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When running an outdated computer system, speed issues are the clearest signs that you've let your Lightroom catalog grow too large.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