The Art of Lightroom Catalog Management

The Art of Lightroom Catalog Management

Lightroom is a great tool for photographers of all types, in addition to the powerful suite of editing tools at your disposal, there is a robust cataloging system to help you keep your collection manageable and easily navigable. But with the ability to create and manage an infinite number of separate catalogs, how exactly should one consider spliting up their collection, if at all?

Well that, of course depends on who you are as a photographer, and how much you like organization. Let's take a look at a few scenarios, shall we?


The Catch All

This method is for those of us who lack in the area of organizational expertise, or those of us who excel at procrastination.

One catalog encompassing every photo we have ever taken since we started taking photos. This catalog has everything from family photos, to that gig you shot last week for a client. This catalog has grown big and unwieldy, and has likely grown beyond 20,000 photos. Unless you have been vigilant with your keywording routine, good luck finding anything in this heap.


  • Requires little thought when maintaining. Just import your photos and forget about it.
  • Everything in one place, no need to bounce between catalogs.


  • This catalog can grow quite large in a hurry.
  • Time consuming to navigate.
  • If you haven't been using keywords, good luck finding anything older than a few weeks.
  • Lack of organization.


Personal Projects and Business Projects

This is where organization begins. Using this method, a photographer would create two catalogs, one for all personal photographs, and one for all business photographs, effectively separating work from play in terms of photos.

This could be beneficial for a number of reasons. First, it theoretically allows for two smaller catalogs, making navigation easier. Secondly, it allows you to focus on what is important in any given edit session. I don't know about everyone else, but sometimes I get into Lightroom with the intent of editing client work, and the next thing I know, I have two hours invested in a personal photo project. With two separate catalogs, I would have to load my personal projects catalog to see those photos, making it more difficult to get distracted.


  • Keeps your paid work and personal work separated, making it easier to focus on either work or    play.
  • Smaller, more manageable catalogs.


  • requires you to load a separate catalog.



One great way to separate your photos is by the category of the photos. For example, you could create a catalog that holds all of your landscape photos, one for your portraits, one for your family photos and so on. This will help to keep your catalogs organized in such a way that it will make finding photos of a specific type much easier.


  • Easily find your photos based on their category.
  • Catalogs Stay at smaller, more manageable sizes.


  • Multiple catalogs to keep track of.



This one is pretty self explanatory. New year equals new catalog. This will allow for more manageable sized “Catch All” catalogs separated by year.


  • Catalogs neatly separated by year.
  • Smaller catalogs.


  • Still has the same cons as a "Catch All" catalog.


LR Cataloging Post


As you can see, there are many different ways to catalog your photos in Lightroom. The ideas I mentioned are just a small sampling of the many ways you can catalog your photos. The way you catalog your photos is really up to you and what best fits your needs. Share your cataloging workflow with us in the comments below.

Log in or register to post comments


Nice article! I wish you would have explained the process of cataloging, and some tips/tricks to help with the process.

Patrick Gensel's picture


I certainly plan to. There is a whole process I want to explain regarding moving photos from one catalog to another. Look for it soon!

Sounds great! Can't wait for that!

I've been using LR since beta 1, and my organizational system has evolved a lot in that time. I started out with one catalog for everything, and folders named only by date.

I really think one organized catalog or two (work and personal) is the way to go, but you have to use real names and keywords. Rename on import, put a one or two word slug in the file name (I use YYYYMMDD_slug_HHMMSS.dng) . Put that same slug in the subfolder you're importing to (ex: YYYY > MMDD_slug).

Using metadata (keywords, names, locations) is so important it's not even funny.

The power of a single, organized LR catalog is that it's searchable. You aren't going to remember what month you shot that one awesome thing two years later. Hell, you might not even remember what year it was, but you might remember the place, or the model, or the client, or the camera/lens. I have a probably 100k images in my LR catalog at home, and I can still find stuff in less than 5 minutes.

At work, it's a little bit different, since we're project-based, and dealing with assets beyond stills. When I shoot stills for a project, there's a single LR catalog for that project, but we're tracking all of that info in a different system. Since we're primarily a video house, it's not practical to use LR for organization, though we're in the process of trying to get a metadata manager in place.

Patrick Gensel's picture

You are absolutely right! Keywording may be the single most important part of an effective catalog. WIthout memorable, relevant keywords, the search feature might as well not be there. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Benicio Murray's picture

great tip about renaming on import. I'm going to start doing it that way.

I also use the renaming on import.. I try to add a few key words to the file name too.. helps you find stuff quickly.. 20130322_kids_snow.jpg. I use a catalog for each year at the minute..

For the sake of discussion: what is the benefit of renaming files? Lightroom doesn't care what the filenames are. In terms of catalog usability it seems to me like the only benefit would be in naming the import folder so they are human-readable in the Folders panel. As you said, at the Catalog level it's all about metadata: keywords, Collections, ratings, EXIF/camera data, etc — the file system level is (and *should be*) invisible to us from within Lightroom.

The drawback i always come across when hard-renaming files and folders in the filesystem is choosing what system or words to use, because you can only use *one*. The conflict for me happens when a photo or photoshoot can fall into multiple categories. For example, should you always name by location, or subject, or event, etc? If i go to a concert while on vacation, does the concert go in its own folder, or is it part of the vacation folder? Or maybe each day of the vacation is its own folder? In the Catalog it's all "virtual" so you can tag photos with multiple keywords, as well as organize photos into multiple Collections, and still of course search by date and camera info.

Of course any system is better than none, and with a well-keyworded and organized Catalog the filenames don't really matter. But i'm wondering if it's worth the extra step when importing.

The renaming is more about making it human-readable outside of the app. If I need to dig into the folders for some reason, I at least want some kind of clue as to what I'm looking at. It also makes it easier if I'm sending files out for review/selection. If someone says "give me 20130322_Sally_123142-02," I know exactly which image we're talking about.

andersonimage's picture

Or the Art of not spell checking a 6 word headline.

Patrick Gensel's picture

Opps! thanks for the call out. All fixed.

Try the Jared Platt Creative Live show. He shows one huge catalog will slow LR down. Keeping youre files organized like you should with any file system and creating a new catalog for each "project" or as he calls Job and converting youre images to dng's speeds things up. Abobe bridge can find all keywords in youre files so it can search entire drives for any keyword.

Patrick Gensel's picture

I definitely notice a slow down in bigger catalogs. I didn't realize Bridge could browse keywords across multiple catalogs. I may need to make use of that. Thanks for the info.

Benicio Murray's picture

Such a timely article. I've been trying to figure out the best approach for my catalogues for a while now.

I break them up by shoot, misc year and holiday/event.

The problem I see with catalogs by category is that it might be troublesome to separate them when importing. Say you go all day shooting, you might end up with mostly portraits but there is likely gonna be some ambient shots, "natures mortes" and say some urban landscape. Do you really want to be doing culling some kind of culling before you actually import?

I was putting everything into one basket at the beginning. Then, once it started to grow into 10,000+ photos, I decided to split catalogs into portraits, studio, landscape etc. But now I have even simpler way to manage photos.

Every single photoshoot/job/event/whatever has it's own catalogue. I don't see reason of putting two different shoots together. They are unrelated, different clients/projects etc. This way my catalogues stay small and open faster plus I can edit them quicker. I can find anything I need if I have to. Just use unique name + date of catalogue and put it into subfolder. So, for example I split photos by year e.g. 2012 and then type e.g. Portraits, Studio, Events and then inside you can find all catalogues :)

I am pretty much happy with my way of managing photos and so far its efficient. If I have to move catalogue from one drive to another, it is quicker as I move only a limited number of photos ;) See folder tree below to get the idea ;)

Patrick Gensel's picture

Interesting. I may have to consider this going forward.

how do you handle it when you want to make a collection that consists of a series of images that ranges across different jobs?

I never had a need for it, but you can link catalogues between each other. Like have a master catalogues and import photos from other catalogues into Master without moving? You can select what exactly you want to import, which folders etc? I was able to do it with Lightroom 2 ages ago.

I know my system is not perfect, but I prefer to split my folders per shoot. :)

Being newer to LR, started with 4.3 I would have never thought of keeping everyting in one catalog. I've often wondered how people managed their catalogs. I catalog my photos in indvidual folders labeled YYYY_MM_DD Subject which allows me to easily find and keep photos organized by year. I've just added a folder in my structure called LR and create a new catalog for each event. I wind up reloading catalogs a lot with this method, but I find managing large catalogs a pain and I can find what I'm looking for easily.
Is there any downside to having a catalog for each event? Like will I lose data or corrupt files, etc?
Let me know if I should change my process, I have a few pictures mean a lot to me that I don't want to lose my process of how I edited them.
Thanks for the article.

Patrick Gensel's picture

I don't see any specific problem with your catalog workflow, and I don't see any reason your way would be any more prone to corruption than mine. That said, I highly and I mean HIGHLY encourage you to make at least one, if not two backups of your folder structure (Containing the actual RAW images) As well as backing a backup of the Catalog file (This is the one that LR creates, which stores the settings for each of your photos.) for every one of your catalogs.

Thanks Patrick, I use 2 2TB hard drives that I offsite every 6 months, sad to think that 2TB is getting low and will need to go to larger drives soon. I guess this is why cloud storage won't work for photo/videographers for backup in the near term. Thanks again Patrick!

Oliver Oettli's picture

I do also have a seperate catalogue for each of my projects. Some projects are ongoing, then it all goes in one catalogue.
Most of the time however, I make a new catalogue for each shooting. This is especially helpful since Lightroom does not support catalogues on network drives (which is really really stupid). So when I want my assistant to work on some pictures, she needs to have the catalogue on her own computer. That way she can work on one project and I can work on the other one.

I'm LR user starting from the very first versions and I use one catalog, with all benefits of keyword searching. Yet, catalog is huge, but my PC can handle it and I can search any projects I've worked on years ago. LR has quite nice search result filtering system, which makes it easy to narrow search results. I only use separate catalog for time lapse projects.

My issue was having multiple locations and multiple computers. My solution was that my laptop gets a catalog, my desktop gets a catalog, my external hard drives get their own catalog too. Having a 1Tb portable drive (working catalog) allows me to casually make selections wherever I am and I can later edit them on the bigger desktop screen. Additionally I keep a back up of the catalog and images on a separate 3Tb drive that remains in a separate location (other than my office or home). I can easily move or archive images by creating temporary catalogs of whatever I like. Its hard to know how you are going to use LR before you are using it. It is an evolutionary process and I wanted flexibility without the prospect of confusion. Additionally to keep speeds up I limit the amount of work I have in the "working" catalog, optimize regularly, and have LR make my previews while I am doing something else. The one addition that has made my LR work SOOOO much faster is RPG Keys. Literally has saved me hours of work.

I leave everything in one, well organized catalog. When I am on the road I use my laptop, export as catalog and then import the new catalog. I have my personal folder, business folder all subdivided by date, client, job trip etc. I also make extensive use of collections to organize photos for my portfolio, website and printing.
I have about 50k images and do not have any performance issues, although I house it all on a thunderbolt raid (backed up of course) I always rename when I import.
The one thing I don't do as heavily as I should is key wording. I find that at a high level, it is easy to apply keywords, but I have never really used them in my wedding catalog. I have a large stock catalog that I wish was keyworded more appropriately.

I do a catalogue for every project titled (2013.03.23.client.project) then I do a catalogue every month for personal work (2013.03.01 palmers). Everything is keyword and dated on import.

I have a folder system set up as a template that I use for every project. In it there is a folder for raw files, several export folders (blog, print, etc) the and a folder with a lightroom catalog file in it. When I start a job I copy the template folder, rename it and the catalog then copy the raw files from the card into the raw folder. I then open the catalog and import these into lightroom. This makes for a self contained folder that can be easily moved between computers and backed up. It is also nice to only have one clients images in a catalog for when I am showing them images.

1 catalog, 2 parent folders (clients and private), folder per job. folder naming yyyymmdd_client_job. image yyyymmdd_client_job_seq.
100k + will find what I look for in under 2 minutes

Andrew Von Haden's picture

That's what I do...I never understood the point of catalogs if you just have a well organized file structure.