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When running an outdated computer system, speed issues are the clearest signs that you've let your Lightroom catalog grow too large.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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Previous comments
Alexander Petrenko's picture

They will not, they are in a separate folder.

Scott Mason's picture

Yes Alexander, creating separate Catalogs (or folders) is one of the best organizational tools that you can use with LR.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Catalogs are LR catalogs, folders are within LR catalogs in my comment.

Scott Mason's picture

10-4. I can see the use for extra organization by implementing folders within catalogs.

Bill VanderMolen's picture

To clarify for my understanding, a whole new catalog for each client or a new folder?

Deleted Account's picture

Each client has a catalogue. In that catalogue are folders named for each shoot date. For example.: 2019_04_10 Webshop

So I have a chronological list of shoots for the clients, all in their own catalogue.
Most of my clients are repeat customers, some I even have 2 or 3 shoots a week for them.

I agree, if I wanted to search my entire back catalogue for 'Pink elephants in tutu' I've have to know which catalogue to start looking in. However, if a client asks me for photos of their beer bottles from brand X, I can call them up within seconds by switching to their catalogue, as it's a known factor, and with the aid of correct tagging, I can quickly sift the 10's of 1000's of images I have for them.

So far, for the last 10 years that I've used LR, it's all worked out perfectly fine.

Gerald Perkins's picture

What version of LR are you using? Current subscription version or an older version that can't be upgraded. That might make a difference in catalog performance

Scott Mason's picture

Good point. I always upgrade my Adobe products, and performance only gets better when doing so.

Jay Gosdin's picture

Scott Kelby says never have more than one catalog! And his is big! I will go with his word any day over this guy!

Photo Pete's picture

Kelby is 100% correct. This is objectively bad advice based purely on antecdotal evidence and speculation. Many have done tests up to hundreds of thousands of images in one catalog and shown zero noticeable change.

Drive speed and ram are the reasons for the vast majority of slowdowns. Followed by processor speed.

Deleted Account's picture

You don't mention other slow computer items, for the LR catalog I use a 500gb mobile Samsung T3 SSD, which I use on my laptop and computer and make a backup on my 4 times faster Samsung NVMe SSD 970 Evo M.2 in my computer, 100k + photo's. I don't backup with the LR settings, but mirror the catalog with a backup program (also automatic with my NAS).

super steel_'s picture

let me fix that
"Don't Make This Common Mistake and be a Lightroom User"

our family has long left adobe. bloated and buggy and hasnt gotten faster

the one time when I shot a wedding and I had no cell coverage or wifi and couldnt connect to adobe to use LR. that was the last straw

Scott Mason's picture

I'm curious why using Lightroom on-site at a wedding is a must for you.. Do you shoot weddings tethered? Edit on-site??

super steel_'s picture

we do slide shows at the venue sometimes. sometimes we show save the date shots, other times well edit the G&B shots we did of them together
1 photog edits, while another does the family images. takes around 40 minutes. edit+slideshow creation.

sometimes we shoot in isolated quiet places. and cell coverage can be bad and sometimes no wifi either.

Adam Palmer's picture

700k images here. I used to start a new catalog around 400k but I haven't noticed any slowdown. I think LR has solved the issues. I am going to take a 2,000,000 file cat and test it. I am very tuned into the performance as I spend a lot of time editing.

9900k 32gb, 2x 1 gb nvme SSD, etc. Photos on standard 8tb WD drives

Scott Mason's picture

Please update us when you reach 2M!

Gerald Perkins's picture

I wonder what impact workflow has on catalog performance? Since LR editing is non destructive it is storing the editing instructions in the catalog. I would think that if you heavily edit photos you would have worse performance than someone that tends to use a few basic sliders. I use the face recognition and it seems to be getting slower over time.

Scott Mason's picture

I wouldn't doubt that sophisticated processing like the kind you use has an affect on speed as well, but I don't have evidence for it.

Ted Lee's picture

The biggest downside to using multiple catalogs is that Lightroom can only sync one catalog to the cloud. This has been an issue since cloud syncing was introduced, and years later, Adobe has shown no signs of addressing it.

Frederic Hore's picture

While I appreciate the attributes of Lightroom 6, I store nothing in its cataloguing system.
As I also work with Photo Mechanic and Photoshop CS6, my usual workflow is:
1. Ingest, sort, keyword, rate, insert IPTC data (cations, locations, usage rights, limitations, etc) and import with Photo Mechanic (PM). Assign to correct folder on one of four internal HD's.
2 Input selects to Lightroom 6 for RAW processing, tweaks, pre-sets application.
3. Export to Photoshop for further processing not available in LR, adding title additions, copyright, then do a Save As, as a TIFF or PSD master file in my hard drive in a file associated with original. At the same time, I will create any JPG derivatives I may need for clients.

Sometimes I skip LR completely, as the RAW processing in PS is similar to LR, and I don't always need LR for the work I am doing, certainly not for most editorial work, where the veracity of an image is paramount, and digital manipulation is kept at a minimum.

I primarily work on a Mac Pro Workstation with 3 x 2T internal hard drives that stores all my images and a 4th 2T for video work. I organize all my images into files and subfiles. I created my own independent master PHOTOS files rather than using the internal "Pictures" file, which is where LR and PM store their edits and saved file formats.

Working as a freelance photojournalist doing a lot of travel and editorial photography, I organize my images by country, then topic (provinces and regions, cities, etc.) then subfiles separating the NEF originals from the TIFF, JPGs and Print files. Adding or subtracting files, or moving files into another folder as such is NOT dependent on my having to open LR. I can find anything with my Mac's search function f-a-s-t! This has worked for me for more than 12 years, after I made my switch from film to digital in 2007. For editorial work, it's by client name, topic, project name or whatever. See attached screen save.

While Lightroom is very efficient and has progressively become better though the years, the big complaint and problem I have heard and seen with fellow photographers, is the problem with orphaned files. If you work outside of LR, renaming files, or regrouping them, or changing file names, LR can't find them.

So I circumvented that problem, by storing nothing in LR, I just use its attributes. Does that mean I am using more HD space? For sure! Do I care? NO! Mirrored HD prices keep dropping, while the speed and storage increases progressively. From USB 1, to USB 2, Firewire 800, to USB3 and even fibre connection, how big the files are and the speed to access them is less and less a problem.

One of the reasons some people find their computers getting sluggish, is that their CACHE files are filling up, from repeated image viewing, which creates thumbnails that are stored in the cache. This includes RAW files worked in PS, some of which can run 300 megs each! Get a hundred or thousands of these files, and each time a program opens, it has to load all of them for instant use. So I keep my speed and efficiency up, by regularly clearing the cache.

To do this, on both my MacBook Pro laptop and Mac Pro workstation, I regularly go to Finder, then click on GO, then select Go to Folder. In the window I type: ~/Library/Caches . I then select the PS, LR and PM caches and empty them, mostly once a week, sometimes more frequently. See attached screen save.

Everyone develops their own storage and file handling system. It is very important when setting up your DAM, (digital asset management) that it works for YOU, and that you do not get frustrated by a cataloguing system designed by others. There's nothing worse then having to rework a system after a few years, when it becomes unwieldy and time consuming to find files, the system crashes, files get "lost", or you can't find that photo you need... in a flash!

Hope this helps.

Frederic in Montreal

Scott Mason's picture

I did mention cache in passing in this article, but I definitely could have elaborated. Clearly it's a bigger hinderance than catalog size these days.

Dan Umberger's picture

I'm not buying this. My catalog is over 80,000 photos, with no issues. The Lightroom Queen says there is no limit and some users have reported over 500,000 in a catalog.

Photo Pete's picture

This is outdated and bad advice. Catalog size has zero efffect on speed. And having multiple catalogs are a recipe for data corruption.

tyler h's picture

I can think of reasons for multiple catalogs. But, none of them are in this article. If I am doing a one off event that will never repeat then I will do a catalog just for it. Other than that one big catalog for me.

Mike Dixon's picture

As a software developer, I can assure you that the Lightroom database file (catalog) can easily handle all the photos you throw at it. Databases are designed to handle 100,000's of records, some even millions. If you do notice a slowdown, it's not from the number of photos.

Photo Pete's picture

True statement. No surprise that the article makes these claims without any objective testing or sources other than anecdote and speculation. Now hundreds of people are going to waste time splitting their catalogs up, risk corrupting data, and see zero benefit.

caleb smith's picture

I just noticed my Lightroom imports are INSANELYYYY SLOWWWW. Im not sure if its the new Nikon Z6 that is causing the issues or something else? Probably takes an hour to import 50 photos as minimal. Brand new catalog too.

Tony Weeg's picture

I've tried to explain this to people way too much. But the best way I can put it to anyone who's not a computer whiz is that a computer is best left to do indexing, and searching for files, and specifics, and applications are best left to do their jobs which is UI level stuff, not computer level stuff (file indexing, etc.) If a single catalog is being used, then you are relying on the Application to do base level stuff that the computer CPU should be doing. Whereby if a multiple catalog system with a logical order is used (yearly, monthly, etc) then you've simplified it GREATLY, increased processing time overall, and searches for files are on the OS, not the APP.

Scott Mason's picture

Thank you Tony. Most people's systems seem to handle it but I can see why a system with low processing power might struggle.

Richard Staffro's picture

How do I keep seeing instructions for Lightroom CC Classic, but hardly ever see anything for LR CC. Especially for the catalog issue, I cannot figure out for the life of me how to create new catalogs for LR CC 2019.

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