No one becomes a photographer to manage image files for a living, but the reality is that importing and organizing your images is a crucial part of the gig. The good news is that once you set up a workflow in Adobe Lightroom, the process runs smoothly: a repeated set of steps protects your images and saves you time.
Whether you're starting a new image library or cleaning up your existing one, use this tutorial to set up your Lightroom workflow.
How Does Lightroom Work?
In this tutorial, we'll set up a Lightroom import workflow that helps you import and store your data safely.
It's important to note that this workflow covers Lightroom Classic. Most people think of this as the "original" version of Lightroom. Adobe launched Lightroom CC, a more cloud-centric and mobile-friendly version in 2017. Lightroom Classic is the desktop app that professional photographers tend to prefer.
Lightroom uses a Catalog to store information about your edits. Lightroom leaves the original image files untouched, which is called non-destructive editing. When you pull on the sliders in the Develop module, Lightroom is showing you a preview of the exported image file.
This non-destructive system is one of Lightroom's defining features. And best of all, Lightroom can keep working with your images even if you aren't connected to the original drive (more on that later.)
Simpler apps like Apple Photos copy your images into a library file. This is simpler in some ways, but it also feels like your images disappear into a black hole that belongs to the app.
Lightroom's approach is less possessive, but it requires more active management. The Catalog contains info about your photos, but it doesn't include the image files.
The 5 Principles of Lightroom Data Storage
As you set up your Lightroom data workflow, it helps to ask: what does a good workflow look like?
Here are the five principles that we'll apply while setting up our import and store workflow:
- Files are stored safely - above all, we seek to avoid the worst-case scenario: losing your images. Ensuring that multiple copies are stored in separate locations gives you security.
- Switching costs are low - if you want to leave an app like Adobe Lightroom, it should be as painless as possible.
- It's easy to find files - later on in your workflow, you'll add keywords and tags. At the import stage, you'll want to do some minimalist organization by sorting files into logically named folders and filenames.
- Your system can scale - what if your photography career takes off, and suddenly you have to store ten times as many images? Building with scale in mind means you can expand your system to your current needs.
- Files are accessible from anywhere - it's optional for some, but it's a must for traveling photographers. While you're traveling and a client needs a file, don't wait weeks to deliver.
A workflow is a repeatable set of steps with a predictable outcome. Having a workflow means that your images follow the same process from capture to archive, every time.
Step One: Choose Your Hardware
When you're first starting, it's tempting just to dump your images on your hard drive. It's convenient and cost-effective.
But this isn't a system that scales, and it doesn't store your images safely. Should you store your images on the same drive as all of your apps and personal documents? You're sure to run out of space, and keeping everything on just one drive is risky.
That's why I always recommend storing your images on an external hard drive, and specifically, a network-attached storage (NAS) drive. As the name suggests, this is a hard drive you plug into your router so that it's accessible on the network. But a NAS is also a mini-computer with many extra features.
As costs have fallen and ease-of-use has increased, I've seen more photographers switch to network-attached storage. My NAS sits quietly in a cabinet of its own, connected to the network, and managed from a computer.
Synology, Drobo, and QNAP are three of the most popular brands. No matter which brand you choose, most NAS setups have many advantages. Here are a few common features of a NAS:
- It's connected to your network so that you can manage and access it from other devices on your network (and even away from home.)
- It has a USB port, so I can plug in an external hard drive and periodically back up the NAS.
- It supports apps, like connecting to Amazon Cloud Drive and Backblaze to sync my photos with no computer needed.
- Most support multiple hard drives, so you have two copies of your data stored across the drives in case one fails (this is commonly called RAID.)
Because NAS drives mount and appear just like standard drives, Lightroom works perfectly with them. The only difference is that this hard drive is connected to your network, not directly to your computer.
Whether you use network-attached storage or a series of external drives, make sure that you separate your images from your computer. Otherwise, you risk losing your photos to a corrupt OS update, for example.
Step Two: Create or Move Your Catalog
It's best to keep your Lightroom Catalog in a place that's easily accessible. If you work on multiple computers, it helps to put your catalog in a shared folder (although it's not recommended to store it on a NAS.)
If you already use Lightroom, you'll want to relocate your Lightroom Catalog to somewhere safe. To find where your catalog is stored, go to the Lightroom Classic > Catalog Settings option. On the General tab, you'll see the Location where your Catalog is stored.
Make sure to close Lightroom before you move your Catalog!
Step Three: Import and Store
Now that you have your hardware and your catalog setup, it's time to import images into your Lightroom catalog.
In Lightroom, launch an import from the File > Import Photos and Videos dialogue. The pop-up window has every option you need to safely import images.
Briefly, here are the four items I check every time I perform an import:
- Source - on the left side, browse to where your images are stored, such as a memory card or a folder on your computer.
- Copy - in the middle, make sure you set the import to a Copy so that you make a second version of the images on the external drive.
- To - in the upper right corner, make sure to point it to your external storage hard drive.
- Destination - tick the Into Subfolder option so that your images are organized based on date.
These are simple, minimal import settings that help you add images to Lightroom with easy organization. Click on Import, and let Lightroom do its magic.
Typically, Lightroom is my first stop for importing images from a memory card, but you could also copy your images just by dragging and dropping, then Add them from this dialogue.
When my setup is complete, my Lightroom catalog is synced and safe in Dropbox. Images are stored on the NAS, separately and safely as well.
Step Four: Create Proxy Files (Smart Previews)
So, if you're storing your images on an external drive, you might be wondering: do I always have to carry the drive?
The answer is no, thanks to Lightroom Smart Previews. Instead of always needing your full-resolution files, Smart Previews are smaller versions you can work with in Lightroom, even if you aren't connected. They stand-in for the full-size files.
You'll need to build Smart Previews for your images. In Lightroom, go to the Library > Previews > Build Smart Previews option. Lightroom will start to render these smaller proxy files, and they're stored alongside your Lightroom catalog.
Make sure to follow this complete guide to set up your Smart Previews. A library of Smart Previews is small enough to fit on your hard drive but powerful enough to help you keep working.
- How to Set Up a Fast and Flexible Library With Smart Previews in Adobe LightroomAndrew Childress08 Aug 2015
Step Five: Create a Backup System
So far, you've created a stable setup for your data. It's stored safely, it's accessible, and you can keep working even when you're away from it.
But all of this is for naught if you don't protect your data. Even with the steps above, you should still periodically create two backups:
- Backup your catalog - no matter where you store your Catalog, you'll want to back it up. It's rare, but catalogs can corrupt, so make a backup.
- Backup your images - if you chose a solution like the NAS setup described above, consider periodic backups that you store elsewhere
For me, backups have to be nearly automatic. Otherwise, I risk forgetting to make them. I use the apps on my DiskStation to automate this process, including pushing files to Amazon Cloud Drive and an external USB drive.
It's also important to occasionally test your backups. There's nothing worse than needing a backup and finding out that you missed folders or files. Periodically doing a "dry run" of a backup restore is a great way to stress-test your system.
Recap & Keep Building Your Workflow
So far, we've covered a crucial but singular part of the workflow: import and store. This helps you with the steps between capturing and preparing your images to work with.
But, it's just one step in the workflow. Now the fun of adjusting, correcting, and sharing your images can begin. Those steps will take place knowing that your images are safely stored.
Make sure to check out these other Lightroom workflow resources:
- How to Quickly Review Large Batches of Photos with Auto-Advance in LightroomAndrew Childress27 Jun 2019
- 24 Essential Daily Keyboard Shortcuts in Adobe LightroomBen Lucas14 Dec 2018
- 3-2-1: How to Safely Store Photos in Lightroom ClassicAndrew Childress29 Jun 2022
- Everything You Need to Know About Adobe Lightroom CCAndrew Childress22 Nov 2018