Understanding & Managing LR Catalogs. The Captain Awesome Approach:

By Gavin Seim. Disclaimer: I don’t know Captain Awesome personally, but I feel confident that this would be his approach is he used Lightroom.

Understanding the Catalog: Updated 03/2012. I’ve discussed catalogs on the Pro Photo Show and also cover them in my LR workshops, but I wanted write it down in simple terms. First lets get clear on what a catalog does. The LR catalog is a single file (.lrcat) that houses the edits and changes you’ve made to the photos it points to. I generally explain it in analog terms. Imagine a file cabinet of negatives in your storage room. Next to it is another box and inside that are note cards referencing every negative in the file cabinet, each stating what was done to that negative to produce the final print.

The LR catalog is similar, only it’s digital. It references any images you tell it to and keeps track of what changes have been made those files. Rather than looking up a note card however, you just open the catalog and LR shows the result of any changes that have been made. LR does not care which folder the actual files (negatives) reside in. It just looks where you tell it to. Now if you were to delete the LR catalog, it would be like throwing out that box of note cards. The negatives would still be sitting where you left them, but the changes would be lost.

LR makes a default catalog when you start using it, but you can make as many catalogs as you want (File/New Catalog) and open any one of them by simply double clicking the on the catalog (.lrcat) file. Now let me share some power user tips that can make your image management easier. I make a Lightroom Catalog for each job. That’s right every senior, family, and couple get a catalog made in their honor. Sometimes people think I’m sort of a LR heretic for this, but they usually change their minds in time. It’s simple management mechanics and is becoming more common every day.

Why Separate Catalogs? Many photographers that use Lightroom have one huge catalog that all their images are referenced from. They manage projects from within that catalog using collections and the folders. The actual images may be referenced from various drives and directories all over their system. What happens when those images are moved? The catalog can no longer see them and you get an annoying question mark on the thumbnail that indicates a missing file. To use them again you have to point LR to the new location where the files have moved. In itself  this is not hard, but as a catalog grows, file management often becomes an issue and it becomes easier to misplace files.

There’s also the smaller issue of speed and reliability. Though LR deals with large amounts of images well, the bigger a LR catalog becomes, the more eggs you have in one basket and the more hassle you “could” have should the catalog become damaged (of course you should always have a backup). But even with that I prefer a more streamlined approach to catalogs. I don’t have to worry about a huge master catalog getting out of hand and I don’t want the hassle or managing it. Lets take a look.

The Container Approach: This method can apply if you have one giant catalog, or a separate catalog workflow like I mentioned above. You simply make a folder that contains both your catalog, as well as your images (usually in a sub folder). This way the entire project and all pertaining files are within one folder, rather than scattered across the drive. It now it becomes portable. You can move the entire folder, yet the catalog keeps working because the catalog is looking within it’s own folder for the images folder (rather than elsewhere on the drive).

You can even do this with existing catalogs by moving the images and the catalog file into one folder. Once you love and reconnect those images that catalog should always be able to track them.

The Catalogs: Having various catalogs is generally a better way to manage projects than having one huge catalog. Each catalog can inside a client folder which contains it’s own catalog and you avoid a huge catalog cluttered up with jobs that are long done. If we use this with the container method (above), the project is now totally portable to any drive. Want to archive or take a catalog on the road? You can copy the entire folder with catalog and images inside anywhere you like. If you need to access it down the road, open up that catalog file and all images, settings, ratings and everything are right where you left them. All without the distraction and bloated clutter of all your projects in the same catalog.

When I finish editing a job I export final JPEG’s to a folder inside my client folder (but separate from the catalog images so I don’t get redundancy). I never 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 own images inside. When I need to free up space I can archive the entire project folder along with images, the catalog and anything else pertaining to that job.¬†simple as eating pie. See the screenshot below for an example how I contain the job with it’s catalog and files inside a single folder.


Going further: Some may prefer a catalog each year or each quarter. I have a catalog for my fine art and one for my personal projects. I have a test catalog that I use to develop new effects and take on the road for my workshops. I have a portfolio catalog that serves as nothing but a place for my best work. I can copy any of these to any disk and take it with me. Then I can fire up LR anywhere and pop them open on any machine because they’re all self contained.

Something else I often do, is make the 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 guests (great advertising). Even better, when I get home, images are already in that catalog. I can apply one of my batch presets from Power Workflow, and start 1:1 previews before bedtime. In the morning I just copy the entire catalog and images to my main machine and they’re ready to sort, edit and print. Portability saves time once again.

The Bottom line is that it’s really simple. Making a new catalog is just like creating a new folder for a job. With it you can usually manage things better, archive them easier and get work done quicker. That said, my way is not the only way. I just find it works well. Adapt these tips for your own needs to get a workflow that saves you time. Have fun… Gav


Gavin Seim is a photographer and LR teacher from Central WA. For Gavin’s latest products and workshops visit the Seim Effects homepage.

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