Since version 1.1, Lightroom has been able to create and switch between multiple catalogs. But the question is, just because you can, should you? Should you have one catalog or multiple catalogs?
There is no ‘right’ number of catalogs. As with the rest of your Lightroom workflow, it depends on how you work. So should you use a single main working catalog*, or should you split your photos into multiple catalogs? Let’s consider the pros and cons…
Why is a single catalog the best choice for most photographers?
- The whole point of a DAM (Digital Asset Management) system like Lightroom is being able to easily search through and find specific photos, but you can’t search across multiple catalogs (e.g., to find the best photos from multiple shoots) without opening each catalog in turn.
- It’s a pain to keep switching catalogs, especially since you can’t switch catalogs while a process is running (e.g., if you’re running an export in one catalog, you have to wait for it to complete before switching to another catalog).
- Mobile sync only works with one catalog.
Why do some people recommend multiple catalogs?
- Some people say that small catalogs are faster than big catalogs, and this is true in some circumstances:
- Smaller catalogs are faster to open and back up than very large catalogs – but how many times a day do you need to open and back up?
- Big catalogs can be slow to search, if you’re searching the whole catalog – but it’s still faster than opening multiple catalogs in turn to search through each one.
- We should define big/small catalogs – even 50,000 photos counts as a small catalog… 4 million is big!
- As long as the catalog’s optimized regularly and stored on a fast drive, viewing and working in individual folders/collections should be almost the same speed regardless of catalog size.
- Some people encourage multiple catalogs on the basis that you’ll have less to lose if your catalog becomes corrupted – but simply backing up the catalog regularly works just as well.
- Other people say it’s easier to organize photos by topic in separate catalogs, perhaps separating their bird photography from wildlife. We’ll consider alternatives that may be simpler, later in this post.
For most amateur photographers, the benefits of a single master catalog massively outweigh the disadvantages. Professional photographers may need to weigh the pros and cons a little more carefully and decide what’s right for their workflow.
Who should consider multiple master catalogs?
- You want to separate “Work” shoots from “Home” (or “His” and “Hers”) and there’s no overlap.
- You have multiple employees who need to be working in Lightroom at the same time, and the web interface doesn’t offer the features that the “other” people need.
- You shoot for other people and it’s essential that their photos don’t mix (e.g., The Smith baby shoot doesn’t get accidentally dropped in the Jones folder, and Mr Smith doesn’t accidentally see Mrs Jones makeover shoot.)
How do you differentiate between shoots in a single catalog?
If your reason for multiple catalogs is simply wanting to separate work from home, or His and Hers, then consider the ways you can do so in a single catalog. For example, your Folders, Collections and Keywords panel may have separate hierarchies for each style:
This way, you still have all of the benefits of a single catalog, but with the ability to quickly and easily view and search specific photos.
What if there’s more of an overlap? Perhaps some of your holiday landscapes are used in work brochures. Then leave all of the photos in a single dated folder structure and just use ‘virtual’ divisions, using Collections and metadata filters (based on Keywords, or even Copyright metadata) to differentiate.
If you do decide to use multiple catalogs, there are some danger areas to look out for:
- Be careful that the same photos don’t end up in multiple catalogs, as this causes no end of confusion (for example, they may be edited in one catalog but not the other, have different keywords in different catalogs, or when renamed/moved in one catalog they get marked as missing in the other, etc.)
- Be careful that the photos don’t end up in the “wrong” catalog, as transferring them is a pain.
- Be careful that you don’t completely miss importing some photos.
- Watch out for different keyword spellings and hierarchies, especially if you’re going to merge catalogs later.
If you decide you need multiple catalogs, there are also a few questions to ask yourself:
- How are you going to divide the catalogs?
- By client (all of the shoots for the Jones family – engagement, wedding, baby, family)
- By job (the Jones baby shoot)
- By date (2020)
- How will you know which catalog you should open to find a specific photo? For example, it would be easy to remember that Kate & John’s wedding photo would be in Kate & John’s catalog or in the 2019 Weddings catalog, but it’s not so simple to remember whether a photo of a friend would be in the 2018, 2019 or 2020 catalog.
- Do you ever need to search through all of your photos to find a specific photo, or group together your best shots for your portfolio? If so, you may choose the best of both worlds: keep your current photos in a small working catalog (or a catalog per job), and then use Import from Catalog to transfer them into a large searchable archive catalog when completed.
- Where will you store the catalogs? Will you keep all of the catalogs together in a single folder, or keep the catalog in the same folder as the photos?
- How will you make sure they’re backed up regularly?
- How are you going to make sure there’s no crossover, with the same photos appearing in more than one catalog?
- Where are you going to put the photos that don’t fit into the categories you’ve selected?
- How will you make sure your keyword lists are consistent in all of your catalogs?
So, should you have one catalog or multiple catalogs? As a general rule, use as few catalogs as you can. For most photographers, that’s a single catalog, but if you need additional catalogs, think it through carefully before you act. Multiple catalogs can work, but they also add a degree of complexity that’s unnecessary for most photographers.
If you already have multiple catalogs and you want to figure out which ones you can delete, or how to merge them into a single catalog, don’t worry – we’ll come back to tidying up existing catalogs later in the series. If you want to get started now, see pages 431-433 in my Lightroom Classic book.
* In this post, we’re not referring to temporary catalogs which are created for a purpose, for example, to take a subset of photos to another machine before later merging them back in, but more specifically, your main working or master catalog.
For extensive information on Lightroom Classic, see Adobe Lightroom Classic – The Missing FAQ.
If you have the Photography Plan, then as well as Classic you have access to the Lightroom cloud ecosystem including the mobile apps and web interface. For more information on these apps, see Adobe Lightroom – Edit on the Go.
Note: purchase of these books includes the first year’s Classic or cloud-based Premium Membership (depending on the book purchased), giving access to download the latest eBook (each time Adobe updates the software), email assistance for the applicable Lightroom version if you hit a problem, and other bonuses.
We also have a special bundle offer for the two books. This includes Premium Membership for the first year as described above for the whole Lightroom family!
Originally posted 5 December 2016, updated for latest Lightroom versions March 2020.