An Alternative method for using Catalogs

by Michael Clark

A few weeks ago I discussed using Lightroom as a Digital Asset Management tool and while answering some questions posed by readers I had the idea that giving each project its own catalog might be an interesting concept. The pros are that you can then archive the Lightroom catalog with the XMP metadata files and along with the images. And hence the catalog would always be available at any point in the future to re-adjust those images - and the previews would be saved as well. Also, since there would be a relatively small number of images in each catalog this would help Lightroom to work as fast as possible.

There are not really any downsides to using this method. You would lose whatever DAM functionality you got from Lightroom - but for my work that isn't a huge downside as I have my images organized very well. So for this blog post I thought I would like to walk through my methods for creating individual catalogs for sets of images.

First, you'll need to go into the preferences and change the Default Catalog settings to "Prompt me when starting Lightroom" as in the image below.


Changing the preferences as above will allow the following dialog box (below) to pop up each time you start up Lightroom. In the dialog box you can simply click "Create New Catalog" and then name the new catalog and tell Lightroom where to put it. In this case I would generally put the individual catalog in the folder with the images so everything is easy to find. I would also name the catalog with a similar name as the images will be labeled with. This way I can tell which catalog goes with which images.


Now you can import images into your new catalog just as you normally would. Since I usually don't have more than a few thousand images for each job Lightroom should stay pretty zippy.

If for some reason I want to switch to another catalog I can go to File > Open Catalog or File > Open Recent and choose a recent catalog as in the two images below. Lightroom version 1.2 is set up to easily switch between catalogs and can do so without exiting the application.



Now I can already hear many saying "why would I want to do this?" It is a good question. I'm not saying this is "the" way to go but it is one option that the Lightroom catalogs offer. In my normal workflow I normally keep the total number of images in any one catalog under 5,000 so that Lightroom doesn't slow down. One of the great features of Lightroom is that it allows you to edit extremely fast and I want to maintain a certain speediness with the software to lessen my time in front of the computer. Hence this is a new option I am exploring.

For my normal workflow there are no downsides to creating individual catalogs for each project. At the moment, I normally delete folders out of Lightroom after 45 days or so anyway. To view those images or work with the processed tiff files I go to Bridge and work with them in Photoshop after the 45-day period. And if I need to reprocess an image then it is simple enough to open it in Adobe Camera Raw 4.2 (CS3) instead of having to re-import that image into Lightroom again. But with this new way of using the catalogs I can just open the pertinent Lightroom catalog and be right back to where I was when I processed the images - along with all of the virtual copies I made as well.

The only possible downside to this scenario is if as Lightroom keeps improving and as new versions come out those catalogs become unreadable. That remains to be seen. Either way, I think I will slowly move to this system as it also makes it easy to deal with images that are downloaded to my laptop then transferred to my office imaging computer.

That's it for this session. See you next week.

Adios, Michael Clark


2007-09-17 14:35:44
Man, where's your proofreader? You would "lose", not "loose", and "each project it’s own catalog" should be "its". These were a fitting prelude to a cartload of woolly thinking!

But to the point. Let's not pretend this is the right way to use Lightroom to manage your picture collection. It's a workaround for performance shortfalls you may be experiencing.

Like a book has one index - because an index for each chapter would be pretty unhelpful - so you control your entire collection with a single catalog.

There is a role for separate catalogs but that's more when there are real needs to keep images separate. For example, when you want no chance that client A might see client B work. Another reason might be in the early stages of reviewing and adjusting a shoot, working in a small catalog until it's time to add the finished shoot to your body of work. Another is when you know with absolute certainty where an image may be, for instance if you only shoot weddings you can get away with event based catalogs. But if your work involves any kind of cross catalog search, it's ciao to this project-based catalog approach.

The only possible downside? Well, what about letting your keywords diverge, with singular in one catalog, plurals in another, and all sorts of dodgy spelling? What about images getting duplicated in more than one catalog? Seen it. Or falling between the cracks? Done it. What if you want to find an image that could be in one of x catalogs? Ever done that? In time, you'll need to catalog your catalogs.

If it's one body of work, stick it in one catalog.

Michael Clark
2007-09-17 15:01:39
Gio -

Thanks for your input - sorry abou the typos - the blog post was written quite late on Sunday night after a long week of work. I have corrected the ones you mentioned.

As to your comments - I don't know that there is any one particular way that is "right" for Lightroom to be used. I didn't say this is "the" way to go but that it is one option - and one that might work for some peoples workflow. I am not really experiencing any difficulties with lightroom - just investigating options with its features. I know lots of pro photographers that have 100s of thousands of images and one catalog for 200,00 images is not an option no matter how fast your computer is. That is the boat I am in. If I loaded all my images into one Lightroom catalog it would take forever to do anything.

And in terms of searching for images - that is easily accomplished outside of Lightroom. Bridge can do it - so can Spotlight on macs. I have my images so well organized that I rarely if ever actually conduct searches for them so that isn't an issue - at least for me.

All opinions count and I appreciate yours. For most people multiple catalogs are more of a pain than anything else. But I just thought I'd offer up this idea.

And of course - to everyone else: If there is a topic that hasn't been covered by Inside Lightroom blogs let me know and I'll try to write about it.

2007-09-17 23:10:16
Now I think you are making the case by adding a proper caveat - you need to split because of very large volume. For guys with such big collections, the break up is a *workaround* - the boat you are in. But it is a bad way of working to people with far fewer than x00000 images - many of the readers asking the one or many question. Without the volume caveat, it's a misleading recommendation - the 2nd time in 2 weeks that it's featured here.

The rest is detail. But I do think your Bridge/Spotlight argument is well off beam. Search using Bridge? You 200000+ guys have more than one drive, some offline, don't you?

"I have my images so well organized" is a comfort blanket for those whose search criteria are not very complex. You're OK if you know what shoot you're looking for, but find me all pictures where the keywords include "men" and "old" and "Italy" - how many different trips did you shoot them on? Or all shots illustrating "happiness".

The idea is definitely worth offering up, and many people are discussing it right now. The trouble is, posts like this (and another at O'R a couple of weeks back) are pimping a lousy workaround without saying who it's suitable for.

2007-09-20 08:54:04
Using multiple catalogs is an excellent feature that I have used since it was introduced. I have a separate catalog for family, product photography, stock photography, event photography and portraits. Managing 5 catalogs is no problem at all and it keeps things very organized. I love this feature!
2007-09-22 04:06:55
I've just started using catalogues and I think in some situations they are very useful - I shoot sports and wildlife so have a different catalogue for each and then another for anything else. I'm also using them for backing up to external hard drives so that I don't keep things I'm unlikely to need regularly on my desktop hard drive. as this is something I've just changed to though I still have some images in the wrong catalogue. I know i could re-import them into the correct catalogue but is there an easier way of moving them between catalogues?


2007-09-25 18:35:29
Gio, I think you are missing the main point that Michael is making - that is where you have distinct categories of work (as I do) then having them all in the one cataloge slows things down and is unnecessary. I appreciate there is a point where the whole idea of a database is that you can search for any given file, but even standard type databases I would have different versions for complely different purposes. After all, if one goes to a library you don't look for 'photography' in the 'fiction' cataloge. Further if once you've finished a job you want to archive and may only require it on infrequent occasions then Michaels workflow makes sense.