Should You Use Multiple Lightroom Catalogs?

One of the most common questions about Lightroom is whether you should use multiple catalogs.

And there are a lot of misconceptions out there about this question. But it’s actually quite simple.

For typical Lightroom use, you should NOT be using multiple catalogs. Using multiple catalogs can slow down your workflow, hinder your ability to organize your photos, increase the chances for file corruption, and gives you no actual benefits.

Large Catalogs Do Not Slow Down Lightroom

The biggest argument I see photographers using in favor of using more than one catalog is speed.

Lightroom has been much maligned in the last 5 or so years for its speed both in reviewing photos and editing photos.

But let’s get this one out of the way right up front…catalog size is not a factor in causing any slowdown of the software.

To understand this better, let’s talk a little about how catalogs work. According to Adobe,

“A catalog is a database that tracks the location of your photos and information about them. When you edit photos, rate them, add keywords to them, or do anything to photos in Lightroom Classic – all those changes are stored in the catalog. The files themselves are not touched.”

 The fact that the catalog doesn’t contain the actual photos is important. The data in the catalog is simply a record of the changes you made to the photo.

Lightroom accesses the photo from wherever you are storing the RAW file and then will visually display those changes on your screen.

I won’t get too techy here, but Lightroom uses a database type called SQLite. This is a widely used database system used in many other software products and it is designed to store millions and millions of pieces of data with minimal to no latency in accessing that data.

The way SQLite databases work, database size has zero effect on the speed of accessing data. What can slow you down is the size of the specific piece of data that you are accessing.

This means that working with a photo that has a lot of edits performed can slow you down but the overall size of the database does not.

This is the reason you will see some individuals with anecdotal stories complaining of slowdowns with large databases. Most likely, there are other causes such as a slow hard drive, slower computer, or trying to access photos with a lot of editing done on them.

The bottom line here…using one catalog will have zero effect on Lightroom‘s functioning speed.

In fact, in Adobe’s own help documents, they specifically recommend using only one catalog.

One Catalog Makes It Easier To Find Images Quickly

Some will debate which is the best RAW image editor on the market, but I don’t think any piece of software even comes close to Lightroom when it comes to image organization.

But if you split your photos into multiple catalogs, you’re significantly handcuffing your ability to effectively use those features.

Keywording your photos is probably the best way to organize your photos. The biggest benefit to keywording is that a single photo can fit multiple keywords.

And when you use keywords well, having one catalog allows you to make the best possible use of keywords.

As you might expect, searching for certain keywords in a catalog of 500 photos will be faster than searching for a keyword in a database of 100,000 photos.

But citing faster keyword searching as a reason for using multiple catalogs is a bad argument because it takes a LOT longer to open and close multiple catalogs than it ever would to keyword search even the most massive of Lightroom catalogs.

For example, let’s say you are on a family vacation to the Grand Canyon and shoot an epic landscape photo at sunrise. That image could be keyworded with vacation, landscape, Grand Canyon, sunrise, and probably a few more.

If you have all your photos on one catalog, and want to go through your landscape photos to choose your favorites for a portfolio, all you need to do is show all photos with the keyword “landscape.”

On the other hand if you have a separate catalog for family photos and landscape photos, you’d have to close and reopen Lightroom with a different catalog if you were picking out your favorite landscape photos.

Which one of these seems like a faster way to work?

Clearly the single catalog makes this easier and faster.

Collections Are Extremely Powerful When All Your Photos Are In The Same Catalog

Collections are one of the most powerful tools in Lightroom and probably one of the most underused features as well.

I won’t go into a complete breakdown of all the benefits and features that Lightroom Collections use, but let’s cover a few important things.

One photo can be in multiple collections and the file itself is never moved.

Less moving actual files around means less chance for file corruption, misplacing, or accidental deleting.

It also means that you can have photos that fit into multiple collections. That means that you can categorize and break down your photos however you like, delete a collection, change a collection, or do just about anything you want, and your original photos are safe in their folder.

Smart Collections Are Very Useful

You can create smart collections that automatically add photos when they fit a specific set of criteria.

For example, I have a smart collection of all my 5-star portrait images. That makes it very easy to update my website portfolio every so often when I know my favorites are right there.

I also have a smart collection for any image that isn’t keyworded. When I have time, I go into that collection and add keywords. That ensures that if I am in a hurry and skip keywording initially, I never forget about it.

Spreading Your Photos Across Multiple Catalogs Makes Collections Less Useful

There are many other useful ways to use smart collections, but if you have your images spread out across multiple catalogs, they are almost useless.

Collections do not have access to photos in other catalogs, so by limiting your catalogs, you’re also making the organization of your photos and workflow automation more difficult.

Take my 5-star portrait smart collection, for example. If I had a separate catalog for each client, this would be impossible.

Lightroom Backs Up The Catalog Automatically

Some people have told me that they have multiple catalogs so that if one fails, they don’t lose all their photos. In reality, by separating catalogs, you might be increasing your chance of losing photos.

You can set up Lightroom to backup your catalog as often as every time you exit the software. But if you have a whole bunch of catalogs that are sitting on your hard drive (or even worse…unplugged external hard drives), then those catalogs aren’t being backed up.

File corruption can happen in a number of ways and leaving the catalog file dormant somewhere increases the chances of that happening.

You could go to access that catalog for the first time in a long time and find out that it’s been corrupted.

Now of course corruption can happen to any file. But if you are using one catalog, accessing it regularly, updating that catalog when Lightroom makes changes, and backing it up regularly…your chances of recovering it are substantially higher.

Speaking up Lightroom updates…

Catalogs Occasionally Need Updating

Lightroom is being updated and improved by Adobe on a regular basis.

Many of these updates are behind the scenes code that doesn’t necessarily add new features but instead makes the program run faster and more stable.

Occasionally, Adobe requires you to update the catalog file to help take advantage of these improvements.

If you have multiple catalogs all over the place, you’ll end up either not having the benefit of these updates OR going through the catalog update process for every single catalog.

If Really Need To Separate Photos, Use Folders Instead

For most users, I would recommend using not only a single catalog but also only a single folder for every year when importing your photos.

This method simplifies your file import process and folder management on your hard drive. You can use Lightroom‘s features like keywording and collections to break down the photos into more usable groups.

But if there are situations where you want to be sure groups of photos never get intermingled, such as professionals shooting for clients, the best approach is to use folders.

This is the approach I use for client shoots. I have every single photo I’ve taken in a single catalog…personal, professional, etc.

For a specific client shoot, I’ll create a new folder with the date and name. For example, “2020-07-25_Smith.”

This made sure that the “Smith” photos never got mixed up with the “Jones” photos, but since they were all in the same catalog, I can still do a keyword search for things like “sunset” photos or search for photos from specific locations, as well as searching for only my top-rated photos when I want to update my portfolio.

This approach gives you the best of both worlds and is a MUCH easier way to work than having multiple catalogs spread out all over the place.

Temporary Catalogs Be Used When You Need To Share Catalogs

Some photographers will tell you that they use separate catalogs because they need to share them with others for editing.

First off, if you aren’t shooting professionally and having others edit them for you, then this isn’t an issue.

But even if you do fit in this category, there is a better solution…

Lightroom allows you to export a folder or collection as a catalog. So when you need to send out the Smith Wedding to your editor after you have gone through and picked the keepers, all you have to do is select the keepers and export them as a catalog and send it off to your editor with the RAW images.

When they return the catalog to you, all you need to do is import the catalog with all the edits and you’re all set.

It’s pretty easy to keep all your photos in the same catalog and still easily outsource your editing.

So that’s no longer an excuse either…sorry!

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