Lightroom makes it easy to create and work with more than one catalogue, which makes some people think that is how they should work. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

So I originally wrote this post back in 2007, recommending against breaking up control of your picture collection in such a way. But the question of running more than one catalogue keeps popping up. You still see it touted in blog posts or recommended by someone in a user-to-user forums, and I’ve certainly been asked about it on too many occasions to mention. Yet the answer is still the same.

Back then (in my Lightroom Essentials book) I thought it was helpful to see an analogy with how businesses manage their inventories:

Another way to think of Lightroom is as a centralized inventory system managing a warehouse – you no longer need to sift through each pallet or bin to find the parts. And as your business grows and you rent the neighbouring warehouses too, you still only need one system to keep control of your work.

To take a book store as a good example, it may have completely different categories of books but only one catalogue is needed at the front desk.

Distinguish between your main and temporary catalogues

I think it’s important to distinguish between:

  • the main catalogue which controls your entire picture collection and workflow – this is what we’re talking about
  • temporary catalogues which you might use for a variety of good reasons

Why even think of fragmenting your workflow?

Those advocating multiple catalogues rarely look at the underlying reasons for fragmenting control of their work. but if you read between the lines  there are essentially two strands to their arguments:

  • It’s a workaround for genuine performance problems they’ve experienced – or fear they may experience – with large catalogues
  • They’re working “Bridge-style” and don’t really think about DAM (digital asset management)

Looking first at the “necessity” argument, if it is true that the big catalogue is degrading performance, then I concede that you may have no alternative. Let’s just call it a workaround, not advocate it as good practice.

But as we’ll see, it is a very big “if”.

Size doesn’t really matter

One curious detail is that those who advocate splitting their catalogues tell you it’s at 10000, 20000, 50000, or 100000 images, or the end of a year. Isn’t it a little suspicious that these numbers rarely coincide, and are always nice round figures? It’s not a surprise though – the numbers are little more than voodoo, just big numbers, chosen arbitrarily. Frankly, as someone who in his previous life has a lot more database experience (enterprise-level SQL Server and Oracle) than most photographers, the numbers are not that big and SQLLite is not going to struggle.

There are no official guidelines for when a Lightroom catalogue might contain “too many” images and is likely to run up against operational limits. Adobe have never offered any maximum number, and Lightroom 3 included a variety of tweaks specifically designed to improve the performance in this area. My own biggest test catalogue contains 105000 images and ran OK on a 6 year old PC (until it was recently replaced), while I work with a photographer whose 450,000 image catalogue was again not on the latest hardware. In 2013 Adobe have even spoken of one user having 1.9 million photos in a catalogue.

The only time catalogue size makes any difference is in backup. A big catalogue is naturally slower to back up, or slower performing integrity checks or optimisation. I can only answer – so what? You don’t do those tasks in valuable time – you leave them running when you knock off for the day.

When Lightroom does experience slowdowns, they are almost always unrelated to the number of pictures in the catalogue. This is a program that covers raw image processing and DAM, and it places strain on many aspects of your computer and system peripherals. Any one of these is more likely to degrade a system’s performance – for example, a graphics driver problem or speed of accessing storage devices, the size of the raw file being processed etc.

In other words, you don’t gain anything and Lightroom won’t be any faster if you do split things up into smaller catalogues.

How much you lose

As you’ll probably have noticed, I try to avoid using the innocent-sounding term “using multiple catalogues”. My preference is to describe it as “fragmenting” or “breaking up” control of your workflow. Both words are deliberately pejorative, of course, but they also describe very accurately what you are contemplating.

The most obvious kink in your workflow will be that you won’t be able to search for pictures as readily as you can with a single catalogue. If you don’t find a picture in catalogue A, you’re going to have to open catalogue B, and so on. And what happens when you want pictures that are in different catalogues such as when you’re pulling together a slideshow of your best pictures? A multi-catalogue organization may be manageable if your search needs are very limited, but it’s not a very time-effective way to work.

Another practical difficulty is inconsistency between catalogues. You often find, for example, that keywords will be spelled differently, with the singular used in one catalogue or the plural in another. Or consider what happens when you import the same image into more than one catalogue – which one contains the correct adjustments or metadata? Multiply this by a few thousand pictures are you’re going to struggle to remember, aren’t you?

But while searching and metadata consistency are annoying and inefficient, the bigger risk is to the physical safekeeping of your work. When some images are supposed to go into catalogue A, others into catalogue B, and so on, something is bound to go wrong. One day you’ll import pictures into the “wrong” catalogue, or you’ll import them into more than one catalogue, or some pictures will slip through the cracks and not be recorded in any catalogue.

There can be good reasons for (temporarily) breaking up control of your workflow….

In practice, sometimes you do need to take a less dogmatic line.

flowYou may not want to risk your employer seeing your personal work, or another strong reason might be if you shot pictures you really don’t want the kids to see. Both may be perfectly good reasons for maintaining two or more main catalogues.

Weddings are a classic case for keeping a series of catalogues, which makes a lot of sense when you imagine the catastrophic business impact of mixing photos from different events. Often the catalogue is archived in the same folder as the original images, meaning it’s always possible to do exact reprints. But again, here it’s important to remember the distinction between temporary catalogues for certain projects, and the main catalogue that records all your pictures. After a wedding shoot is delivered and the job is closed, import the wedding catalogue into your main one.

A similar reason is when you don’t want client A to see client B’s pictures. Again, there’s a strong underlying business logic, but that doesn’t mean you need to keep your main catalogue divided in this way. Instead, only when you are actually going in front of clients do you generate a temporary catalogue with File > Export as Catalog to create a catalogue specific to the client> After the meeting you can use File > Import from Catalog to bring any edits back into the master catalogue.

In a way, the key is to allow for the different ways we interpret and categorize pictures. These often overlap – is it a personal nature picture or is it client work? –   and our interpretations change over time and in different circumstances. Keywords have that kind of flexibility, so they are where you put your effort – not into folder structures or separate catalogues.