Should I have a single Lightroom Classic catalog, or should I have more than one?

That was the first question I asked back in 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 15,000 images before the 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 Classic catalog?

Adobe describes a Lightroom Classic 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 Classic, 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 Classic never changes the actual photos captured by your camera. In this way, editing in Lightroom Classic is non-destructive. 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 child’s portraits. One catalog was sufficient until I started working with models.

My modeling assignments ranged from simple headshots 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 Classic, I changed the default preference, load the most recent catalog to prompt me when starting Lightroom Classic found by clicking on Edit > Preferences. Then click the General tab. This gave me the option to open the correct catalog and to avoid embarrassment.

Flaws with multiple Lightroom Classic 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 Classic 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 become complicated. For my workflow, this flaw sealed my decision to switch to a single catalog.

The single Lightroom Classic catalog solution

Lightroom catalogs

Since I switched to a single catalog solution, my Lightroom Classic experience has become effortless. After a photoshoot, I fire up Lightroom Classic, create a new folder and import my images. Create a collection set of my favorite edited images then upload them to places like SmugMug, Facebook and the Photofocus Community.

To solve my modeling dilemma, I created two new folders — adult models and children models. I created subfolders with the names of the models under the appropriate folder. Now when I browse for a model in front of a client, age-inappropriate images are hidden.

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