In Lightroom, a catalog is a database that tracks the location of your photos and information about them. When you edit your photos and add metadata or keywords to them in Lightroom, all of these changes are stored in the catalog. The photo files themselves are not touched.
There is fierce debate about on how to best approach catalogs in Lightroom. Some photographers say that it’s best to have one master catalog. Others say it’s best to have multiple catalogs, organized by client or shoot or date (like one per year).
There are pros and cons to each approach.
When you’re opening and closing the same catalog all the time, there is a greater chance for your files to become corrupted. On the other hand, having more than one catalog can become complicated when you want to access different photographs from different folders, as you can’t search through multiple catalogs without opening each one.
Also, Lightroom’s mobile sync only works with one catalog.
So what can you do if you have several catalogs now but just want to have one main one? You can do a database merge of all your catalogs in Lightroom. The important thing is that you do so correctly.
You must import your actual catalogs, rather than your photos, or your virtual copies and collections won’t be imported.
Let’s take a look at the steps that you need to take to merge all of your catalogs into one master catalog.
Identifying Your Catalogs
The first step is to identify the catalog you would like to function as your master catalog. Go to the Lightroom menu (Mac) or Edit menu (Windows) > Catalog Settings and choose the General tab. This will tell you the name of the catalog you are currently working in.
Use Spotlight (Mac) or Search (Windows) to search for additional catalogs with an “.lrcat” file extension that you want to include in your master catalog. Make note of their names and locations.
You will likely have a lot of results from this search. Notice how I have several .zip files. These are backup catalogs. I also have some ending with -2, -3. -4. These number extensions are due to upgrading the catalogs with Lightroom updates.
Look for a .lrcat file with the same name but without the number extension. Check the date it was modified. If the two files were modified on the same date, you can ignore the file with the number extension.
Be aware that you can import a catalog from an earlier version of Lightroom Classic CC into a more recent version. The new, updated catalog contains all of the metadata associated with the previous catalog and photos.
Do a Bit of Cleanup
At this point, you may want to open the catalogs that you think you’ll want to import and go through them to see what’s in there. Now is a good time to track down and relink any missing files.
If you look at the Lightroom film strip pictured below, you will see a box with an exclamation mark in the upper right-hand corner of the images. If you click on it, you will get a message stating that the original file cannot be found. This happens when you move the files around on the hard drive without doing inside Lightroom or relinking so Lightroom can find them.
For example, this may happen if you move your files from your computer’s hard drive to an external drive.
If you want the missing images to show up in your library, take the time to link them now. If a lot of photos are missing, you may want to just link the images you have worked on and remove the unedited photos.
Merging Your Catalogs
If you don’t already have a Master Catalog to important your other catalogs into, you will have to create one.
In my case, I had one main catalog that I’d used for several years before deciding to switch to having several catalogs. When I realized a multi-catalog workflow wasn’t ideal for me, I simply renamed this larger catalog “Master Catalog” and imported the other smaller catalogs into it.
However, if you do not have one main catalog, you can start one and use it for all of your catalogs. If you have numerous catalogs, this will take some time, as you have to merge each catalog individually.
To create a new Master Catalog, go to the File menu and choose New Catalog. A box will pop up that says Create Folder with New Catalog. Type in “Master Catalog” where it says Save As and then hit Create.
To import a catalog, go to File > Import from Another Catalog.
Choose the catalog you would like to import into the Master Catalog.
Under File Handling, choose; Add new photos to catalog without moving. Whether your photos are on an internal or external hard drive, you will likely not want to change their location when creating a Master catalog.
It also asks you about “Changed Existing Photos”. You will only need to make a selection here if you have the same sets of files in numerous catalogs. This is not likely to be the case, as you usually important your photos from a given shoot into one specific catalog, rather than several.
Repeat this step with each of your other catalogs until you’ve imported them all into the Master Catalog.
Once all of the photos are all in a single catalog, you can do some organization, such as tidying up your folder structure, removing duplicates, or unwanted photos, etc.
Each time you import a catalog, be sure to back up your Master Catalog. This way, you will have a backup of each step you took. If you make a mistake or end up with an unexpected merge result, you don’t have to start all over again, just revert to the last backup.
Once you have finished importing all of your catalogs, I recommend setting up a back up schedule.
Choose Catalog Settings under the Lightroom tab. Under Back Up Catalog, choose how often you want to back up. I personally back up every time Lightroom exists. I’ve had my catalog become corrupted a couple of times. By having backed it up every day, I was easily able to restore my files from the most recent backup without losing any of my work.
Essentially, these are the steps you need to take when merging numerous Lightroom catalogs. Of course, in doing so, you might encounter scenarios or issues beyond what a single article can cover.
However, if you have been relatively organized with importing your images and know where to find your various catalogs, you should easily be able to create one Master Catalog from all the catalogs you have on your hard drives.