Lightroom Classic has two primary functions – organizing your photos and editing them. Although its organizational tools are powerful, they’re also the most misunderstood. These are some of the most common catalog-related misunderstandings.
#1 – Your photos are not “in” Lightroom
When you import photos into Lightroom Classic, they’re not really “in” Lightroom. The metadata describing the photos is added to a database (called the catalog) as text records, along with a link to that file on the hard drive. Small JPEG previews are also stored next to the catalog, so you can view the photos when the original files are offline.
Imagine an index of the books in a library. The library catalog tells you a little about the book and which shelf it’s stored on, and maybe even gives you a preview of the cover, but it doesn’t contain the book itself. The Lightroom catalog works in the same way.
We look more at the catalog concept here, but for now, remember one thing: don’t delete your original photos thinking that they’re safely stored in Lightroom. They’re not.
#2 – Your photos are not hidden away by Lightroom
The photos are not stored in some magical location, hidden away from your view. They’re just normal image files stored in folders on your hard drive. You choose where they’re stored when you import them. This means you’re not locked into just using Lightroom, but it also means YOU are responsible for looking after the photos. If you move, rename or delete photos outside of Lightroom, you’ll create a mess.
#3 – Your photos are not “in the cloud” either
Even if you have a Creative Cloud subscription, and you’ve set all of your photos to sync, Lightroom Classic only syncs low resolution previews to the cloud. The original photos are still stored on your computer, and you still need to back them up. You’re still responsible.
#4 – Lightroom’s Catalog Backup does not back up your photos
When you quit Lightroom, it’s probably asked you to back up, and you may have hit ok without reading the rest of the dialog. In doing so, you’d have missed a very important warning: Lightroom’s catalog backup only backs up the catalog. It does not back up your photos.
You need a solid backup system, and ideally something that’s automated. Copying and pasting files onto another drive when you happen to remember does not constitute a reliable backup system. Neither does RAID. And if you’ve ever tried restoring from backups created using the Make a Second Copy option in the Import dialog, you’ll have the grey hairs to prove it.
The easiest way to back up your photos is to include them in your main system backups. Windows comes with its own Backup and Restore tool, and Mac OSX comes with Time Machine, both of which can back up your computer files to an external drive. For the more technically minded user, programs such as Vice Versa (Windows) and Chronosync (Mac) allow even more control over your local backups.
#5 – You still need Lightroom’s catalog backup even if you run your own backups
Even if you have your own backup system, you may still need to run Lightroom’s own catalog backups too. Why? There are two main reasons:
1. Many backup systems overwrite the previous backup with the latest one. If your catalog becomes corrupted (relatively rare) or you make a mistake that you don’t spot immediately (incredibly common!), your normal backup system will overwrite your last “good” backup with the corrupted/incorrect catalog. Lightroom’s catalog backup, on the other hand, is versioned, which means that it keeps each of the backups, so you can go back to an earlier version at any time.
2. Backup systems that create versioned backups, for example, Time Machine, may run at a time while Lightroom is open. As a result, the backup can be corrupted. Lightroom’s catalog backup, however, runs when Lightroom quits.
If in doubt, let your backup system back up Lightroom’s own catalog backups.
#6 – Keep the photos in Lightroom even when you’ve finished editing them
If you remove photos from Lightroom when you’ve finished editing them, or only add specific photos in the first place, you’re kind of missing the point of Lightroom. It’s designed to help you search and work with ALL of your photos now and in the future, and it can’t do that if you’ve removed them from the catalog.
Some people remove finished photos because they’re concerned that their catalog will get too big. That’s unlikely, the largest known catalogs number into millions of photos.
While we’re on the subject, let’s state the obvious. Don’t delete your original photos from the hard drive when you’ve finished editing them. That would be like throwing away the film negatives when you’ve made a print, or throwing away the recipe when you’ve finished making a cake.
Unless you’re completely deleting the photos from your archives, add them all to your Lightroom catalog and leave them there.
#7 – Adding all your photos to Lightroom doesn’t mean using masses of hard drive space
If your photos are already on the hard drive, you don’t have to duplicate them when adding them to your Lightroom catalog. In the Import dialog, you can select Add to leave them in their current location, or Move if you want to rearrange them into a new folder structure.
Once the photos are added to your Lightroom catalog, you still have plenty of options. You can move all of the photos to another hard drive if you start to run out of space, or you can split them over multiple hard drives. Archive hard drives can be disconnected. Even if you split over multiple hard drives, Lightroom can manage all of this in a single catalog.
#8 – Sometimes moving photos in Lightroom can be a bad idea
You’ll often hear Lightroom experts (including me) tell you only to rename, move or delete photos inside of Lightroom, because otherwise you’ll break the links. There is one exception. If you’re moving entire folders containing large amounts of data, for example, you’re archiving old photos off to another hard drive, it’s actually quicker and safer to move them in Explorer/Finder and then immediately update Lightroom’s links.
#9 – You don’t have to “Save” when you’ve finished editing
In most conventional photo editors, you must save the changes to each file when you finish editing. Lightroom is different. The database is automatically updated whenever you move a slider or update the metadata. You don’t have to do a thing.
There is a Save command in the Metadata menu, but this isn’t a conventional save either. It writes the metadata to the header of the file (or a sidecar XMP file for proprietary raw files). For more details, see pages 345-347 in my Lightroom Classic – the Missing FAQ book). Saving the metadata to the files doesn’t touch the image data, so your Lightroom Develop changes still won’t show up in other photo editors. To do that, you have to export the photos, which is like a Save As.
#10 – You don’t have to keep your exported photos
To see your Lightroom edits in other software, or send your edited photo to someone else, you must export the photos out of Lightroom as a JPEG, TIFF or PSD file. This creates a copy of the image with your Develop settings applied, so the original isn’t touched in the process.
You don’t need to keep these copies once they’ve served their purpose. Why not? Because as long as you have the original photos and the records in the catalog, you can export another identical copy when you need it, in exactly the size and format you need.
In this Blog post, we discuss the concept of a catalog and how it relates to your photos in more detail.
For more information on Lightroom Classic, see Adobe Lightroom Classic – The Missing FAQ.
Originally posted 21 November 2016, updated for Lightroom Classic in 2019.