Understanding the Lightroom Catalog

Although Lightroom also makes a damn good job of editing your photos, at it’s heart it’s a file management system, allowing you to organise and manage your pictures with ease.  The main "heart" of Lightroom is the catalog, so a good understanding how that works is essential, and it will help enormously when it comes to managing your files!

What is a Catalog?

When you first use Lightroom, you will start with an empty catalog. There will be no images in it, and before you can do much else will need to import some. I’ll go into that in process in more depth in the next post in the series,  but for now, the most important thing to realize is that when you do import images into the Lightroom catalog, you are not actually moving any files into Lightroom, nor does it actually store the files.  Importing only means you tell Lightroom to remember where your images are stored, nothing more.  Your actual images files will still reside on your hard drive (or external hard drive if that is where you have saved them to) and Lightroom only references where that files are.

A better way to think of it is not to say that you import the images to Lightroom, but rather than you are importing a reference to the file into Lightroom.  You are simply creating links between your images files, and your Lightroom catalog. If you are having trouble with this, think of Lightroom as a library.  The image files would be the books, and your hard drive where you store your images are the shelves for those books. Lightroom is the library catalog at the front desk – making a note of everything about that book, and marking where you can find it in the library, and keeping that reference updated.  

You can upload your images to your hard drive and import them into Lightroom in one step, or you can import images into the Catalog that have already been uploaded. I'll go into how to do both in the next post in the series.  Either way, simply remember that the Catalog is your reference file for all your images. 

Keeping Your Catalog Happy

Now, I want to drill into you the importance of maintaining your files within Lightroom once you have imported them.  Remember, In order for Lightroom to be able to work on your image, it needs to maintain a reference to that file. This leads me to one of the most common mistakes a Lightroom newbie can make, and that is to move their images files outside of Lightroom - for example, move an image file from one location to another just using their normal file moving procedure in Windows.  If you then move those files using anything other than Lightroom, Lightroom loses track of the file, as it’s no longer where it thinks it should be!  That’s when you get the dreaded question mark over your image – Lightroom’s way of telling us that it no longer knows where this file is kept.

Therefore the easiest way to move files is within Lightroom itself.   In the Library module, on the panel on the left you will see the files in the Lightroom catalog, as you have imported them. (It will only show you files you have imported, not your whole drive) This is where you should move images into new folders, create new folders, and so on.  When you do it this way, within Lightroom, Lightroom makes the changes for you (so your files are physically moved into the new location for example) but it also keeps track of exactly where they are at the same time.

The same goes for renaming files. Again, if you do this outside of Lightroom, it can’t find the files anymore – it still be trying to find that file by the old name.  Rename them inside Lightroom (right click on the file, and click rename) and you'll keep your catalog nice and happy. 

One Catalog or Multiple Catalogs?

When using Lightroom, you have the choice to create as many catalogs as you would like.   So, for example, you could have one catalog for your personal images, and one catalog for your business images. I know one photographer who uses a new catalog for every single client so everyone has a different system. My personal recommendation is,  unless you have a specific reason for doing so, you should probably try just to stick to one catalog. That way, you can easily find and work with images without having to switch out catalogs (Lightroom can only have one catalog open at any one time) and you can create Collections - groups of images - within that catalog to keep your files in order. 

That said,  if you are dealing with a VERY large numbers of images, or you deal with several different projects, you may want to have a separate catalog for each year or for each project.   You can create a new catalog just by going to FILE > New Catalog.  To switch between different catalogs go to FILE > Open Catalog.

When all is said and done, it's really up to you how you want to manage your files - think about it before you start and it will save you a bit of time later on. I had intended to use a different catalog for each year, but found I was still referencing files from earlier and found switching between the two catalogs to be a pain so in the end I decided to keep just one big catalog. 

Backing Up Your Catalog

As mentioned above, Lightroom doesn’t store your images, just the data about your images, which includes the editing changes that you have made.  As these changes are held within Lightroom and not applied to your images until you export them, it would be a terrible, terrible loss if you were to lose your Lightroom catalog!  Although your images themselves would not be lost (since they are not stored in Lightroom remember?!)  everything you did to them in Lightroom (such as editing, applying keywords and so on) would be GONE.  Your images files would simply remain as they were when you first imported them, with no changes applied.  (As an aside, I also recommend exporting your files once you have finished editing them, so you have a finished JPEG copy of your images somewhere)  

You can set up your Lightroom back up preferences by going to >LIGHTROOM >CATALOG SETTINGS and in the General tab at the bottom you will see your back up frequency. 

Upon exit from Lightroom, you’ll be told it’s time to back up your Lightroom catalog, and you’ll be reminded at the intervals you have entered, such as weekly.   I have my set to prompt me to back up every time I exit Lightroom - if I have done a good few changes to files, I back up. Since this leads to a lot of back ups, every couple of weeks I go to where my back-ups are stored and delete the older ones. (You can see the location of these in the Catalog Settings dialog box too) If I haven't done anything to the files, I simply skip the back up. 

Please make sure that you back up your Lightroom catalog to a different disc, and not just make a back up in the same location as your main catalog, as if they are both stored on the same drive, and the drive fails, there goes both your back up and the main copy. 

Here are some things to do to get you started: 

- Decide whether you want to work with one catalog or multiple catalogs 

- Once you have imported files, use the Library module in Lightroom to manage those files

- Set up a back- up strategy for your Lightroom Catalog (and whilst you're at it, come up with a back-up strategy for your image files!) 


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