Lightroom Catalog

Organising Your Lightroom Catalog: Part 1

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Gerry 4 Comments

What is the difference between a Catalog, Folder and Collection Lightroom?

This is a question that all photographers should be able to answer but, based on the amount of questions we get about this at the office, seems to be one of the biggest things people struggle with in Lightroom.   Yes, processing your images is the sexy part of Lightroom but making sure you catalog your image correctly is not only a damn good idea but will also save you a lot of time and frustration later on when you start looking for specific images.

I am sure you’ve seen these panels in your Lightroom’s Library module.

Lightroom Catalog

From the top down, this is how you should be sorting your image library n Lightroom – Catalog then Folders then Collections.

So, in order to kick off a three part series to better help you understand the management of your digital content, let’s have a closer look at the top level of how you should be organising your images in Lightroom.

The Lightroom Catalog

The Adobe website defines a catalog as follows.

A catalog is a database that stores a record for each of your photos.  This record contains three key pieces of information about each photo:

  1. A reference to where the photo is on your system
  2. Instructions for how you want to process the photo
  3. Metadata, such as ratings and keywords that you apply to photos to help you find or organize them.

You can see the name of your current Lightroom Catalog at the top of your screen.

Lightroom Catalog

You will see that the extension of the Catalog file is .lrcat.  When you create a new Catalog Lightroom will automatically create this file in a directory along with two other files.

Lightroom Catalog

The directory name and file names – in this case Master – Wildlife & Nature – is set when creating a new Catalog.

The three files that will be created are:

  • Master – Wildlife & Nature Previews.lrdata:  This is the file that contains the preview information for each image in the Catalog.  This is set when importing (the easiest option) or at a later stage and can be set to Minimal, Embedded and Sidecar, Standard and 1:1.
  • Master – Wildlife & Nature Smart Previews.lrdata:  This file contains the details of Smart Previews if you chose this option during import.  This is something that you should consider doing if you would like to work your Catalog on multiple computers.
  • Master – Wildlife & Nature.lrcat:  This file contains all the details of each and every image in your Lightroom Catalog and includes all the details mentioned in the Adobe description above.  It’s nice to also note that this is an executable file which means you can double click it to open it in Lightroom.  This is useful when you have more than one Lightroom Catalog.

The nice thing is that you don’t have to worry about the details of these files apart from where you want to create the Catalog directory.  Lightroom will do everything for you and you literally never have to look at the directory and files.  That being said, it is good to know where you save the Catalog so that you know where to look for it when something goes wrong.

So, before you even start importing images or start moving files around on your hard drive you need to make sure that you have a Catalog ready that you will use for those images.

Think of it this way.

Think of a Catalog as a photo album.  Inside this photo album you can add any amount of images from different events or safaris.  Each of these different events will then be a Folder of images that belong together.

So far so good?

Ok, so how do you go about creating a new Catalog in Lightroom?

Check out this 35 second video for a quick walkthrough.

Once you have created your new Catalog you are ready to start importing your images into Folders and then, once you have started processing them adding them to Collections in Lightroom.

Is this starting to make sense?

Let’s recap a few important points.

  • The Catalog is the top level of your image organisation in Lightroom.
  • You can create multiple Catalogs.
  • Folders and Collections will be created inside your Catalog (and probably in that order).
  • Lightroom automatically create a Preview file in your Lightroom Catalog directory.
  • Lightroom will only create a Smart Preview if you select this option during import.
  • Once created you don’t need to worry about your Catalog file again as Lightroom will take care of it.

Once in a while you will see that, when you close Lightroom, you will be asked whether you want to do a backup.  Don’t worry about doing this each time but I would suggest doing this every month or so.

So there you have it.

If you have any Catalog specific questions feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll assist where I can and then make sure to stay tuned for the next post in which I will look at Folders and how they fit into the organisational structure in Lightroom.

Until next time.


About the Author

Gerry van der Walt

I am a private and specialist photographic safari guide, public speaker, co founder of Wild Eye and wildlife photographer. Visit my website at or follow my journey on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter a look forward to changing the way you see the world.  I also host a Wildlife Photography Podcast and I Vlog!

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Comments 4

  1. Jackie Badenhorst

    Great thanks for this Gerry, I’ve been wanting to ask this question.

    So do you have many small LR catalogs, as opposed to one catalog with all images?
    I have the latter and the more images I import, the slower it all seems to get. I’ve also worried that the day that huge catalog gets corrupt for whatever reason, I will have big issues to deal with. Currently, I search for specific folders/dates to find what I’m looking for.

    So one should then almost have a catalog per trip, with folders for each day and collections of specific sightings/animals etc – or when do you decide to open a new catalog – per trip, per destination, per X time frame?

    Thanks for the help.

    1. Post
      Gerry van der Walt

      Hi Jackie,

      Thanks for the comment.

      The largest Catalog I know of currently has more than 600,000 images and is still going strong. I know of a lot of people who have mentioned the speed of larger catalogs but if your directory structure is sorted and you keep the catalog optimised. Also, Lightroom 6 should be released in the next month or so – not sure of exact dates just yet – and apparently the program will now use your computer’s graphic card which will speed up the entire process.

      Creating a catalog per trip might become quite a mission, especially if you travel often, as you won’t be able to jump between, for example, different lion shots from different trips. You would have to shut down and reopen your catalog each time.

      I have been running the same catalog since 2012 and have not had any issues. I do my backups once a month, or after every trip if I travel often, and have only twice had to recover info from there.

      Folders, which I will cover in the next post, is managed easily if you import to a date based or even a trip based system. The Library module makes it easy enough to filter according to dates.

      Collections will then be the last step in organising and is where you place collections of images such as lions, predators, etc. Collections are awesome and makes for a great and very easy way to manage your images.

      Hope that helps! 🙂


      1. Jackie Badenhorst

        Thanks Gerry, I’m doing it all as you say and I filter by dates (sigh of relief ), just heard of people making smaller catalogs and wondered if that was the way to go. I shall continue as I was!

        THANKS 🙂

  2. Trev

    I have an iMac (Retina 5K, 27” with 32 GB ram) running Lightroom CC and would like you advice in relation to the Catalog Settings under the File Handling tab?

    Any advice / views would be appreciated.

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