Adobe Lightroom Catalog and Folder Structure explained

Adobe Lightroom Catalog and Folder Structure explained

Adobe Lightroom (Lr or LR) is a photo processor and image organizer developed by Adobe Systems for Windows and OS X. It allows viewing, organizing and retouching large numbers of digital images. Lightroom’s edits are non-destructive. Despite sharing its name with Adobe Photoshop, it cannot perform many Photoshop functions such as doctoring (adding, removing or altering the appearance of individual image items), rendering text or 3D objects on images, or modifying individual video frames.

The above is straight from the Adobe website and sets one thing straight, many people think LR is an photo editing program which in it isn’t. LR is an application which is designed to manage your collection of images. It’s best to see it as a filing cabinet with a great set of features and a fantastic interface. Saying that, lightroom is indeed more than that. The power of lightroom lies in the database that contains all information of all your images. This means that you can use it to add keywords, attach labels which you can then use to search for any of your photo’s, you can create virtual collections, you can export in different formats etc etc.

On top of this, Lightroom (similar to your old Darkroom) has  some very advanced retouching functions.  These contain your regular cropping and color adjustment tools, amongst a lot of others. This is why a lot of photographers use lightroom as their main tool.   Adobe’s real photo editing program is off course Photoshop – which works seamless with Lightroom, but is not designed to manage your collection of photos.

Lightroom edits are non-destructive .  This means that any changes you do to a image, is not done to the original file. This is great, as it means that you can go back to the same picture at any time and undo or change what you have done to it.  All these changes you have done, are recorded in the database – the catalog.

Where it goes wrong: many people don’t fully understand how the catalog works & don’t understand the importance of it.  This article will help you understand why your catalogue is so important how to setup your structure (location)  – to prevent problem in future.

The catalog

As mentioned earlier the catalog is a database that contains all information lightroom has about the  images that are imported into that catalog. This information includes the location where the photo is stored, any keywords added, any rating, color label or flag assigned to that photo, and any edits done to that photo. 

The catalog contains all information about all images that are imported into that specific catalog

It might sound obvious, but this means that the Lightroom doesn’t know about any images that you did not (yet) import into the catalog that Lightroom is currently working with. Yes, Lightroom with multiple catalogues, for example you can have catalog per year, or for different purposes.  It’s therefore important that you use Lightroom to import pictures, and when you edit or want to move pictures, use Lightroom to do that, and to make sure these catalogs are not sharing the same folder structure. 

Lightroom is very advanced and offers the option to check the catalogue for errors and make backup copies, this to save you from loosing any work. I advise to use this option – every time you have done any changes. 

The catalogue location and folder structure

In the past years I have helped many people with setting up, or cleaning up, their Lightroom installation.  Most people that I have met made one big mistake – not having a strict way to store their pictures, and not knowing how to manage the catalog.  Not knowing this, can result that the catalog is hard to manage. Especially if you think about backup and recovery of your pictures.

Luckily the solution for this is simple, setting up the catalog in a clear way and minimize the number of locations that you store images by following a few steps and guidelines.

Tip number 1: Minimise the number of locations that you store your images - the more locations the more confusion and the more complicated it is to manage your Lightroom catalog. 

What I recommend people when creating a new catalogue is to create a catalogue with a very clear name for the purpose of that catalogue. I usually create this catalogue within the  pictures folder of that user.  But this could also be on any other internal or external drive. A very clear location and name could be: (these examples are based on a Mac installation, but they are similar for windows.)

Base location : "/Users/PeterPan/Pictures/"
Catalog Name : "Lightroom-PeterPan-Wedding"

To create a new catalog in LR, simply to go the file menu and select the “New Catalog” option, browse to the location where you want to create the catalog and then provide the name of the new catalog. If you have a catalog open, LR will have to close that first and hence you will get a pop up window with some questions about that.

In my example we use  Peter Lightroom collection for his Wedding photography business. The advantage of using the catalog name “Lightroom-PeterPan-Wedding” is that its clear to anyone from file level that this area is used for Lightroom, and as such should be managed by lightroom, and lightroom only. 

Tip number 2: Create a catalogue with a very clear name for the purpose of that catalogue.

When creating a new catalog with Lightroom, Lightroom will actually make a folder with your catalogue name and create the catalogue file and a image preview data file in this folder. In our example this looks like:

New Catalog files

In principle this is all you have to do to create a new catalogue. But it doesn’t take care of where you images will be stored.  So to make your life easier in the future, the trick is to create some additional folders. These folders are:

  • Catalogue – this folder will contain the Lightroom catalogue and the previews data file.
  • PicturesGoHere – this folder will contain your imported pictures
  • Backups – this folder will create the backups Lightroom makes of your catalogues

By creating these folders and moving the catalogue and previews data file into the Catalogue folder, you end up with something similar to this :

Modified Lightroom structure

Please do this after exiting Lightroom – moving files of any application when the application is open is generally not an good idea.

The advantage of doing this is :

  • You can tell lightroom to create a backup of the catalog every time you exit lightroom.  By doing this in a folder named the backups  folder, it’s clear that this contains the backup.  In principle you could also put this directory on an other drive (which would make sense, in case of a drive failure) but for now it’s clear that backups of this catalog are in this folder.

Note that this will only contain the Lighroom Catalog backup – not a backup of your pictures.

  • The catalog folder will only contain the working catalog and preview data. This very beneficial for creating backups.
  • The PicturesGoHere folder is used for the images you import into the catalogue. You can show the “PicturesGoHere” folder in the lightroom application, and hence it’s very clear to you where the pictures need to be copied to.

After doing these changes, lightroom  will give an error message “Lightroom catalog was not found.” This is due to the fact you moved the catalog file. To fix this, select “choose a different catalog” and then “choose a different catalog” again. Then browse to the location of the moved catalogue file (in our example “/Users/PeterPan/Pictures/Lightroom-PeterPan-Wedding/Catalog/Lightroom-PeterPan-Wedding.lrcat”)

Once you have done this, Lightroom will now open the catalog from this new location.

What about the PicturesGoHere folder ?

Yes, Importing your photo’s to the correct location was where it all started.  Remember we created the PicturesGoHere folder so that we have a single manageable location for the images that are imported into that catalog.

I advise to keep this at a single location, as it keeps it easy for the user to manage.  But if needed, for example if you run out of space on your local hard drive, you can move this single location to an external disk or create a second or third location.  As long you keep the number of locations as low as possible and with a clear name, you should be fine.

So, the next step is to tell lightroom where your pictures will be stored. As the example catalog is still empty, it will not show the newly created “PicturesGoHere” folder location. This is quite easy to fix – just go to the folders section on the left of the library interface, and by selecting the “+” symbol browse to the “PicturesGoHere” folder and select it. Now it will show up as a default folder where your pictures will be stored.  (It will still be dark gray, as there are no pictures imported yet)

PicturesGoHere in Lighroom Interface

When importing your images, please make sure that you do import them into this folder. How you structure your pictures within this folder is totally up to you, I personally use a year and then a shoot date with the event name (like PicturesGoHere\2016\20160510-Clairs Wedding) but this is totally up to you.  You can just have one big folder, or use folders starting with the date of the shoot, or event names…what ever suits you. But, if  you keyword your images correctly, lightroom can always find back a single or series of images – regardless in what folder the picture is. That’s why keyboarding is important (but that’s another topic).

Are we done yet ? Almost.

Backing up your Lightroom Catalog

The next step will be to tell lightroom when and where to make backups.  I always advise to let Lightroom backup the catalog every time you exit Lightroom. You can always skip it if you didn’t do any changes, and as such there is no need to create a backup. To set this up, select the Catalog Settings option under the lightroom menu. Select “Every time lightroom exits” from the “backup catalog option”

Tip 3: Let Lightroom backup the catalog every time you exit Lightroom. You can always skip it if you didn't do any changes.

Once you quit lightroom  a window will come up which will  show you the current backup folder. Use the choose option to select the new created backup folder.  Then quit lightroom by selecting Backup.  If you did it all correctly lightroom will make a backup before exiting. The catalog backup will be created in the backups folder, in a folder with the current date and time stamp.

Note that lightroom does not remove or overwrite any of the catalog backups it creates. This is left to the user to manage. Hence you need to periodically clean out old backups from the backups folder. As the Catalog file can become quite big, this can take up some valuable space of your hard drive. 

Tip 4: periodically clean out old backups from the backups folder. As the Catalog file can become quite big, this can take up some valuable space of your hard drive. 

Backing up the Lightroom catalog (backup) and your valuable images.

What, more about backup ? Yes, but you really almost there.  Yes, we now have lightroom setup with your images in one (or maybe 2) locations, and making a backup of the catalog file every time you exit. Hence, if your catalog gets corrupted, you can always restore a backup.

Restoring a catalog is as simple as uncompressing the backup file and copy the catalog file back into the catalog folder.

But what if you have a Hard drive failure ? Or you accidently delete any pictures directly from the PicturesGoHere folder? For this reason you will need to manually or automatically backup your complete lightroom folder.  (in our example, this is the “Lightroom-PeterPan-Wedding” folder). I propose to do this with a backup application.

The reason for using a dedicated backup application is because these applications only backup new or changed data. Hence if you have 20gb on images, but only changed a couple of pictures or added a couple of pictures, the application will only need to copy these pictures and not the full 20GB. Manually creating a copy of your Lightroom folder can be done, but will be time consuming.  For Mac users, apple has a good solution, being the TimeMachine. This back’s up your complete system but you  can configure it to include/exclude what you want.

One thing that you probably like to exclude is the previews data file (in the catalog folder). This file contains all previews that Lightroom has build for your pictures. In the case you need to restore, you can always rebuild your previews.  Hence you don’t need to backup this file.

Obviously, whenever you create the backup, do this on different drive than you have your Lightroom Catalog and Images stored. 

Tip 5: Create backups of your lightroom folder, including the catalog and all images. 

More on backups in another article in the next article.

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