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Understanding Lightroom catalogs

Remember back in our school days, when we had to look up something in our school’s library? We relied on the Dewey Decimal System, basically a reference that told us where in the library to find a specific book we were looking for. We knew that all our favorite photography books, for instance, were in the 600-699 range — within the Fine Arts and Recreation category.

Well, a photo catalog is kind of like a modern version of that. If you use Lightroom Classic, there are a few things to take into account when it comes to importing and managing your library of images. If you use another catalog-based tool like Luminar, these points are applicable as well.

What is a catalog?

What you have to know before you start using a catalog, is that it’s just a reference point. It points to the image files that you have on your computer. Your Lightroom catalog does not store the images anymore that the library’s card catalog had books in it. The books were on the shelf. The card catalog pointed to them.

Think of a catalog like your school’s library. Inside that are various folders and collections that you can create — these would be the Dewey Decimal System categories. A Lightroom catalog, then, let you “see” inside these folders and collections, and also lets you edit images and evaluate information about them — EXIF, keywords and other metadata.

What a catalog isn’t

Again, catalogs do not store your images. Your photographs do not live inside Lightroom — they are wherever you told Lightroom to put them when you imported them (assuming you used the Copy option, discussed below) or where they are when you told Lightroom to Add them.

So even after you finish importing your images into Lightroom, do not delete them off your hard drive. When Lightroom was introduced, a professional photographer called my managing editor here at Photofocus and told him how happy he was. He said he could not believe how small the Lightroom catalog was. He was happy because he now had a lto more hard drive space after deleting his original files. Needless to say his happiness turned to dispair when he was told there are no photographs in Lightroom. 

Importing images

If you haven’t already read my walk-through of the different import options for Lightroom Classic, click here.

When it comes to importing your images, in almost every case I’d recommend using the Copy option in Lightroom Classic. Insert a memory card into the card reader, and then Lightroom copies each file chosen from the card on to the hard drive. Once the import process is completely finished and you confirm that the files now live on my hard drive, you can eject the SD card and format it in-camera. I suggest you wait until you have made a backup of the hard drive to be sure.

The other three options — Copy as DNG, Move and Add — I use sparingly. Copy as DNG is essentially the same option as Copy, but it converts the file into Adobe’s open DNG format that ignores special data that each manufacturer writes into their flavor of RAW file. With Move, I use this if I have images in a different directory that I want to move elsewhere. As for the Add option — this is something I use when I am working with an image I don’t want to hold on to long-term (or someone else’s images). This lets me keep the photos separate from the rest of my images, work on them, export them and then remove the folder from my catalog when I’m finished.

Let Lightroom do the work for you

The power of Lightroom is unprecedented, as it can handle all of your file management needs when it comes to images. Instead of changing file and folder names using Finder or Windows Explorer, do these tasks through Lightroom. This will ensure that images will stay linked in your catalog and that they won’t appear as missing. Changing something outside of Lightroom using the Finder or Windows Explorer is like rearranging the furniture in a blind person’s home and not telling them where things are.

Upon import, you can tell Lightroom where to copy your images, if they should be named anything in particular if they should be in a subdirectory and more. It’s a really powerful tool when it comes to keeping your images organized. You can change all these options after your images are imported, too, as Lightroom allows you to rename files, rename folders and even move folders around.

Catalogs are great tools to manage your images. While they help you import, edit, organize and more, it’s important to know what catalogs won’t do — mainly, they don’t store your images for you.

Common questions

Q: What if I accidentally move or rename the folders on my hard drive?
A: The neat thing about Lightroom, is that it won’t remove the previews or folders from its interface if you move or rename your folders or images. Instead, it’ll grey them out, and you won’t be able to edit your images. If this happens, you can right-click on the folder in your Library module and click Locate folder… to point Lightroom to the new location of that folder.

Q: What about backups? Doesn’t Lightroom back up my images every week?
A: No! The backup prompt you get weekly when exiting Lightroom is simply backing up your catalog. It’s making a backup of how your catalog looks, how it’s organized, etc. Backing up through Lightroom does not allow you to delete your images from your hard drive.

Q: I don’t have enough space on my computer. Are you sure I can’t delete images from my hard drive?
A: In this case, I’d recommend you pick up an external hard drive to hold your images. Until you move your files from your internal hard drive to your external hard drive, you should not delete them.

Q: Do I need to backup my images?
A: Absolutely! It’s important to invest in a 3-2-1 backup system. Invest in a second external hard drive or a RAID device like a Drobo, as well as an online backup solution like Backblaze. Again, doing this will not allow you to delete images off the main location that Lightroom is pointed to. Instead, think of backups as a safety net in case anything goes wrong.

Q: What about Lightroom CC?
A: 
Lightroom CC is a different program than Lightroom Classic, and out of the box, your images live in the cloud, meaning they don’t have to live on your computer. While this is a great solution, if you have a large photo library, you end up paying more and more per month for cloud storage.

Want more information about how to organize and manage your Lightroom catalog? Check out our eBook, “Get Organized in Lightroom!”

Lead photo: Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

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