Laura Shoe's Lightroom (and Occasionally Photoshop) Blog for Digital Photographers

About Your Images and the Lightroom Catalog: The Library Analogy

In Uncategorized on April 6, 2009 at 4:56 pm

Alot of people have a hard time understanding where their images are in the Lightroom environment, what the catalog is, and how it all fits together.  This is completely understandable, as the terminology is confusing.

Think of a public library — you have stacks and stacks of books everywhere — the main floor, 2nd floor, 3rd, …., in the basement, and even offsite.   And you have the centrally-located card catalog (or web catalog), which helps you find and make sense of those books.  The catalog has an entry for each book, with its location in the stacks, what the book is about, copyright and publication  information, a picture of the front cover, etc, etc.    When you want to work with books,  you don’t go to the stacks and walk along them until you find what you want — you go to the catalog.  Furthermore, if you put a paperback that you bought at the grocery store in the stacks, it is as if it is not there — it is not accessible to people until the librarian creates an entry in the catalog for it.

So here’s the analogy:  your images are like the stacks of books — they sit on your hard drives in folders however you decide to organize them.   The Lightroom catalog is just like the card catalog — it is a centrally located collection of information about each of your images that you have taken the time to create an entry for.   By default this catalog is located in a “Lightroom Catalog” folder in your Pictures folder on your internal hard drive.

Contrary to what you would think  “import” means, when you “import images” , you are not moving your images — you are simply creating an entry for each  image in the centrally-located Lightroom catalog.   Once your images have been entered into the catalog (i.e. imported), you can see them in Lightroom, and you can work on them.   You may have thousands of images on your hard drive(s) that you don’t see in Lightroom — just like the paperback that was put in the stacks, they aren’t accessible to you through Lightroom until you enter/import them into the catalog.

But, you say,  the Import dialog  asks you if you want to copy or move your  images, so importing must move your images, right?  No — the fact that the Import dialog allows you to move or copy images (usually used to copy from a memory card to the permanent location of your choice on your hard drive) is simply a convenience to you — it is not the import itself, which is simply the creation of catalog entries.

So what information is stored in an image’s catalog entry?   The location of the image,  metadata (data about the image – more about this in another post), keywords, ratings and labels you have assigned in LR or Bridge, jpeg previews of the image, and what I call the Develop recipe:  a set of instructions representing the enhancements you make to your image in LR.

An Image Catalog Entry

A Lightroom Catalog Entry for an Image (It doesn't really look this way, but carrying the analogy along, think of it as a card in the card catalog)

Note that when you look at an image in LR, you are looking at a jpeg copy/preview of the image  that LR has added to the central catalog — just like when you see a picture of the book cover in the public library web catalog, you are not looking at the actual book.  This way LR (the librarian!) doesn’t have to go get the image from the hard drive every time you want to look at it.

So let’s carry the analogy further:  in the public library, it really does not matter how the books are organized in the stacks — alphabetical by author first name, the dewey decimal system backwards, etc..  — as long as the card catalog can communicate to you where a book is located.  Same with LR — LR does not care how you organize your images on your hard drive, and it doesn’t help you to organize them — it is up to you to decide on a folder structure that works for you.  (For example, a Pictures folder with year folders within that, and shoot folders within the year folders.)  Lightroom would be just as happy if you dumped all your images on your desktop, as it will simply record that that is where it should go to find them — but we know that this would be a mess for us in other ways.

One of the things you may have heard about Lightroom or observed yourself is that it can do searches very, VERY fast.  I can do a search of all 20,000 images in my catalog for just winter tree images shot with my wide angle lens, and before I snap my fingers, LR will have them displayed.   Why is this?  Because LR searches the central catalog, rather than going out and looking for the images on your hard drive(s) — just like in the public library you can find a book much faster by going to the card catalog than walking up and down the stacks searching for it.

If you store your images on one or more external hard drives, you may have noticed that even when those drives are not plugged in, your images are still visible in LR, and you can do Library module work with them (assign keywords, rate, label, add metadata, sort, put in collections, etc..), as well as build slide shows and other output. How is this possible?  The same way that if you can do library research at night on the web, even though the library is closed — you are accessing information in the catalog, not in the stacks.

I’m sure I will have more to say about the catalog in the future, but hopefully this is a start to clarifying what the catalog is about.  If I have made any sense, next time someone asks you where your images are, you won’t answer  “they are in Lightroom”, you will say where on your hard drive you put them.

  1. Thank you for the clarification. It really helps me. Another question: I was cleaning out my computer and moving some photos from C: drive, My photos, by cutting and pasting to an external F:Maxtor drive sorted by date, and I possibly clairified the date with an addition of a couple of key words following. How do I re-connect these to the lightroom catalogue? My LR library catalog file folder shows them as “? date ” under the year.
    Can you copy your response to my email above? I’m not sure how to seek an answer on this ‘blog?’ thank you.
    Kathy Bezy, La Paz, Baja Sur, Mx.

    • Hi Kathy, you have confused Lightroom by moving and renaming your folders and/or files outside of Lightroom. It just doesn’t know where they are. If your folders have question marks, right-click on them and select “Find Missing Folder”. Navigate to the new folder name/location. Click here for a post on the issue. If just individual images have question marks, click on the question mark and Find the image in the same way. Next time, use LR to move and rename your files and folders, and you won’t have this issue.

  2. I was doing some clean up within a catalog labeled 2007, but I noticed that the group of photo’s were taken in 2005 and need to be transferred into the 2005 catalog. How?

    • Hi Ron, I’m in favor of having all years in one catalog unless it gets prohibitively large (over 100,000 photos with LR2), but here’s what you would do: In the Folders panel, select the 2005 folder. Go to File>Export as Catalog. Choose a name for this temporary catalog folder and put it on the desktop. Don’t include the negative files.

      In your 2005 catalog, go to File>Import from Catalog. Navigate to the catalog file within the folder on your desktop. This will launch the Import dialog. Add to the catalog without moving; Import.

      Done! Now delete the folder on your desktop, and Remove the photos from your 2007 catalog (select the images, hit the Delete button on your keyboard and choose Remove. (Not delete from disk!)

      Best wishes,

      Laura

  3. Thanks and great information clearly explain and I like the analogy. It will certainly stick in my memory.

    One question:

    Lets say I have two catalogues:

    A Photos from 2005-2009

    B Photos from 2009

    Is there a way to insure any keyword assignment (for example) made in one catalogue follows with the photos into the other catalogue?

    Also – If I like to have catalogue B at home and at my work is there any easy way to keep this all in sync or do you recommend carrying an external hard drive?

    • Hi Jeff,

      The easy one first — to use your catalog both at home and work, store the catalog and your images on an external hard drive. See my post on this topic here.

      I am not clear why you would want both a 2005-2009 catalog and a 2009 catalog. There is no automatic way to keep them both up-to-date. If you are going to go this route, in both catalogs I would go to Catalog Settings and check “Automatically Write Changes to XMP.” That way your changes in either catalog will be written to these sidecar files that tag along with the images. Let’s say you work in the 2009 catalog. Your changes will get written to XMP. Then when you open up the 2005-2009 catalog, you would want to select all images you have worked on in 2009, and go to Metadata>Read Metadata from File. This will update the 2005-2009 catalog with your changes, from the XMP files. However, if you don’t remember what you have done where, this can become very confusing.

      Say more on why you would want two catalogs, and perhaps I can help you come up with a better solution.

  4. I appreciate the swift response.

    I have 180,000 images from 1999 to 2009.

    My series of hard drives are something like
    Drive I 1999-2004
    Drive II 2005-2006
    Drive III 2007-2008
    Drive IV 2009

    I know it would be so much easier to have a catalog for each year and keep the file sizes manageable and catalogs zippier but here is why I keep mega catalog

    Inevitably I want to find a series of photos of my son at various ages or I want to find that one beachhouse photo – I don’t like the idea of loading and searching catalog year by year.

    I am experimenting with a 2009 only catalog but then the problem of keywords in one catalog and not the other.

    Am I missing something easier? How would you do it?

    Thanks for all your time and input.

    • I am in favor of one large catalog, with all my years, but clearly you do have alot of images for one catalog. The first thing I would do is take steps to keep it running efficiently. In Catalog Settings, I would automatically discard the 1:1 previews on a regular basis, and periodically Relaunch and Optimize (also from Catalog Settings).

      If it is still running slow, then I think you are doing what I would do. I would just commit to making all my 2009 changes in the 2009 catalog, so that I don’t have a mix of changes across the two catalogs to sort out. The XMP method I gave you has limitations – it will not carry collections and virtual copies across catalogs. If you use these, a better option would be to occassionally select your 2009 folder (or a subfolder you have worked on), right-click and select “Export folder as catalog.” (Don’t include the negatives.) Save this onto your desktop, then go to your 1999-2009 catalog, File>Import from Catalog, and select the .lrcat file from the folder on the desktop. This will launch the Import dialog. For images that LR sees are in both catalogs, select to update develop settings and metadata only. After the import you can delete the folder on the desktop.

      I don’t have any evidence to back it up, but I would bet that LR3 and future releases will continue to improve performance for large catalogs.

  5. […] links to it.  For those who haven’t read it, I thought I would call your attention to it:  click here to read. ▶ Comment /* 0) { jQuery('#comments').show('', change_location()); […]

  6. This is now taped on my wall by monitor – thanks.

    1. Occasionally select your 2009 folder (or a subfolder you have worked on),

    2. right-click and select “Export folder as catalog.”

    3. (Don’t include the negatives.)

    4. Save this onto your desktop,

    5. then go to your 1999-2009 catalog,

    6. File>Import from Catalog, and select the .lrcat file from the folder on the desktop.

    7. This will launch the Import dialog.

    8. For images that LR sees are in both catalogs, select to update develop settings and metadata only.

    9. After the import you can delete the folder on the desktop.

    One question though – just curious why I need steps 1-4 as opposed to selecting my 2009 catalogue directly in step 1? I am sure there is a good reason you could explain.

    Thanks again – huge help!

    • I don’t know what I was thinking as I typed this, Jeff. Yes, you would skip steps 1-5 and in #6 select your 2009 catalog! Sorry for the confusion.

  7. Terrific – saves time. The entire process has really helped with speed, thanks.

  8. […] a good overview of the lightroom catalog concept: About Your Images and the Lightroom Catalog: The Library Analogy […]

  9. […] you import images into Lightroom, you are not moving your images into Lightroom.  (See my post The Library Analogy for how it actually does work.)  This trips up so many users — it is not uncommon for newer […]

  10. I prefer the way Bridge handles files (just shows me everything in my folder tree, I generally steer clear of applications relying on catalogs). But having seen the light of Lightroom, I’m trying to make the switch. Is there a way I can set LR to auto-detect files in my folders and skip the Import process? This is especially annoying when I’m moving images into PS for editing, saving the JPG copy, and then having to hunt it down to import to continue proofing a large shoot. Slows me down tremendously. In Bridge, after editing in PS, the new copy just shows up on its own. Thanks!

    • If from within Lightroom you select “edit in Photoshop”, work on and then save your image within PS into the same folder and return to LR, LR should have automatically imported your file from PS. If not, you can right-click on your folder in the Library folder panel, and choose Synchronize. LR will detect anything in the folder that has not been imported, and import it (with or without going through the Import dialog, per your choice).

  11. […] taking the next week off, I thought I would repost my most popular article of 2009 — “About Your Images and the Lightroom Catalog — the Library Analogy.” If you have already read this, scroll down and check out what else you may have missed in the […]

  12. […] About Your Images and the Lightroom Catalog: The Library Analogy … Apr 6, 2009 … I was doing some clean up within a catalog labeled 2007, but I noticed that the group of photo's … […]

  13. […] this blog post that I highly recommend you read, I talk more about the catalog concept using the public library […]

  14. […] this blog post that I highly recommend you read, I talk more about the catalog concept using the public library […]

  15. […] week off, I thought I would repost what is by far my most popular article of 2009 — “About Your Images and the Lightroom Catalog — the Library Analogy.” If you have already read this, scroll down to the archives at the bottom of this page and check out […]

  16. […] you import images into Lightroom, you are not moving your images into Lightroom.  (See my post The Library Analogy for how it actually does work.)  This trips up so many users — it is not uncommon for newer […]

  17. […] this blog post that I highly recommend you read, I talk more about the catalog concept using the public library […]

  18. […] week off, I thought I would repost what is by far my most popular article of 2009 — “About Your Images and the Lightroom Catalog — the Library Analogy.” If you have already read this, scroll down to the archives at the bottom of this page and check out […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s