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Learning how to manage the Lightroom catalog is key to the development of a successful editing workflow. Lightroom suits every type of photography and developing an efficient workflow makes sure that you save a huge amount of time when post-processing your images.
In this article, I want to show you how to use the Lightroom catalog to organize your files and manage them on your computer and hard drives. When I learned some of the best practices for organizing my photos with Lightroom, my workflow has become way faster. I put together this guide to help you learn this often overlooked part of Lightroom.
This article is Part 2 of The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Lightroom
File Management and Folder Structure
Best Systems to Store Your Files
Firstly, it’s important to understand that to build an organized and efficient post-processing workflow, it’s fundamental to have in place a solid system for storing and accessing your photographs in your computer.
Also, losing files is very common and if you like me have thousands of images you need a robust file storage system, to avoid any problem.
I try not to store as much as possible photos on my computer. I tend to have my computer’s hard drive as empty as possible and instead, I rely on external hard drives and cloud-based solutions.
As an external hard drive, you have these options:
The portable external hard drives are quite affordable and reliable solutions to store your files and you can buy more than one to make sure you have a backup copy of your photos since having two copies of the same files in the same location is obviously not the most secure option.
A slightly more expensive but robust and professional solution is buying a NAS.
A NAS is a storage device that connects directly to your router, and there are NAS systems that support remote access. A good NAS I highly recommend is:
In addition, you can also use cloud base services, but in this case you need to have a really fast Internet connection since RAW photo files are big and backing up entire folders can take a lot of time. Some of the most popular cloud services are:
You might also want to read my article on how to organize your digital photos
The Folder Structure
I’ll leave it up to you to choose the most effective way to organize structure the folder in your hard drives. I personally create a root folder called Photos then inside I have subfolders divided by year, month and location or event name. Like so:
Photos / Year / Year-Month-EventName (or Month-LocationName)
So for example:
Photos / 2019 / 2019-08-Italy-CinqueTerre / 2019-08-Italy-CinqueTerre.jpg
Photos / 2019 / 2019-09-Japan-Tokyo / 2019-09-Japan-Tokyo-001.jpg
Photos / 2019 / 2019-09-Japan-Tokyo / 2019-09-Japan-Tokyo-002.jpg
Photos / 2019 / 2019-09-Japan-Osaka / 2019-09-Japan-Osaka.jpg
The reason why I repeat the year twice is that if I move a folder in a different location I know where it belonged very easily. Same for the file names.
Organizing Your Photos with Lightroom
Now that you know how to store your images, let’s dive into a more detailed explanation of one of the main features of Lightroom. Organizing your photos creating a catalog.
As we’ve seen, Lightroom is a non-destructive photo editing software, which means, it always deals with a placeholder of your file and it doesn’t change the file on your computer or hard drives.
In fact, the Lightroom catalog doesn’t contain your files, but the catalog is a file itself (you-catalog-name.lrcat) that acts as a database to store metadata about your photo files and it points to their location on your hard drive.
Moving files to another location will cause Lightroom to ask you again to point the placeholder contained in the catalog, to the new file location. You can do so by clicking on the missing image and tell Lightroom to locate the file.
In my case, the entire folder is missing so I can go to the left panel, right-click on the folder name and ask Lightroom to locate the missing folder.
Create a New Catalog
In the first part of this guide, I told you to let Lightroom decide where to create the new catalog.
Now it’s time for you to learn and decide what works best for you. What I mean is that if you want you can decide to create a new catalog for each shoot and store it in the same folder as your photos. This means that if you move that folder to another location the catalog won’t lose the reference.
Also, it will help you maintain a smaller catalog and experience better performance of your computer when opening and searching, or scrolling through your photos.
Many people recommend creating one single catalog and use only that one until it reaches around 10.000 or even 15.000 photos. When your catalog reaches that size your computer can struggle a bit when dealing with it. But it totally depends on your hardware, so I’ll leave that with you.
Backup a Catalog
Taking care of your catalogs is as important as keeping extra copies of your original files. Losing a catalog also means losing all the editing done on your images since it’s the catalog that stores that information.
Backing up a catalog is super easy since the catalog is a small file. Of like I said before you store it in the same folder as your files, when you back up your files you’ll also include the catalog.
Lightroom asks you on a weekly basis to backup your catalog, by clicking ok Lightroom will automatically make a copy on your computer’s hard drive.
Collections, Collection Sets, and Smart Collections
Let’s say that you have in your external hard drive a folder at
Pictures / 2019 / 2019-05-New-Zealand
That folder will show up in your Library in the Folders section on the left-hand side.
This is probably my favorite feature for organizing photos in Lightroom. Collections.
Collections, Collection Sets, and Smart Collections are a smart way to organize your images.
To understand why collections are so powerful I’ll give you this example.
Now let’s say that you want to make sure that one photo from that folder can be found in a different group of photos that you’re going to create.
For example, you want to create, Best Landscapes, Best of New Zealand, Instagram photos and you want one particular shot to be part of all those groups without creating several folders in your hard drive and without copying the file several times in those folders.
Here’s where Lightroom Collections come into play.
Collections are a way to group photos, to have photos be part of different groups (collections) without the need of wasting space in your hard disk, and if you edit your photo the change will also reflect in all of the collections. The original file instead will remain unchanged.
To add photos to a collection you can simply drag it and place it into a collection manually or you can make a collection be a Target collection by right-clicking on its name and set it as Target Collection.
This way in the future you can simply add a photo to that collection by selecting it on the grid and pressing B on your keyboard. There can be only one target collection at a time.
A Collection can be part of a Collection Set, which is a container that includes one or more collections.
Then you have Smart Collections. They differ from a regular collection in the fact that they are created by telling Lightroom what are the rules to follow to put a photo into a collection. These rules can be the number of star rating, keywords, date of capture, etc.
There are some very handy Smart collections already available by default. One of my favorites is the recently modified smart collection.
I find myself using the recently modified collection a lot to see and keep track of the work I’ve been doing more recently. It shows your edits from the last 2 days. The value can be changed in hours, weeks, months or years.
Then you have quick collections. These are listed in the Catalog panel. Quick collections are temporary collections you can keep for a day or two while completing a particular job. You can then right-click on the quick collection and either save it or clear its content if not needed to be in a collection anymore.
So to recap, the Folders menu represents the folders and files structure in your hard drive.
Collections are pointers to the original file and represent a way to store a photo in as many Collections as you like without duplicating the file and with the power of keeping that photo in sync with all the collections when it gets edited.
This was part 2 of my Ultimate Guide to Lightroom.
I hope you enjoyed this tutorial!
You can find part 1 and 3 here
Part 1: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Lightroom
Part 3: Lightroom Techniques | How to Edit Photos Like a Pro