Welcome to the second part of my massive missive on organising your photos using Lightroom. This article is about Lightroom catalogue management.

Hopefully you’ve read the first part of this tutorial here and are now ready to start properly organising your photos.

The top hierarchical level in Lightroom is the Catalog, hereafter to use the correct spelling. Effective catalogue management will make your life so much easier. This is my strategy. It’s not perfect. Just like me.

Lightroom Catalogue Management Strategy

The “one catalogue” approach to Lightroom is an approach I’ve tried & tested. Due to my general laziness though, this one catalogue quickly became unmanageable, running to several Gbs in size and trying to manage several thousand images from 1940-something through to modern day. All my borders, textures, screenshots and college work were all in the same place as my portraits and landscapes. When I opened lightroom, I never looked back, and finding a “decent” shot was getting harder and harder. My approach of “one starring” anything decent was a great way to filter, but having 1,500 photos filtered from 8,000 was still no help. I was also aware of having all my eggs in one basket. One corrupt catalogue file and I’m dead. Especially if the corruption copies across to the backup. The larger the file, the more likely the chance of corruption. Backup times were increasing, and this unwieldy beast of a catalogue was just getting bigger.

The “one catalogue per job (or many-catalogue-approach” strategy was also not helpful as I’m not a pro photographer. I don’t do “jobs”. I go out with my camera and when I get home, I go through the shots. I delete anything out of focus or obviously crap and keep the rest for that day-that-never-comes when I can sit down and revisit them all. A general “day out” can see me shoot 20-60 photos and keeping around a third. I also shoot HDR so there are occasions where there will be 4-6 exposures of exactly the same scene. None of this is worthy of a whole catalogue.

So I have gone for a middle ground approach illustrated on the right.catalog_settings

First, I have a catalogue for each year. I did this because it was much easier to manage my photos on a year-by-year basis. In one evening, I could complete a 20XX catalogue easily.

I also have an xx_Template folder (the “xx_” keeps it at the bottom of the list) that makes creating a new catalogue simply a case of copy/paste.

I also have separate catalogues for Old Photos and Screenshots. I also plan to add Document Scans and Assets when I get around to it. All of these “types” of work are very different and there is no need to clutter my actual photography work with this stuff.

Lastly, my Portfolio catalogue is my “main” catalogue. This contains ONLY my best work.

So my workflow (once this is all complete) is now

  • Import photos into the correct year (20xx) catalogue
  • Open “20xx” catalogue, go through images and delete the rubbish, “Reject” the OK stuff and mark Portfolio work
  • Export “Portfolio” quality images
  • Open “Portfolio” catalogue
  • Import “Portfolio” images. Compare to existing portfolio images that are similar and have another critique pass (delete unsuitable images)
  • Tag, label and keyword the absolute best.
  • Any images requiring future work get a red label

So now when I want to play in PS or LR, I can open my Portfolio catalogue and my best images are there with a red label saying “Hey – work on me!”

One last word on the “one catalogue” approach. People have said that with multiple catalogues, it’s impossible to find images cross-catalogue. This is true. LR can’t search in any catalogues other than the one that’s currently open. However, my view is that all my “good stuff” from multiple years & events is all stored in my Portfolio. This does mean a degree of duplication but that’s good (for me). If I want to add to my portfolio and spend an evening going through old photos, I can just open (for example) 2007 and flick through them.

This organisational process works absolutely fine for the one catalogue approach. You only have to do it once though and you’ll need to keep track of where you’re up to because you won’t be able to break it down year by year.

Previews & Creating a Catalogue Template

catalog_contentBy having a Catalogue template, I can simply copy/paste every time I want to make a new catalogue rather than having to create the same smart collections and catalogue settings over and over again.

The catalogue folder contains two things. The “.lrcat” file is the catalogue itself and the “Previews” folder contains the previews.

A “Preview” is the image you see in Lightroom. It is a jpeg representation of the original file and it can be really small (like on the filmstrip) or as big as 1:1. Either way it’s still a preview and it’s stored in the “Previews” folder. So if you have 10,000 photos and you have looked at every single one of them full size, your previews folder is going to be big.

Keeping your Previews folder small helps the performance of Lightroom (it doesn’t have to load huge files) and also helps your hard drive size, your backup speed, and your backup size requirements. If you’re doing complex backups, you could even exclude the “Previews” folder from the backup without losing anything apart from a bit of time the next time you open the catalogue (Lightroom would have to rebuild the previews). Don’t forget, your original images are stored in “My Pictures\20xx” and are unaffected by the Previews images.

Create a new Catalogue from within Lightroom. Call it “Template” and put it into a “xx_Template” folder (xx_keeps it out of the way at the bottom) inside the “LR Catalogues” folder. Import a single photo into it (we need to put one photo in the catalogue to get some of the settings right). At this point it’s probably a good idea to sort out all your Lightroom settings.

cat_settings2 cat_settings1

These two images show the Catalogue settings page.

For Metadata, I check the box to ensure that Lightroom writes all my changes to the image file. That way, if my catalogue explodes, I still have all my image settings (Develop, EXIF, Metadata etc).

File Handling is also an important box. The Standard Preview Size needs to be set to your monitor size (or bigger). That way, the quality of the catalogue image won’t be impaired. If your preview size is 600 pixels on a 1200 pixel resolution monitor you’re going to get small, blurry previews which won’t help you determine if anything is in focus. In terms of discarding 1:1 previews, you have options. I prefer to discard after a short time. Once I’ve been through the 2006 catalogue and refined it and exported my portfolio images, I’m not going to go back to that catalogue for a while, so 7 days is plenty. Discarding the 1:1 previews will keep the loading times and backup files down.

Remember that the previews are all stored in the Previews folder as miniature jpegs. The larger your previews the larger your prefiews folder, the longer the backups will take and the more space it will take up.

I also set Lightroom to “Never” back up the catalogue, relying on my backup software to pick up the catalogues as well as the images.


Lastly, the “nice” settings. First, I change the name to “My Template” so I remember it’s a template.

I then build any smart collections I want to have available to all your catalogues. I find smart collections really powerful for grouping images together but a pain in the backside when it comes to actually trying to do anything with them (you can’t delete or remove an image from inside a smart collection, you can’t work with stacks etc). I like to have smart collections for my lenses, and to pick out the crop style of my photos. I don’t find a use for them otherwise.

Colour labels are the last Catalogue specific thing to change. I’m going to have different colour labels for my portfolio, but my annual catalogues are all going to be the same.

Red is for photos I want to mess around with later

Yellow is my marker for B&W photos – either ones that are B&W (my film shots/finished digital b&w conversions) or ones that need converting to B&W

Green is for my panoramas. Keep them easily recognisable. Not sure how many times I’ve deleted a “rubbish” image only to discover later that it’s part of a panorama which now can’t be completed!

Blue is for those composite shots. I don’t do many of these, but again, as for panoramas, I’ve deleted things I thought were rubbish but were in fact part of a bigger plan.

Purple for HDR. I take a lot of HDR shots so this is really useful.

These colour labels allow me to open any year and immediately pull up something that might be portfolio worthy to work on it.

So now that we’ve set up our Catalogue template, we can start importing our photos. Create a new folder for your first catalogue. Give it a name that makes sense and paste template.lrcat from your template folder in there. Rename it to sensiblename.lrcat and open it. You’re ready for lesson 3!