Lightroom: single or multiple catalogues?

Lightroom cataloguing seems to be a hot topic at the moment so I thought I’d share with you my experiences on an issue that keeps coming up: should we use one catalogue for all our images or split them into a number of catalogues as a way of micro organising them?

If you’re wondering how much I know and whether it’s worth bothering to read on, here are my credentials in brief. A Lightroom user for over 10 years now, I graduated from a RAW converter by the name of Rawshooter. It was developed by a company called Pixmantic which was acquired by Adobe in 2006 when I was invited to join the beta testing programme and later given a free copy of Lightroom 1. My degree in Business Information Systems and a background in commercial data management gave me a solid foundation for the journey into the complexities of Digital Asset Management (DAM) for photographers. Hence, I came to Lightroom with a good understanding of the power it can wield at my fingertips.

So what is a DAM?

In essence, a DAM is a way of organising and cataloguing files so that you can locate, sort and process them quickly, efficiently and securely. It can be viewed as an index system pointing to files stored on both the internal and external storage areas of your computer. Lightroom does all this - and the rest; for example, the Develop module makes it a powerful image processor.

How Lightroom works for me

But let’s stick to the DAM function of Lightroom and the conclusions I have reached, based on a decade and more of constant use. In the early days, I found that LR struggled to cope with a single catalogue containing a large numbers of images. For me, the crisis point came when I began shooting over 30,000 images a year; the decrease in speed was marked. To ensure that I wasn’t constantly grinding to a standstill, I was forced to split my files between a number of catalogues, based on the year they were taken. However, I found that this also had its problems. For example, if I wanted to find all my 5 star images, I had to search each catalogue separately which was onerous and time-consuming. Multiple catalogues not ideal for me then. As you would expect, with each new version of LR, Adobe continually worked on addressing the problem of speed until I was finally confident enough to merge all my annual catalogues into one. A total of over 200,000 images and a single search in seconds. What joy!

So a single catalogue is now both possible and distinctly advantageous in terms of the search functionality and general efficiency. However, these days, I actually run 3 catalogues. My main one contains the last 7 years of images - this is my core catalogue; a second catalogue is an archive for images prior to 2011 which I rarely look at; and the third is my training catalogue where I keep my students’ images for discussion during training and mentoring sessions. I like to keep these images separate from my own. I did consider a separate catalogue for smart phone images but decided to keep them in the main catalogue because they include behind-the-scenes shots that I often need to retrieve and integrate with images shot on a camera. For ease of sorting, I have simply placed them in a smart phone collection. It works well. It’s what the collections function is for.


What’s best for you? The 'Top Down' approach

To decide how many catalogues will work for you, you have to understand how Lightroom handles the organisation of your files. Let’s work down. At the top of the tree is the ‘catalogue’; under that is ‘collections’ and ‘sub collections’ (these can also be ‘smart collections’ and synchronised with the cloud). Below that is ‘image rating’, ‘flagging’, ‘colour coding’ and ‘keywords’. Finally, at the base there are ‘publish services’, in my opinion one of the most powerful and often overlooked functions of Lightroom.

Remember, all this sorting of your images is purely virtual. By this, I mean moving images around between ‘collections’ and ‘publish services’ etc. does not move the physical images on your storage. Having said that, Lightroom makes it very easy to locate the physical files and even shows you the physical structure of your storage on the left hand tab of the ‘library’ module.

As a general rule, I and many other Lightroom trainers recommend as few catalogues as possible. Below, I list the reasons why.

  1. A good DAM will enable you to quickly locate one or more files from 1000s, based on single or multiple criteria. Using multiple catalogues slows this process down.
  2. Switching catalogues is relatively slow and only one catalogue can be open at one time. Any background tasks have to be completed before you can switch catalogues. More time wasted.
  3. Mobile Sync only works with one catalogue.
  4. Publish services are specific to each catalogue although a plugin called Lightroom Voyager can help to a certain extent with this.

When multiple catalogues might work

  • When you need to keep your work and personal images separate;
  • When you are cataloguing images from different photographers (e.g. my training catalogue);
  • When multiple photographers are sharing one installation of LR.

The main arguments for using multiple catalogues

Argument: Large catalogues are slower for searching for images.

Counter-argument: I can search through 7 years of images in one catalogue far quicker than if I have 7 separate catalogues to open and close.

Argument: If one of your multiple catalogues gets corrupted, it is quicker and easier to recreate than if you have all your images in one catalogue.

Counter-argument: As long as you back up, catalogue corruption can easily be recovered. Plus, it is only the catalogue that gets corrupted, not your image files. Remember too that you should regularly optimise your catalogue.

Argument: It keeps commissions separate, for example a catalogue per wedding.

Counter-argument: It is much easier and efficient to use collections to organise the images. You can also search across collections within your catalogue in one sweep; not so with multiple catalogues.

The Verdict

So, as a general rule:

The fewer catalogues you use, the easier you will make life for yourself. Make use of collections, keywords, flagging etc. to sort your images logically and efficiently Learn to use publish services - they will save you both time and local storage space. So many photographers have multiple versions of the same image filling their hard drives!

This really is only the tip of the iceberg but hopefully gives you a bit of an insight. Maybe I should get cracking with developing that online Lightroom course? It’s on its way.