kids.
  2. Special Events – Weddings, concerts and other events where you’re likely to take many hundreds of photos of essentially the same subject matter also lend themselves to a unique catalog. You can archive it together with its master photos.
  3. Timelapse and Stacking – Those familiar with astrophotography or making timelapse movies will know that the final result is often the product of thousands of very similar images. These can be much more efficiently handled using their own catalog.

Getting Catalog Info

In order to see where your currently active catalog is, go to the menu and select Lightroom > Catalog Settings… on a Mac or File > Catalog Settings… on a PC. This will pop open the Catalog Settings dialogue box:

Understanding the Lightroom catalog: Catalog settings showing size and location of current backup
The size and location of your currently active catalog.

This shows the name of the folder in which the catalog will be stored and the chosen file name with the suffix .lrcat (for lightroom catalog).
This particular catalog references around 20,000 raw photos. But it nly takes just over 800 MB of the available hard drive. This is over 600 times smaller than the total space taken by the photos themselves.
Under the ‘Backup’ section, you can set how often Lightroom backs up your catalog (Note: Lightroom does not back up your actual photos—just the catalog).
Click the ‘Show’ button and Lightroom will take you to the catalog’s parent folder using your computer’s filing system.

Understanding the Lightroom catalog: Example of checking for superfluous backups in folders
Check regularly for superfluous backups!

In this case, the Lightroom folder that contains the catalog called MainCC-2.lrcat aso contains a subfolder created by Lightroom called ‘Backups’.
Twirling the disclosure triangle open shows a number of other subfolders named by their creation date. Within each of these, is a copy of the catalog at the time you made the backup.
In the Catalog Settings box, I set the ‘Back up catalog:’ option to ‘Once a week, when exiting Lightroom’. This means that Lightroom will pester you to allow it make a backup catalog once per week. You can skip the backup when asked. If you let Lightroom proceed, it will add another folder containing another copy of the current catalog.
If you’ve set Lightroom to backup each time it closes, this list of backups can grow quite long surprisingly quickly. For example, if your catalogs are several hundred MB each, the accumulation of disk space can be somewhat alarming.
It’s unlikely that you’ll ever need more than two backup copies so check the Backups folder regularly and delete all but the most recent one or two.

Changing Where Your Catalog Backups Are Stored

By default, your current catalog and the backup copies, are both stored under the same parent folder. They are bothboth on the same drive. This protects against the odd corrupt catalog. But if the drive on which the catalog resides fails, you lose the backups too.
For this reason, some people feel more comfortable having their catalog backup on a different drive to their main catalog.
The Catalog Settings panel doesn’t have a place to set the location of future backups directly so here are the steps to change your backup location:

  1. From the ‘Back up catalog:’ drop-down, select ‘When Lightroom next exits’
  2. Exit Lightroom
  3. Select the Choose button and select a new location from the resulting navigation dialogue box.
Understanding the Lightroom catalog: Selecting a destination for catalog backup
You can select a destination for the catalog backup when the backup dialogue is active using the ‘Choose’ button.

Moving and Renaming your Catalog

If you want to move your catalog or rename it, first make sure Lightroom is not using it. Then simply move or rename the file ending .lrcat as you would rename any other file. Double-clicking the file will open Lightroom using that catalog just as it did before.
If you open Lightroom using the normal icon, it will try to find the catalog at the last known location. If it can’t find it, a pop-up message will ask you if you want to locate the catalog, use the default catalog or make a new one.
To use multiple catalogs, you can use the general preferences dialogue box to select which catalog Lightroom will open by default:

Understanding the Lightroom catalog: Selecting a Lightroom catalog
Selecting a Lightroom catalog.

Most people leave this selected to ‘Load most recent catalog’. But you can have Lightroom prompt you each time it opens. Or you can have it always default to a chosen named catalog.

Recommended Practice

It’s generally a good idea to aim to work with just one catalog initially rather than making various different catalogs for different subjects.
A single catalog may be all you ever need. If at some time in the future you find you need to move a few hundred photos to a new catalog, you can simply export your selected photos as a new catalog. And then remove them from your main catalog.

The Master Photos

The Lightroom catalog keeps track of real image files on your hard drive(s).
These will be either JPEG, RAW, DNG, TIFF, PSD, MOV or MPEG4. Of these, only JPEG is small enough to store directly on your main computer.
The other file types contain much more information and consequently take up more space on your computer. This is an important consideration and proper file management must take into account the space needed to store your photos.

File Space Allocation

Most computers, be they laptops or desktop machines, have one main drive with perhaps a secondary drive. The main drive of your computer probably contains a folder called ‘Documents’. This is where you save your correspondence and spreadsheets. It also has another folder called, for example, ‘My Pictures’. This is where you might naturally store photos you’ve downloaded from your camera.
It’s easy to just keep adding more and more files to these folders. But your computer will begin to slow down and eventually crash. This is because the main drive doesn’t contain only your documents and photos. It also houses essential software and other resources needed to make it work.
It’s important to keep an eye on your computer’s main drive space as it needs spare capacity to work properly.
Fortunately, it’s easy to check your disk space using Lightroom. In fact, you can and should complete all the operations you might need for your Lightroom setup from within Lightroom.
Let’s start by checking your free space.

Understanding the Lightroom catalog: Folders panel showing free space on each drive
You can configure the folders panel to show the amount of free space on each drive.

When you imported your photos into Lightroom, they will either have already been in a folder on your computer or they will have been copied into a folder.
In either case, that folder and the drive on which it resides, will be visible under the Folders panel on the left hand side of the Library module. If you can’t see these panels in the Library view, tap the TAB key → |.
Twirling open the disclosure triangle on the Folders panel will show you all the drives and folders that Lightroom knows about.
In the screenshot above, drives appear as bars. They have a (usually) green light on their left and a black arrow on their right. You can twirl it open or closed to show the folders on that drive.
Just in front of the arrow, you may see some optional information regarding the drive in question. If you right-click the bar, you can select what information appears. In this example, I selected ‘Disk Space’. It provides a continuous readout of total disk space and the amount still available for use.
The space status light shows a more graphic but less precise indication of disk availability. This changes colour according to the amount of free space available on the drive. The colour meanings according to Adobe are as follows:

  • Green: At least 10 GB  remaining.
  • Yellow: Less than 10 GB  remaining.
  • Orange: Less than 5 GB remaining.
  • Red: Less than 1 GB remaining.

If you’re still storing your images on your computer’s main hard drive,  the ‘green light’ is not necessarily good. 10 GB of remaining space on a 1 TB drive is equivalent to saying your disk is 99% full! It’s generally safer to look at the numerical indication of space remaining.
Remember that your computer’s main drive also holds the operating system. It needs spare capacity for ‘swapping’ memory and loading various resources. For this reason, it’s best to have an external USB drive to store photos and videos exclusively. This way, you’ll have plenty of space on your computer’s main drive.
Now you know what the Lightroom catalog is, how many you need and where it should be located. You’re ready to start organising photos.

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