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When running an outdated computer system, speed issues are the clearest signs that you've let your Lightroom catalog grow too large.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

For years now, I've been thinking of switch to using multiple catalogs, one per job. It might be about time! Thanks for the nudge.

darrell miller's picture

There is no perfect solution or workflow, you have to find what works for you. Personally, i use a catalog per shoot/project.

- For me this works better because when i'm done with a project i rarely go back. Once the client has the work, i move on.
- I do most of my work via laptop, i cant store all my work on a laptop. Its a lot easier to make a project folder, within that folder i have a folder for images and the catalog. I can move that project folder to any system or drive and open it within lightroom. Lightroom will know where the images are, i dont have to relink anything.
- Backup: i drag the project folder, with images and catalog to my backup system and i'm done. If i do need to come back to it.. i just drag it back to my laptop or desktop and its ready to go.

- If i ever see everything i've ever done this makes it a little more difficult.. but not impossible. i guess i'd just have to create a master catalog and import each sep catalog into it..
- i dont get to see all my work.. (do i really need to go back 10 yrs? )

John Skinner's picture

I just maybe the odd man out here, but this whole Lr thing has me puzzled.

As with a couple of coments of this thread, I shoot sports. Sports is kinda unique in that we're dealing with 1000's of images evert time we step out to work, and it's on a wire schedule or deadline. I won't go into the clumsy brushes or the slightly ham-handed way Lr deal with the very minor adjustments we are allowed to make to sports images. Nor will I go into this whole 'catalog' thing... It's senseless to me.

If your a DOS/Windows based person, you're familiar with file structures, placements, naming etc... Photo Mechanic (which is introducing a catalog/search feature in PM6) take your keepers and import to Ps.. levels adjustments, save... done. period.

You can use ANY file backup systems of hardware/software combos... and it's just plain olde done. I see very very few people in media rooms slogging away with this useless product, and most people I know -- are of the same thought. This started out to be a program for people just too stupid to want to learn Ps -- and I guess by that measure, they've succeeded.

Dass Ala's picture

I have 650K RAW images on my catalog with a 45MP camera and no slowdown at all, and the mobile workstation I use have 64GB RAM all with an internal RAID with 2 NVMe SSD 2TB each plus another SSD with 4TB

Scott Mason's picture

It seems your system is an efficient workhorse, not in need of much help!

Andy Dane's picture

I think the issue with speed is more people not spreading their data over drives other than the same drive the catalog is on, and filling up their storage. Rather than the actual size of the catalog.

I can't imagine having multiple catalogs, it'd be a pain for updating portfolios, doing and end of year highlights reel etc. Most of the power of LR is in it's catalog and file management system.

If people *do* find a slowdown, then a better option IMO, would be to have a working catalog for the current year and a master catalog for all previous years. Then at the start of 2020, you could import the 2019 catalog into your master cat. Thus keeping your ability to search the entire back catalog using keywords etc. Whilst maintaining speed for your current years editing.