If You’re Using Multiple Catalogs in Lightroom, You’re Doing it Wrong

Lightroom is misunderstood and under-utilized by many photographers. Hardly a day goes by without someone asking about how to arrange their catalogs, and great swathes of people replying that you should use a new catalog for *every* *single* *shoot*. A clear indicator that they’re missing out on some incredibly useful tools Lightroom has to offer!

I’m not referring to batch editing or anything like that, but the incredible organizational power that Lightroom has in its Library module. Not only can you manage files across several drives, move files from within Lightroom and pull in important images at the click of a button. But you will save massive amounts of time in the future too!

If you have several catalogs, I can’t even imagine how long it must take to put together a “best of” slideshow of the year, or update your portfolio. Whereas with a single all-encompassing catalog and a proper filing structure, it’s incredibly easy!

Things to understand about the catalog:

  • The catalog stores your edits, every change you make gets logged into the catalog. But the original file doesn’t get changed, ever. It’s fully non-destructive and you can undo any changes you like in the edit history panel. The history stores every single edit you ever make to that image.
  • Lightroom prompts you to backup the catalog every time you exit (unless you’ve changed the settings). You should do this. And you should back it up to a different drive than the one you’re working on. It doesn’t take long, but if your drive fails, you’ll lose all your edits unless you have a backup (you already have a backup of your files too, right?)
  • The catalog can hold images on several drives, even if the drives are disconnected.
  • The size of the catalog has no impact on performance. You filling your drive up with images does. But since it can read from several drives, there’s no need for you to do this.
  • Adobe have stated themselves that Lightroom is designed to work with a single catalog – see here

Don’t move folders or images outside of Lightroom

Lightroom isn’t magic, it doesn’t know about anything that happens outside of itself. So if you start moving images around, dragging them to external drives, etc. then it’s not going to have a clue where the images are when you next open it. It’ll pop a little “?” next to the missing folders and you’ll have to select “find missing folders.”

But there’s no need to do this, you can move images and folders around within the Library module of Lightroom, as well as renaming them, creating new folders etc. Not only does doing it this way move them around on your actual drives, but Lightroom always knows where they are, too!

Want to move last year’s images to an external drive as an archive? Simply add a Folder on the external drive to your LR catalog in the Library module and drag the previous year’s images over.

Get Organized

Think about your folder structure before you start; or, if you’ve not followed a proper structure before now, do so for next year. Think about how you would logically break down your folders in a way that makes sense.

Mine are broken down by year, session type, and specific shoot. If I want to search a specific year, or move an entire year to a backup drive, it’s really simple to do.

For example mine looks like this:

So it might be:

  • 2019
    • Weddings
    • Families
    • Commercial

Use Keywords

Keywording is incredibly powerful! You might start with something basic, just adding the names of the clients to the keywords, but the more time you spend on doing this, the more power you have in the future. For instance, I tag different sections of a wedding day. Bridal Prep, Groom Prep, First Dance, Portraits, etc., as well as the year the image was taken.

The more you add, the more powerful this can be.

This also applies to any “hero shots” I might take in the course of a wedding day so I can easily recall these in the future using specific collections (which I’ll get into in a bit, keep reading).

Rate Your Images

Use star ratings, even if you just use 5* to flag your favorite images. This is awesome combined with keywords, looking at 5* images with the keywords “2019 First Dance” instantly gives me my best first dance images of the year.

My star system is:

1* – Keeper, but not delivered to client. Either something I want for a how-to, shots I may have taken heads from for a head-swap, but isn’t the core file that’ll be delivered etc. I’ll keep the original, just in case.

4* – Keeper. Delivered to client.

5* – Keeper. Favorite. Probably in an album or slideshow. Will use to pick my absolute favorites for my portfolio at the end the year.

Smart Collections are your friend

Once you’ve done all of the above, Smart Collections become an easy, and powerful, tool for you to pull images out of your catalog with.

Create a Smart Collection with the filters:

  • Rating = “5*”
  • Keywords = “2019 portraits”

Dropping the year would give you all of the portraits you’ve ever set to 5*.

Suddenly updating your portfolio, or pulling together a highlights reel for the year, is incredibly quick and easy. Try that when your shoots for the year are split across 50 different catalogs…


The Reject flag, for me, is more important than the pick flag. I use the star system rather than just the pick flag. No point keeping RAW files of images that are never going to see the light of day. So I set the reject flag, and once every couple of months I’ll go into LR, select the whole year and choose Photos – Delete Rejected Photos.

Freeing up space on my drives.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat

This is by no means a definitive list of the capabilities of the LR Catalog. And there are many different to organize your files, the organization structure has to make sense to *you* so there’s no use following my suggestions if it doesn’t gel with you.

But my point still stands: If you’re using multiple catalogs, you’re simply making things harder for yourself…

About the author: Andy Dane is an award-winning wedding photographer, lifestyle blogger, husband, and father based in Norwich, UK. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Dane’s work on his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This article was also published here.

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