Should I have a single Lightroom catalog or should I have many? That was the the first question I asked back in July 2006 when I received a beta version of Lightroom. Like many, I was sailing in uncharted waters. At first, someone started a rumor and said Lightroom can handle a maximum of 15 thousand images before performance was affected. Everyone started to repeat that rumor. This caused many, including myself, to split my images into several Lightroom catalogs. Before we begin, let me take a step back for a moment and explain what a catalog is.

What’s a Lightroom Catalog?

Adobe describes a Lightroom catalog as a database that stores a record for each of your photos that contains three key pieces of information about each photo:

  • A reference to where the photo is on your system
  • Instructions for how you want to process the photo
  • Metadata, such as ratings and keywords that you apply to photos to help you find or organize them.

This means when you import photos into Lightroom, you create a link between the photo itself and the record of the photo in the catalog. Then, any work you perform on the photo such as adding keywords or an edit is stored in the photo’s record in the catalog as additional metadata.

Lightroom never changes the actual photos captured by your camera. In this way, editing in Lightroom is nondestructive. You can always return to the original, unedited photo.

A Case for Multiple Catalogs

Being a generalist photographer, my photography spanned a wide range. One week I would photograph a sporting event, the following week a childs portraits. One catalog was sufficient until I started working with models.

My modeling assignments ranged from simple head shots to building their portfolios. Some of these images were not appropriate for all to see. By creating a separate catalog, I could keep these images private. To ensure the Main catalog opened when starting Lightroom, I changed the default preference, Load most recent catalog to Prompt me when starting Lightroom found by clicking on Preference under the Edit menu then click the General tab. This gave me the option to open the correct catalog and to avoid embarrassment.

Flaws with Multiple Catalogs

As Lightroom developed, flaws with multiple catalogs grew, for example…

  • When I searched for an image, I would have to open each catalog, Lightroom can’t span a search across multiple catalogs.
  • Having extra catalogs mean extra catalogs to backup, just one more task to worry about.
  • Sometimes I would become confused and import images into the wrong catalog.
  • When a major update rolls out, all catalogs have to be updated.
  • Synchronizing Publish services such as Facebook and Smugmug Hierarchy become complicated. For my work flow, this flaw sealed my decision to switch to a single catalog.

Single Catalog Solution

Since I switched to a single catalog solution my Lightoom experience has become very simple. After a photo shoot, I fire up Lightroom, create a new folder and import my images. Create a collection set of my favorite edited images then upload them to a publishing service such as SmugMug and Facebook.

To solve my modeling dilemma, I created two new folder, Adult Models and Children Models. I created sub folders with the names of the models under the appropriate folder. Now when I browse for a model in front of a client, age appropriate images are hidden.

Since switching to a single catalog solution, my workflow is fast and simple.