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One of the best features of Adobe Lightroom (all versions) is the ability to have multiple catalogs. A catalog is a database that tracks the location of your RAW files and information about them. This includes any Develop Module adjustments you’ve done to them, as well as keywords, ratings, and labels. The power of catalogs is the flexibility it gives you to organize your image library, or enhance your particular workflow. Each catalog can contain different pictures, and can reside on different computers or hard drives (but not on a network.)

One Catalog or Multiple Catalogs?

There are basically two schools of thought on using catalogs effectively, one master catalog, or several multiple catalogs. and there’s no right or wrong way. It really depends on your needs and preferences. Some popular approaches for using multiple catalogs include:

  • Separate catalogs for professional and personal work.
  • Separate catalogs for each major trip you take (vacation, workshops, etc)
  • If you’re a commercial photographer, perhaps a separate catalog for each client (ie. Weddings. Portraits, etc)
  • Separate catalogs for specific projects

Of course there is no reason why you can’t use one single catalog for all of your work. Adobe recommends using one catalog, and some advantages include:

  • Simpler workflow since everything you shoot is kept in one catalog – helps avoid confusion. Multiple catalogs can become difficult to manage over time.
  • You can take full advantage of Lightroom’s ability to sort and filter images, including using keywords, ratings and labels, collections, smart collections, and folders. You can search for anything in one place, and combine images from different shoots, clients, subject matter, and places without having to switch catalogs
  • One new feature of Lighroom 5 is Smart Previews which means we can now make Develop adjustments on images without the RAW files being online (the can be on a disconnected hard drive or another computer all together.) This means that it’s really easy to copy your one master catalog (without the original RAW files) to your laptop, then rate, sort, keyword and make adjustments to any image. When you return, you can sync the catalog with your original files. Using one catalog makes this simple and efficient.
  • Finally, with the speed of computers and hard drives improving, and Lightroom getting faster and more efficient, managing large catalogs (upwards of 100,000 images or more) does not cause performance issues like in the past. Lightroom has no upper limit on how many images any single catalog can contain, it will depend on the performance of your computer.

My Approach

My particular strategy is based on my professional and personal needs, and based on years of using Lightroom as my main photo application. They may not work for you and it’s not necessarily the right way, but I hope it gives you some ideas to improve your workflow.

  • I keep a Master Catalog where I import most of my images, regardless of work or personal, subject, etc for the many reasons mentioned above for using a single catalog. Because I make full use of keywords, I can instantly find any image I’m looking for without having to switch catalogs.
    One specific example where this comes in handy is when I’m printing. Often I make a print where there is extra space available on the paper for another smaller print. Why throw away perfectly good paper right?
    So I’ll find an image I’d like to print in the space available, and use the Custom Package feature in the Print Module to create a layout that takes advantage of the unused space on the paper. Often this might be an image totally unrelated to the main image, like a family member or friend. Having a single catalog for all of my images makes this possible and handy (plus gets me points with the in-laws.)


  • Finally, I use separate Catalogs for very specific projects that I want to keep separate from my master catalog. Some examples include: workshop catalogs I use to teach from, book projects, and other photographers I make prints for. This approach works better for me when they’re not a part of my main catalog.
  • I keep my Master Catalog together with my RAW files on a RAID drive which makes backing up my image archive very easy. Plus it also makes it relatively easy to access my archive on different computer, especially if I have a computer failure or system crash.

General Recommendations

My general recommendation is to keep one master catalog where you can organize, sort, and filter all of your images for maximum efficiency. Keep things simple and easy to manage. When you find a real need for a separate catalog, then go ahead and see how that affects your workflow. Otherwise, make use of the powerful filtering and sorting features in Lightroom.

In part II, I’ll cover working with multiple catalogs and also one of the most common question I get on workshops- “how do I merge catalogs.” This is especially useful when working with a laptop in the field. Stay tuned…

Any questions or feedback, or suggestions for future posts on Lightroom, let me know!

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