5 Essential Things You Need to Know About the Lightroom Library Module


Essential things Lightroom

For those of you who have been following my Lightroom articles I thought it would be fun to test your knowledge. We’ll start with the Lightroom Library module because the work you do here, lays the foundation for everything you do inside Lightroom. Master the Library module and you’ll be well on your way to becoming an expert on the entire program.

Ready? Let’s start with what is probably the most important thing of all – backing up your Catalog.

1. How to back up your Catalog

This is really important. Your Lightroom Catalog is absolutely essential because it’s where Lightroom stores every piece of information it has about your photos. Not only does this include the location of your photos (i.e., where they are saved on your hard drive) but any metadata associated with them (from camera settings to keywords), Lightroom specific information (such as which Collections a photo belongs to) and any edits you have made in the Develop module. Yes, these are all stored in the Catalog.

How much of a disaster would it be if you lost all this data? I’m sure it would be a major loss. That’s why it’s so important that you back up your Catalog regularly. You should also back it up to an external hard drive, not to an internal one, in case your computer is lost or stolen.

You can check your back up settings by going to Lightroom > Catalog Settings. Click the General tab – Back up catalog should be set to Every Time Lightroom Exits as shown below.

Essential things to know about Lightroom

Connect the external hard drive on which you back up your Catalog, then exit Lightroom. Before Lightroom closes down, it displays the Back Up Catalog window. The Backup Folder setting should point to a folder on your external hard drive. If it doesn’t, click Choose and change it now.

Essential things to know about Lightroom

When you exit Lightroom is the only time you will see this popup box, and the only place you can change where it saves the backup of your catalog.

Make sure the Test integrity before backing up and Optimize catalog after backing up boxes are ticked. When you’re done click the Back up button. Lightroom will save a backup of your Catalog to your external hard drive before closing. This may take some time, especially for a large Catalog, so be patient.

Some important things to note about Catalog backups:

  • You only need to keep the last two or three backups. You can delete older ones to free up hard drive space.
  • If you have Lightroom 6 or Lightroom CC the backed up Catalogs are compressed, saving hard drive space.
  • You should always back up your Lightroom Catalog to a different hard drive than the one the main Catalog is stored on. That way, if your main hard drive fails, the backed up Catalog is safe.
  • Once a month (or more often if you like) copy the latest backup to Dropbox, Google Drive or another cloud storage solution. This is to protect you in case you lose both your computer and your external hard drive to theft or fire. The location and name of your Lightroom Catalog are recorded in Catalog Settings.

Essential things to know about Lightroom

2. How to back up your photos

This is important to mention because I want to make sure you understand that your photos are not stored inside Lightroom, or in the Catalog. Your photos are saved on your hard drive (or drives) and you need to back them up yourself. It is your responsibility – Lightroom doesn’t do it for you.

There are many ways of backing up photos, you need to find the method that works best for you. However I’m sure it will help if I share my method. Feel free to use, adapt or ignore it.

  • Create a folder called Raw. All your Raw files are stored in there (I shoot everything in Raw – you could simply call your folder something like Photos if you shoot a mixture of Raw and JPEG).
  • In that folder create a new folder for every year you take photos.

essential things about Lightroom

  • In each of those folders, create 12 folders, one for every month of the year.

essential things about Lightroom

  • Whenever you import photos into Lightroom, select the correct destination folder depending on the month and year the photos were taken.
  • Place each shoot into a folder of its own. You can either give it a name or organize the folders by date.

essential things about Lightroom

This system works because it’s easy to see whether your Raw files are backed up. Want to back up all your Raw files to another hard drive? Just copy the Raw folder. Want to see whether you’ve backed up all the photos you’ve taken this month? It’s easy to do so with this system.

By the way, I keep my Raw files backed up to four different external hard drives, one of which is stored off-site. That way, if one of the hard drives fails, I have three other copies.

3. How to set up File Handling in Catalog Settings

The File Handling settings are important because they help you strike a balance between optimizing Lightroom’s performance speed, and using hard drive space.

The first thing you need to look at is the total size of the cache. This tells you how much hard drive space your previews take up. For example, looking at mine (see below) I can see my Lightroom previews are currently taking up 28GB.

Essential things to know about Lightroom

It’s important to keep some of your hard drive free (at least 10%, but preferably more) otherwise Lightroom will slow down (as will everything else your computer does). If you are running out of hard drive space, come and have a look here to see if your preview files are too large.

There are two steps to keeping your previews file under control.

1. Make sure Lightroom is generating the optimum size Standard Previews. These are used to display your photos in Loupe View and don’t need to be any larger than your monitor’s resolution.

If you have Lightroom 6 or Lightroom CC you can set the size to Auto. Lightroom will calculate the optimum size for you. In Lightroom 5 or earlier pick the size that best matches your monitor’s resolution.

Set Preview Quality to Medium – it gives you the best balance between quality and size.

Essential things to know about Lightroom

2. Set Automatically Discard 1:1 Previews to After 30 Days. You need 1:1 previews for zooming in to photos, and working on them in the Develop module. However, they are very large. If you generated 1:1 previews for every photo in your Catalog, and never deleted them, you would eventually run out of hard drive space. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter which setting you choose here as long as it’s not set to Never. You can always regenerate discarded 1:1 previews if you need them again later.

4. How to search for images

One of the benefits of building the Lightroom architecture on a database is that it is easy to search your photos. You do this in the Filter Bar, which is displayed above the Content Window in Grid View (press ‘\’ on the keyboard if you don’t see it).

There are three types of searches:

  1. Text: Search keywords, filenames, titles, captions, etc., for text sequences.
  2. Attribute: Filter by flag, star rating, colour label or file kind (master photo, virtual copy, or video).
  3. Metadata: Search by date, camera, lens, camera setting (ISO, shutter speed, aperture, etc.), aspect ratio or any of the dozen or so search options listed there.

Have a play with these options to see how it works. Just bear in mind that Lightroom is searching the selected folders or Collections, not your entire Catalog when you do so (select All Photographs to search your entire library).

Essential things to know about Lightroom

5. How to use Collections

Collections are virtual Folders, which you use to organize your images. Folders are limited because a single photo can only be stored in one Folder at a time. The same photo can be stored in as many Collections as you like, making Collections the easiest, and most flexible, way to organize your photos.

An example of this is a photo taken of a person called Jenny in Rome in November 2015. The photo can only be stored in one Folder, but it can be added to a Collection called Jenny, another one called Rome, another called 2015 – in fact as many as you need.

Your folders should be set up to make backing up easy (see earlier point). Your Collections should be used to organize your photos. My article Use Lightroom Collection to Improve your Workflow will help you with this.

Your turn

Of course, this list is not exhaustive, but I’d like to hear your thoughts as well. What do you think is essential to know about the Library module? Do you have any questions about the points raised in this article? Please let me know in the comments below.

The Mastering Lightroom CollectionMastering Lightroom ebook bundle

My Mastering Lightroom ebooks are a complete guide to using Lightroom’s Library and Develop modules. Written for Lightroom 4, 5, 6 and CC  they  show you how to import and organise your images, use Collections, creatively edit your photos and how to work in black and white.

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

  • Stephan Baranowski

    Great Article. Thanks!
    Regarding point two: were do you keep the JPG’s (or other format files you export out of Lightroom). Do you keep them in the same (or sub-) folders were you keep the RAW files?
    Or is this a complete different folder structure altogether? And how is that organised? Do you keep them in LR as well?

    Thanks again

  • Hello Andrew S. Gibson,

    You have shared the best thought I truly delighted in the full article.

    Thank You…

  • Hi Stephan, I don’t keep exported JPEG files in with Raw files and for the most part I don’t import them into Lightroom either. From the point of view of backing up all you need is Raw files and the Catalog – you can create JPEG files again any time you need to.

  • Frank Petrocelli

    Thanks for the article. I learned some new things (like preview size and when to discard them) for ways of saving hard drive space. One point: when creating new folders its best to do so within Lightroom. That way LR can track the movement of the original file. And one question: I import and convert all my RAW files to DNG files. I understand this helps save space. Does it retain the quality of RAW as far as you know? Thanks again!

  • Hi Frank, converting your Raw files to DNG doesn’t result in any loss of data or quality at all. It also saves hard drive space. Well worth doing – the only drawback is that it extends the import process.

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  • Stephan Baranowski

    okay. Thanks for the reply Andrew.
    I have many years of Jpg files from before I started with a DSLR. I have been thinking of separating the RAW folder structure from de JPG folders, now that ‘m seriously into photography. Thanks for the insights! Stephan

  • Tim Hayes

    Andrew – How timely! Or almost. I recently had LR crash on me and when I tried to reboot, the system said my Catalog was corrupted. Nothing I did seemed to fix it. Long story short, I eventually got it back but initially without the pictures as you pointed out in your article. Another website addressed this issue by suggesting that by choosing your main picture folder and then Exporting As Catalog solved both issues. Thoughts?

  • Hi Tim. I think the question is where are your photos saved? I’m assume that you’re aware your photos aren’t saved in the Catalog itself, and that you know where they are?

  • Tim Hayes

    Hi Andrew – To be honest, I was NOT aware that my photos were not saved in the catalog itself and I was hopefully looking for a process that did both — that is, backed up my catalog as well as my photos. Exporting as a catalog seems to work, but takes a couple of hours with not that many (<10K) images. Thoughts?

  • Alice Ackerman, MD,

    When I import my raw files, I convert to DNG AND I have LR CC make a second copy to my external hard drive. I do check the drive periodically so that I know it is working and that I am not running out of space. Then I can make extra copies from either my hard drive or my external drive to my cloud storage.

  • Hi Tim, yes Exporting as a Catalog will work but the process is slow. But the issue here is that you’re trying to combine two processes that should really be separated.

    1. Catalog backup. This should be done ideally each time you exit Lightroom, so that you don’t lose any work you have done if your main Catalog fails.

    2. Photo backup. Ideally you’d take the time to backup up your photos at the time you initially copy them from your camera’s memory card to your computer’s hard drive. That’s why I use the system related in the article. It makes it easy to see exactly what files need backing up and whether I have done it.

    The key to backing up photos is to have them well organised in the first place. If your files are not well organised, you need to get that done.

    Does that help?

  • Hi Alice, sounds like you’re very well organised. That’s a great thing to see because it makes backing photos up easy.

  • RickRead

    Andrew, a very informative article about areas I’d not really explored. The organization of my imagery is coming front and center. What I read indicates that keywords are a better way to index on multiple elements, rather than collections. What do you like about collections over keywords?

  • Keywords are hard work! You need a good system, you need to be consistent and, even if you keyword perfectly, you still need to search images to find those with a specific keyword.

    Collections are much easier. You can create Collections for whatever purpose you need. They are always available – no need to search for images with certain keywords. They work across every module. You need a lot less time to create Collections than you do to apply keywords. Collections will evolve with you as you learn how to organise your images – keywords only work if your system is perfect from the start.

  • Sam Le Marnais

    Hi Alice, why are you converting your raw files into DNG?

  • Sam Le Marnais

    Hi Andrew,
    I would add one advice: when a catalogue reach a critical size like 500Mb. It’s probably time to split it. I personally split it into years range, like 2004-2010. Then, the catalogue and the corresponding pics are backed up once for all (these pics wing probably never change again and even probably accessed actually). Like that back up process is lighter, catalogue opening time and processing is faster, etc., etc.
    What do you think? Good or bad idea?

  • Hi Sam, according to Adobe large Catalogs shouldn’t slow Lightroom down. I haven’t tested it for myself though by creating smaller Catalogs. From a practical point of view I prefer to have all my photos in one Catalog, so I can see and search them all. It wouldn’t work for me to split it into yearly Catalogs. I appreciate that photographers who shoot high volume (such as wedding photograpers) may prefer several Catalogs.

  • Alice Ackerman, MD,

    Sam, As Andrew noted, converting to DNG does not lose any data but does save on space. I have been doing this for years, now in lightroom, and it seems to work fine.

  • Kim Passmore

    Hi Andrew – great article! I had several things set up correct and learned a few more very valuable tips! I have a question for you. I had been working on a laptop up until a few days ago, and had to save all my raw files on an external drive due to space constraints and then I backed them up on another external drive. I just got a new BIG PC and am now able to save my RAW files right on my computer – yay! I have my folder structure all set up for going forward and now I would like to have all my photos from my external drive copied on to my PC so that I have all my photos on both the PC hard drive and the external hard drive. My question is, if I copy all the photos on my external drive to my PC, when I open one of those photos will Lightroom know where the edits are in the catalogue even though it is a copy and not the original from the external drive??

  • Hi Kim, the easiest way to move your photos is to do it in Lightroom’s Folders panel in the Library module. Then Lightroom will keep track of the change in location. Please make sure you back up your photos beforehand in case something goes wrong.

  • Kim Passmore

    Thanks Andrew! Much appreciated.

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