Lightroom User? Don't Make This Common Mistake

Lightroom User? Don't Make This Common Mistake

For almost every photographer who shoots bulk works of images, Lightroom is an essential tool. But we often make the costly and frustrating mistake of letting our Lightroom catalogs grow too large.

When running an outdated computer system, speed issues are the clearest signs that you've let your Lightroom catalog grow too large. Most commonly you'll  experience lagging while processing your photos.

General computer speed is one of the biggest performance problems photographers face. Typically Photoshop is the culplit for eating up RAM, but Lightroom can cause issues as well. With Lightroom, poor performance can be caused by a number of factors (available RAM, hard drive space, GPU power, LR cache size setting, etc.).  Having at least 16GB of RAM will likely be enough to circumvent this issue, and that's what Adobe recommends in order to run Lightroom. It's also a good idea to also keep at least 20% of your hard drive space free.

Depending on your computer's processing power, a bloated Lightroom catalog could reduce your speed and efficacy. The past consensus is that once you're over 10,000 images (or if you shoot over 10,000 a year) it's best to start fresh with a new catalog. Nowadays however, computers have become much better at handling processing needed for quite large catalogs.

This may not apply to hobbyists, but for event photographers and other professionals who often shoot several hundred (or more) images in a single day and experience slowness, chances are you'll benefit from a new catalog when the time comes. How do you know if it's time to start a new catalog?

To keep tabs on your catalog size, go to your Library module and under Catalog on the upper left-hand side, check the number next to "All Photographs."

a screenshot of the Catalog module in Lightroom CC

My "All Photographs" display in Lightroom currently shows under 2,000 images in my catalog. Looks like it'll be good for a while.

Other Reasons for Working With Multiple Catalogs

Organization: Although you have Lightroom Collections at your disposal as Lightroom's ultimate organizational tool, catalogs can be used for archiving purposes as well. You can start a new catalog each year and name it accordingly (example: 2019.lrcat). For bulk images you can keep separate catalogs for your different photography genres or clients (example: 2018_nature.lrcat). This structure will make finding older archived work across multiple catalogs  much easier.

Storage and Sharing: Although Lightroom catalog files don't contain the actual images they're referencing, over time they can become relatively large files. If you need to transfer catalog files (plus the source images) to team members or clients, you're making it easier for your associates when you don't send them bulky catalog files.

Disadvantages of Multiple Catalogs

There are, however, some potential tradeoffs in using multiple catalogs. As I noted earlier, a hobbyist or low-volume shooter might be best off with a single catalog because of the ease of access with a single catalog. Having to open and search through multiple catalogs can be laborious. So if you're someone who only picks your camera up occasionally, you may as well keep everything in one place.

But even if you shoot low-volume and make a catalog for each year, you're creating a relatively simple system.

"What year did we vacation in Grenada? It was 2017?"

Boom. Open your 2017 catalog and you will find what you need.

I hope that this article has you thinking about how multiple catalogs can not only improve Lightroom's performance, but also help with organization instead of becoming a burden on your archiving. Please share your cataloging habits in the comments section below.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Author's note: Some readers have commented that this issue affects them, others not at all. It seems that processing power has progressed so that the 10,000 image figure could be well into the 30, 40 or 50 thousand plus per catalog. I urge you to experiment yourself and take note if Lightroom is running slowly.

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65 Comments

Grant Beachy's picture

That 10k number is fairly old I believe. I have 240k raw images in my LR catalog with no real slowdown issues, and most info I can find does not back a particular number or size up. Not sure why this idea keeps getting circulated.

Grant Beachy's picture

Also, fragmenting photos into catalogs means that searching by metadata is a pain in the butt. If I want to see how much I've used my macro lens over time, I would have to search 5 different catalogs, or I want skies from 2016 for a project, I can't put them in a new collection on my current catalog for quick access. There are a lot of downsides to multiple catalogs.

Scott Mason's picture

YMMV. Photography enthusiasts from all over the world (including several third world countries) and all economic levels read this site. Entry level computers come with 4GB RAM, and not everyone can afford upgrading RAM on their systems. These people comment on our articles and they're often frustrated with the gear they're working with.

Thanks for the note on metadata search though - I never search by lens and therefore haven't even thought of this scenario!

search isn't limited to what lens you've used :)

Why would third world photographers pay to use Lightroom if they can't afford a computer with more than 4GB ram? There are other more efficient alternatives that don't cost a penny, like Darktable or RawTherapee.

Omer Salom's picture

“Third world photographers” What does that even mean? There are people in your country (I can only guess where your are from) also who cannot afford the latest and greatest computer and camera equipment.

I was quoting Scott Mason who mentioned photographers from third world countries. You missed my point. None of those people would choose to pay a subscription for Lightroom CC. They would either use an older (and/or pirated) version of Lightroom or a free and open-source alternative.
I'm also still using Photoshop CS6 and Lightroom 5.7 but I'm slowly migrating to Darktable.

Adolf Boluda Soler's picture

Totally agree, my catalog is almost 200k images and no problems at all. I just make sure the catalog is in a separate SSD drive with enough free space available.

Thomas H's picture

As far I know, LR uses SQLite as its storage engine. The scale (size) of the DB is not the issue, only the number of queries and the limited locking might impact performance of the concurrent transactions. However, the way we work with any Raw-Converter, we do not deal with (say) thousands of transactions per second. It is a "single user" DB application, thus the simple locking is not a hindrance either. I do not think that anything in the range of even several hundred thousands of images impacts the performance. I do use multiple catalogs for a different reason, however, their size of up tp 50-90 thousands of images does not impact LR6 at all.

( I do not subscribe to software, I never will, unless forced to. Thus I have no idea if LR's often criticized performance has improved. )

Strongly disagree with this. I'm a sports photographer and I have two catalogues, one on my desktop with 92k images and a mobile catalogue that I use on my laptop at games that never has more than 1000-2000 images at a time. There is absolutely no discernable difference in speed between the two.

As Grant Beachy posts above, the idea that you needed to have multiple small catalogues to maintain performance is outdated and has not been the case for many years.

I have only found one disadvantage in having a single catalogue and that is that my catalogue backups take longer as they are backing up data for all my images, whereas multiple catalogues would mean that I could possibly go years without ever being asked to backup my 2010 catalogue. However, given backups happen when I quit Lightroom and walk away from desk for the day, it's not exactly a hardship.

Scott Mason's picture

The article was addressed to those with outdated systems who experience slow processing speed. Glad to hear yours runs smoothly, but it doesn't seem this was meant for you.

I agree that there are downsides to multiple catalogs, a couple of which I pointed out in the article. Thanks for reading.

Paul Parkinson's picture

Another +1 on this article being just plain wrong. My catalogue is ~100,000 and I see no slow down with my 16Gb RAM machine. Do you even Lightroom?

Some Photographers can have super fast computers but some don't. I did what the writer suggested and it worked for me. I used a Mac 2015 16G 500HD. I think Photographers are quick to pick up the sword. Please understand we have other growing PHOTOGRAPHERS. Peace

"When running an outdated computer system, speed issues are the clearest signs that you've let your Lightroom catalog grow too large."

With all due respect, these speed issues are the clearest sign that you're

A) Running Lightroom
B) Running an outdated computer system

But you'll experience these issues regardless of the catalog size.

jacob kerns's picture

What are you using a Commodore 64? Most computers with and i5-i7 from 2008-2019 can handle Lightroom with 8GB of ram. (Maybe not an Apple System that is stuck with an old OS)

I have an old 2008 - i7 920 with Win10 that I use as photo/ remote storage it still runs Lightroom fine even though I've switched to Capture One now.

Vincent Alongi's picture

Jacob, what's your take in moving from LR to Capture One? I'm considering the switch... benefits / drawbacks? I've read reviews and comparisons. But I always look to real-world users.

The only draw back i have experience since switching to capture one is that there is no Photo merge function so i still use lightroom only for that.

jacob kerns's picture

The image processing is better but the photo import and management leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

It doesn't have a dehaze tool unless its called something else.

Im still experimenting with it.

Scott Mason's picture

It's a Coleco Adam computer and it runs Oregon Trail like a champ!

Gion-Andri Derungs's picture

I never expercienced an issue with the catalog size in LR. I had 40k pictures in it. LR has other perfomance issues. Non or less, I think the perfomance in the C1 catalog is bad. I don't know, but it takes ages to load all the pictures, if the catalog grows.

My current major catalog has about 200k raw images in it. I find that once I hit 500k I do run into problems. My current computer is a Macbook Pro, with 16 gigs of ram. All data files, images, are on external hard drives. I will hopefully be upgrading to a new Imac with more ram later this year.

Scott Mason's picture

Thank you for confirming that the issue still affects modern systems.. Perhaps the figure of 10,000 images does need to be updated to 40 or 50K though.

Is there an additional drawback to using multiple catalogs with regards to syncing with Adobe Cloud?

Scott Mason's picture

I've not synched images this way, but I hope someone who has can chime in!

Jaap Venhovens's picture

As far as I know it's not the catalogs slowing lightroom down (unless u need to switch a lot to your library). I have a well specced late iMac , and in my opinion the bottleneck in processing pictures is the more edits you apply on an image (especially with brushes or stamps) the slower it gets. I believe that flaw to be in the core design of Lightroom that is unlike PS not working with layers. Of course using an outdated or machine desigend for inter browsing will further slow down your experience, but I never had issues with extensive catalogs
either.

Scott Mason's picture

Interesting. I wonder what it is about large catalogs that affects someone people's performance and doesn't seem to hinder others at all.

Rob Mitchell's picture

Catalogue per client. Since for ever.

Scott Mason's picture

I personally think the switching between would drive me nuts but to each their own!

Rob Mitchell's picture

Working on one catalogue for all clients would do my head in too.
Plus: If I have a client sitting next to me to select or process their images, seeing other clients images pop up isn't professional at all.

Workflow is how it suits the individual.

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