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Lightroom Classic Catalogs: A Quick Introduction

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If you're familiar with Adobe's popular Lightroom software, you have probably heard all of the talk about catalogs. Catalogs are Lightroom's system for storing image edit data. Different photographers have different approaches to managing their photo libraries, and the talk about catalogs is a highly debated one. Today, we are going to take a look at the options of using multiple or single catalogs.

Intro to Catalogs

It uses a unique system to manage your photos and editing data applied in the Develop module. As you may already know, Lightroom is a non-destructive image editing application. This means that the image edits made in the Develop module aren't applied to the image files themselves, but to a catalog that serves as a database of editing information.

When we export images from Lightroom, the program combines the editing information from the catalog with the imported images and creates a separate, edited image file.

The first time that you use Lightroom, the application will create a catalog to store editing information in. Any edits to images are stored within this catalog. This is part of the "non-destructive" editing approach - edits are applied to a file in the catalog that can be reversed easily without any change in the quality of the image. Each catalog holds the editing information for the associated photos.

If you haven't moved the catalog or created an additional catalog, you are probably still working in the default catalog that Lightroom created. Each catalog is like a separate workspace for working with images in Lightroom.

The structure of a Lightroom catalog includes a catalog file alongside a folder with previews of images. However, you aren’t limited to using a single catalog. Catalogs are fairly small in size so you can easily store as many (or as few) catalogs as it suits your workflow.

Each Lightroom catalog acts as a completely separate workspace. These catalogs don’t collide, and multiple catalogs can be created to help us organize or separate our photo editing workspaces. When we open or create a new catalog, Lightroom shuts down and restarts, reloading that catalog as a new workspace.

Photographers with a large portfolio of images may be more inclined to use a multiple catalog workflow. Let's take a look at the discussion surrounding managing catalogs, and consider some possible workflow setups.

The Debate: Single Catalog vs. Multiple Catalogs

One point of debate among Lightroom users is how to allocate images to catalogs. Some prefer keeping a number of small catalogs, while others prefer keeping a master catalog with all images stored within it. In the earlier days of the Lightroom software, it was advantageous to have more catalogs with fewer images, and this was a common reason photographers would split their work into multiple catalogs.

Photographers that used the multiple catalog approach experienced a performance advantage over those that crammed thousands of images in one catalog. However, Lightroom has continued to grow and improve in performance - so much so that huge catalogs (even those with over 100,000 images!) are hardly a concern performance-wise.

Different users will find different setups to work for them. Having used nearly every different workflow setup possible, I can share a secret: there is no single best approach! If there's one reason I love Lightroom, it's the program's ability to be many things to many different photographers. How I use it is radically different than how some of my photographer friends use it, and that's perfectly fine.

Many photographers will use Lightroom with the default catalog and never bother with splitting images up across catalogs. Other photographers will use a catalog for every shoot, and that’s fine as well.

If you are a casual photographer who enjoys taking photos everyday, consider using a single master catalog with all of your images. Lightroom's filmstrip, which lives at the bottom of the application window, acts as a nice timeline of your daily snapshots. I personally use a catalog like this just for my own personal photos, and only create a new one each year. Another huge advantage is the ability to search and filter through all of your images, instead of switching between catalogs to do so.

Now that we’re in 2012, I’ve made it a goal of mine to shoot images of my daily activities and keep them in a large catalog. I’m looking forward to seeing my catalog fill up and using the filmstrip as my personal timeline of all of the things I’ve photographed. In this situation, the single approach provides a very cohesive workspace for the photos. On each import, photos are added to the catalog, and it continues to grow.

On the other hand, photographers may choose to utilize multiple catalogs for precise control over a limited number of images. Many photographers prefer to keep their images separated by storing each shoot in a catalog of its own in order to “partition” their work and keep the separate catalogs as differentiated workspaces.

If you're going to be showing your images in a studio, it's important to remember that this approach can provide for confidentiality as well as flexibility for clients. I work on a number of jobs where I send a catalog off for further work, and the individual catalog approach is essential for this type of confidentiality.

It’s not surprising that nearly every photographer utilizes a different approach toward managing their images and managing catalogs. We all have different needs dictated by the needs of our clients or our own personal image making goals.

Few things have revolutionized the photography world over the last decade like the digital photo workflow. With different needs among all of us, there are a limitless number of choices to make when it comes to managing our photos.

Consider the pros and cons of the various catalog approaches using the diagram below.

Choosing a catalog approach doesn't have to be an "all or nothing" decision. In the next section, we'll discuss how to get a best of both world's solution.

Combining Catalogs

If you are using multiple catalogs, I would highly advise you to also consider using a larger, merged catalog. To miss out on using a larger catalog is to overlook Lightroom's ability to command your entire photo library. If you use different catalogs for each shoot, you may have to wade through dozens of catalogs to find an image you need.

One of my favorite features of Lightroom is to import one catalog into another, and essentially merge catalogs. Using the "Import from Catalog" function, I can add other catalogs to a single, unified catalog. The potential of this type of function is virtually unlimited.

I use this in order to create a 2010 wedding catalog, 2011 wedding catalog and so on. The best part is that when you Import from Catalog, the editing information from other catalogs is carried over, so you're not starting from scratch on editing the images.

However, keep in mind that "merged" catalogs don't stay synchronized; if we import catalogs and make further changes to images, the smalller, standalone catalog remains unaltered.


Using Lightroom’s Import from Catalog feature is a way to build a master catalog made up of your other catalogs. To use this, all that you need to have is more than one catalog. First, open the catalog that you are using a master. (This is the catalog that you are looking to add to) Next, go to the file menu and choose “import from catalog”. Now, just browse to where another of your catalogs is located, and choose to import it. A list of options will appear about how to handle importing the catalog. After selecting your settings, begin the import. Notice that as you move images over from an imported catalog, they will already have the settings applied that you made in the other catalog.

You don't have to commit to using one system or another when it comes to catalogs. When I want to tightly manage a small collection of images, the single catalog approach helps me focus on a single shoot or event. Merging them into a master catalog using Lightroom's Import From Catalog option can allow for management of thousands of images easily. Both approaches are used by professional photographers to handle their images as part of a digital workflow.


Whether you are using one catalog or dozens to commandeer your photo library, Adobe's Lightroom is engineered to have a solution that empowers you as a photographer. You can use a single catalog to tightly manage a smaller photo collection, or use large catalogs to manage huge amounts of images. Either way, Lightroom has the flexibility to adjust to your needs.

How do you handle your Lightroom catalogs? Do you prefer a single catalog, or many catalogs to handle your images? Why? Make sure to let us know in the comments.

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