Managing Lightroom Catalogs. New catalogs for each job:

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I‘ve mentioned this technique on the Pro Photo Show podcast, but I felt I should write it down in simple terms since I get questions about it. It’s how I use LR catalogs, and manage my jobs. Today I’m gonna share some power user tips  that can really make your life, and image management easier.

I make a new Lightroom Catalog for each session. That’s right every senior, family, and couple get a catalog made in their honor. Sometimes people think it’s a bit crazy, but usually change their minds. It’s simple management mechanics and if you try it you might just love it. If not you can modify it to fit your needs. Though I use Lightroom, these techniques can also apply to other software.

Most photographers that use Lightroom have one huge catalog that all their images are stored in. They manage those shoots from within that catalog using collections, and the image files are referenced to various drives and directories all over the system. What happens when the disk gets full and images are archived, or when things get moved? The files are now separated from the main catalog. To use them again one has to bring back the files, and/or point LR to the right location.

There’s also the somewhat smaller issue of speed and reliability. Though the programs we have, deal with large amounts of images well, it’s basic math that tells us the bigger a database becomes, the more the system must process. I like portable streamlined catalogs and not having to worry about a huge master catalog getting corrupt. Here’s the two parts that make up my system.

The Portable Container Method:
The container method can apply whether you have one giant catalog, or a catalog for each session like I do. You simply make a folder that contains your catalog, as well as your images (usually in a sub folder). This way the entire unit is within one folder rather than scattered across various locations. It now becomes portable. You can even do this with existing catalogs by moving the images to the folder with the catalog. You’ll have to spend a few minutes showing Lightroom where you put everything, but then you’re set.

The Job Catalog Method:
It works great… Seriously though it does. It’s so seamless and easy to access a job from any date because each job has a customer folder which contains the catalog, as well as the folder with all the original images. It’s totally portable to any drive. If I want to archive or move, I can drop the entire folder anywhere and if I ever need it again I just open up the catalog and all my images, settings, ratings and info are right where I left them because their all within one folder along with the images.

When I finish editing a job I export final JPEG’s to a finals folder (separate from the catalog images) and I’m ready to put them online, send to the client, or wherever their going. I don’t ever have to worry about things getting lost or mixed up because every job is a own catalog, in it’s own folder, with it’s images inside. See the screenshot below for an example how I contain the entire job with it’s catalog in one folder for easy management. When I need to free up space I simple archive the entire folder on an archive disk catalog and all.

Going further:
Yep you can do more… I have a portfolio catalog that manages my sample images. Inside the images folder of that catalog are a few other folders, so I can keep weddings, portraits etc easily viewable, but also together in one catalog. This portfolio catalog fits in a few gigs, and I can copy the whole thing to any disk and take it with me. Then I can fire up LR and can be showing my portfolio in a LR slideshow within seconds. I can view the entire portfolio, or simply select on of the enclosed folders to narrow down to weddings, portraits etc.

Something else I often do, is make the customer catalog before a session. With weddings for example, I make the catalog on my laptop and dump images in it throughout the day. Not only do I have a backup, but now I can I easily edit a few and throw up a simple slideshow during the reception to WOW the guests (great advertising). Better yet, when I get home all (or most) of the the images are already in that catalog. I can apply one of my auto presets, and start 1:1 previews before bed, and in the morning I just copy the entire folder to my main machine, ready to sort, edit, and ship. Portability saves time again.

The Bottom line is that it’s really simple. Making a new catalog is barely more than creating a new folder for a job. You can manage things better, archive them easier, get work done quicker.

In some situations a single large catalog might be needed. You can still the the container method, but If for example you are shoot stock, or nature and need a large tagged searchable database you may want a single catalog. If you’re shooting job based work, then most jobs can be better managed from their own catalogs. It’s a preference. Try it out and see what works for you

In my case I have personal images and large ongoing projects in master catalogs, since there’s far less of them and I work with them on a regular basis. Unlike client jobs that get filed away in the archives. I still use the portable container method of placing the images with the catalogs however.

Gavin Seim

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  • Gustavo says:

    Great tip Gavin, i have been thinking about this. Have you had any issues with the software upgrades, say you create a catalog in 1.3 and then upgrade to 1,4, create some more, then eventually get 2.0. Will they all open without any problems? Thanks.

  • Gustavo says:

    Also can you have two catalogs open at once? Not sure you can?

  • gav says:

    Just one at a time I believe. I’ve had no issue with a catalog upgrade failing either. Even if that happened you’d still have all the images in one tidy place so you be better off than with one big catalog there as well… Gav

  • Well I have to say I disagree 100%!
    With your system, management of catalogs becomes that much harder and management of images becomes harder still. You lose the power of Lightroom’s searching and metadata management. Until Lightroom can gracefully manage multiple Catalogs and searching multiple Catalogs, this method ties you up in knots.

    Depending on your setup a reasonably specced machine can run with a Catalog of 100,000 images and perhaps more!

    The area I and others have been looking at is: what is the need to keep all your images if you haven’t rated them? In other words cull the zeros (or keep them in a separate Catalog), so you are only really managing the keepers.

    Then use Collections to subdivide your images.

    The advice given is old school thinking – more of a File Browser approach than a Database App approach.

  • gav says:

    You call Richard. Perhaps your not doing a lot of shoots. Like I said there are some situations where it;s not best, but if you have regular photo sessions that are for specific clients you generally don’t need a bunch of tags, but rather a good way to archive. People that use one catalog end up with a mess it seems to me.

  • Gio says:

    Richard’s right. But before you roll out the “your [you mean you’re] not doing a lot of shoots” excuse, I am doing 3-5 shoots a week, weddings and portraits, which amounts to roughly 3000 raw images per week, and of which 30-40% remain in the archive.

    There’s a load of nonsense in this post. For example “it’s basic math that suggests the bigger the catalog becomes, the more the system must process”. Well, basic math it may be, but effectively irrelevant unless you’re using a stone age computer – LR’s catalogue is a database and processing a database of many many thousands of items is no big deal.

    Or let’s take the “What happens when the disk gets full? Well they [photographers] pull some images off and archive them.” Really? Do they not buy or attach another bigger drive? “Guess what. The files are now separated from the main catalog. To use them again one has to bring back the files, and point LR to the right location.” Oh no they don’t – they drag the images onto that other drive in Lightroom. If they don’t, they point LR to the right location once, and learn their lesson.

    By breaking everything up into shoot catalogues, all you are achieving is trashing the control of your picture collection and keeping it in your head. You may as well use Bridge. As Richard says, your post is very old school and you really should know better than to be recommending such ideas.

  • Gio says:

    And by the way, “Lightroom Catalogs & Photo Managment For Pro’s”? Spell like that, and you’ll earn yourself a reputation like John “I don’t know my it’s from my its but think I can pontificate to pros” Harrington….

  • Gavin

    I certainly do a lot of shoots and have had a Catalog of 80k images on the go without any problems. There is no need to patronise! Especially one of the testers!

  • gav says:

    Gio I’ve learned that people who make their case by picking on my English usually don’t have one. Your comment on databases is wrong. The large a database, the more cumbered it will get. I deal with various types of databases from, php to lightroom. I’m not saying it’s going to be horrible is you have a good machine. I’m just saying it get’s more clunky.

    Also People do move images and disks, and they end up with a hassle. Remember I’m the guy who does the podcast where people write and call in asking what to do. It happens, and will happen at some point with nearly everybody. If your images are scattered away from the catalog they will probably cause you a hassle at some point.

    It’s cool if you guys like the larger catalog. I found it to not work so well for jobs style work. Have you even bothered to try it or are you just ranking on me because you disagree. I take the time to write these aricles to try to make peoples workflow easier. If you don’t like my system that OK. Go write about your system as well.


  • Bob Shank says:

    Hi Gavin! I’ve been looking for more information about using separate catalogs for individual jobs. I do a lot of sports photography–baseball and field hockey games in addition to wildlife and nature photography. I want to have a separate catalog for each one. One advantage is seeing right away where a new event begins and ends. It seems that many suggest to stay away from this methodology but I want to give it a good try and I believe it will benefit me. One question: I am able to use a preset for my metadata which I can pull into a new catalog, which saves time. However, I cannot seem to set a preset that I can use as a preset when I create a new catalog. Am I doing something wrong, or is this something that just can’t be done in Lightroom 2? Thanks for the article. I for one, am willing to try something different. We don’t all have to work the same way.

  • Gav Seim says:

    Good question Bob. There’s a setting in LR preferences for maintaining presets across catalogs. Check that first, though I’m bit sure if metdata presets are included in that.

    I know there’s some naysayers. I don’t know why some people get bothered by it. I think most have simply not tried it. It’s not for everyone, but in job style settings I find it works great.

    Let us know how those metadata preset work out. Contact me directly is you need more help… Gav

  • Bob Shank says:

    Hi Gavin!

    I was able to set my metadata into a preset to use in new catalogs, but I cannot seem to set my nameplate into a template to use for new catalogs. Is this possible?



  • Gav Seim says:

    To be honest I’m not sure. The namplate should be global, but I have that problem too. Usually I don;t worry about it because I only need the nameplate when do a client show. Otherwise I’m just editing.

  • Bob – Nameplates are a global preference, not Catalog based.
    And to split Catalogs up to show where jobs begin and end can be done either in the folder structure or using Collections, which is where the power of Lightroom lies. When you can open multiple Catalogs at once, and search across multiple Catalogs (maybe 3.0????) then there will be some sense in it, but you are really only using 60% of LR’s power with the split.

    Gavin – your comment on the large database isn’t strictly correct as they can be large and still not slow down the computer and the workflow and it isn’t always machine dependent.

  • Gav Seim says:

    What you seem to be missing Richard is that most of us that do job based work (ie Senior Portraits) don’t need tags and searches, we just need easily managable and archivable jobs. You keep going back to the same old stuff, but ignoring the real reason we;re using multiple catalogs.

    As for you not thinking a larger database has more potential problems than a smaller one. I really don;t want to debate it. If you think it won’t ever be an issue that’s fine. I just know that when I have a destructive catalog crash all my eggs wont be in one basket.

  • Well Catalog management is an issue whether you have small or large; one or many Catalogs. Always keep a sync version of it, so data loss would be minimised. I also know the man to cure any corruptions, which helps!

    Just cos one does job based work it doesn’t preclude the need to view and manage your image library. When the time comes for exhibitions/portfolios or themes or in fact anything that requires cross catalog thinking then you’re suddenly in limbo.

    There is no doubt you can manage your Library this way, it is just that there are better apps to do so, and you are wasting what LR is good at.

  • Chris says:


    I have to totally agree with you! I tried using “The One” catalog method for my weddings and I didn’t see the point, not when I need an easy way to back-up to external hd and burn disks. And I could give to cruds less about tagging and searching. I export my fav’s to it’s own folder that has it’s own catalog. Maybe one day I’ll get around to doing the tagging but its just amazing how my brain works, I remember stuff, its great!! As for not using a good chunk of LR by doing it this way, well, I don’t use the Program Mode on my camera, should I be?

    Point is we all use our tools the way we want based on our criteria, not someone else’s. What I can’t believe is how people got that offended by a different point of view.

  • Gav Seim says:

    Ya Chris people can get frantic because someone does something differently. I do have a few larger libraries. My Nature work for example. There’s a place I can use searching and tagging. When it comes to job sessions most people don’t need tagging, they need to get the work out the door.

    Chris I still think your missing it. Lightroom is not all about searching and tagging. Heck you can do that in Bridge. Sure LR has great tagging, but the goal of LR is all about making editing and management fast and easy for whatever type of work you do. In my case the power is in the sorting and presets.

    IN any case whatever works for your workflow is the way you should do it. I do think a lot of photogs workflow could benefit by my method. Like Chris says. Just cause a feature is there does not mean you need it. Try looking at some of those obscure photoshop menus’ 🙂

  • I’m not frantic, nor offended. I simply feel that the advice given in the article as the ‘holy grail’ is not the best way to manage and use Lightroom’s Library features.
    The workflow described suits Bridge and Photoshop, probably loads better than Lightroom, especially the CS4 release.

  • Gav Seim says:

    Rich it’s cool. I can’t be all wishy washy when I write though. This system works great for me and others so I think it’s a good method. That’s doesn’t mean my method is best for everyone. It’s not photo holy grail. Why to the old timers I’m just a punk rebel kid 🙂

  • Gio says:

    Neither frantic nor offended, nor using that fast a machine, I’ve learned that sloppy grammar or spelling is usually accompanied by sloppy thinking….

    There are too many little nonsenses here, “whether it’s database experience “from PHP to Lightroom” (gee – and let’s assume you did mean mySQL) or “searching and tagging. Heck you can do that in Bridge” (yeah, across tens of thousands of pictures, online and offline, on separate drives), and “whatever works for your workflow is the way you should do it” (an easy cop out).

    Like Richard I feel the article’s advice is misguided, and is simply not the best way to use Lightroom. All it advocates is breaking up control of your picture collection into little boxes, and it misses the big point of Lightroom – control of your total picture collection, allied to adjustment and output. Maybe you get away with it because your search and tagging requirements are so limited, but most people will work very inefficiently if they follow this article’s advice.

  • Kendrick says:

    I’d like to throw my quick opinion in on this… As i am a digital photo workflow consultant and I feel it’s important for anyone who comes across this post researching workflow that they see various ideas. Both styles have advantages. Personally I have one very large catalog with my personal work, then I have a large catalog with my concert photography, and then I use small catalogs for my event photography.

    I think the idea that is being missed here is that many photographers shoot thousands of pics each week that they really have no interest in seeing them ever again, once the assignment is finished and the selects are given to the client. I’m not talking about 1 star or no star photos, those should get deleted in any system, i’m talking about 3 and 4 star photos that have no real value to a photographer after the client is satisfied. Why have these photos tied up in your main catalog, getting backed up repeatedly and having to get optimized and processed by the computer. It doesn’t make any difference if most computers can handle a large catalog or not, it’s not needed so why have it there. Once the job is done, you got the images and the catalog in one folder on your ‘client files’ hard drive (of course backed up) and then it’s out of mind, never to be thought of again unless that client comes back and wants more images.

    Of course, there are then two ideas to modify this scheme some. You can take the 5 star photos, obviously, and perhaps the unique 4 star photos, and put them in your client work portfolio. The keywords and changes and metadata will all travel with the photos so you retain the value without having all the junk. I mean why are you going to ever need a 2 star photo? even if you can find it with ease, you’re very rarely going to want to show it to somebody or print it.

    The second idea is to take that small catalog of the job, and merge it with a master catalog of client work, when you are done with it. The idea is that while you are actually editing your work, you have the ability of having everything portable, on the laptop, and in a small catalog that allows you to focus on just the work needing edited and if you need to show it to clients, they won’t ever see anyone elses photos accidentally pop up on the screen. But then later if you ever need to do any cross catalog type work, like by theme or prepping for a slideshow or something, you have the ability to sort EVERYTHING from within one catalog complete with all the metadata.

    With that said, I suggest most photographers only have one catalog, at least until they understand the behind the scenes file management that lightroom uses and have a very good sense of where their files are.

  • Jim says:

    Love this tip. This is exactly the way I work. I shoot a job and I dont look at it for months or ever again yet it clutters my catalog. I’m in the process of exporting all jobs to their main images folder. I like the idea of having everything kept in the same place. Im planning to have a studio catalog for all my samples and all the the portfolio work/finished work and a personal catalog to contain all my family/kids/friends images.

    thanks for writing it up

  • Chris Robitaille says:

    Both ideas are good. I found this post cuz i was searching for a solution for 3 different computers. Home computer, work computer and laptop. So having multiple small catalog is easier to transfer pictures.

  • Doug Crist says:

    Gavin, this sounds like it could have some merits. I have a question about the file paths stored in the catalog. When you create the catalog on your laptop for the wedding and import the images, are the paths absolute or relative? Let’s say the images are in C:\photos\wedding. If you later copy the entire C:\photos\wedding folder to an external drive (G:), if the catalog stores absolute paths, LR won’t be able to find them because they are now in G:\photos\wedding. If the path is relative to the catalog, then all is well.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas with us. FWIW, I, too, am bothered by the grammar, but I’m used to it at work. I know some very sharp people who were probably dreaming about photography during English class! 🙂

    • Gav Seim says:

      Thanks Doug. Yes on the relative paths as long as the images are in the same folder as the catalog. Meaning if I save a catalog in C:\photos\smith_wedding\catalog and place the image folder within C:\photos\smith_wedding and then move that entire folder to G: drive LR seems to pick up the location on it’s own. That’s why I keep the catalog and images within the same parent folder. It then becomes fully mobile.


  • Aimee Hood says:

    Hi Gavin!

    Amen!!!!! I do it the exact same way you do for all the same reasons! It makes perfect sense. All my customers have their own catalog, and everything is archived within their own folders. The power of Lightroom is exactly the reason we do this. It allows us to edit, crop, sort, select, export, yadda yaddda!!! It gives us a quick view of ALL the images from one wedding without bogging down the entire computer. This is the power of Lightroom for a portrait/wedding photographer. I shoot landscapes as well and that catalog is just one catalog for ALL of my landscape/stock type of photography. That’s when it makes sense to have one catalog. Just wanted to let you know I AGREE with this method and I have many photographer friends who do it the same way. Oh… why would I want to have 5 catalogs open at one time??? I can’t design 5 wedding albums at one time anyway… I work one at a time on each customer… I’ve NEVER needed 2 catalogs open at the same time. I LOVE lightroom! Could not live without it!

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