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!

Understand how Lightroom's catalog system works in this Lightroom tutorial. 

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.

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.   

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! 

I hope you enjoyed this brief introduction to Lightroom, and now understand how it works a little better! To help you on your journey with Lightroom, I've also created a step by step Lightroom photo editing checklist, so you know exactly what you should do to your images! Just click on the image below to get access.