Should You Create Multiple Catalogs In Lightroom?

For years, catalog questions tend to be the most popular questions I get at my Lightroom seminars. One of those questions is whether or not to create multiple catalogs in Lightroom. See, back in Lightroom 1, it became fairly common knowledge that when your catalog grew to a certain size in photos (say 20,000) that it would slow down and you should create a new catalog so Lightroom would keep running quickly.

But that’s not the case anymore. Lightroom doesn’t have a photo limit that anyone has hit. Adobe doesn’t even recommend creating multiple catalogs anymore. So the first thing I tell people is to stick with one catalog. Keep it simple. I’ve got 70,000 photos in one of my catalogs and I don’t notice it to be significantly slower than a smaller catalog.

Now, does that mean you should never create multiple catalogs. Nope. It’s like many other things out there. Know what the rules are, then know how and when to break them. I know wedding photographers that create a new catalog each week for each wedding. Honestly, if I were a wedding photographer I’d probably do the same. I know people that create a catalog for their personal photos and one for their professional photos. Me personally, I don’t agree with that one. But hey, if it works for you then go for it.

My point is, if you have a good reason and are an advanced enough Lightroom user then creating multiple catalogs may be the way to go. But keep it mind, multiple catalogs is an “advanced” thing to do in Lightroom. You’re not going to find a lot of support for it, you’re going to complicate your workflow, and you’re not going to find a clear cut path on exactly how to make it work well.

But I think for most people, one catalog will work just fine. Load it up with as many photos as you’d like and don’t sweat it. It keeps things simple and, in my book, simple is usually good when it comes to managing our photos.

Author: Matt K

Matt is a full time Education Director for the NAPP and Kelby Training. He's a best-selling author of various books on Photoshop and Photography co-hosts the live weekly photography talk show "The Grid" and is co-host of "Photoshop User TV". In his spare time he practices as a 1st degree black belt in Taekwondo and enjoys spending time with his family in Tampa, FL.

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55 Comments

  1. I like the workflow of a single catalog, but it can become a little unwieldy after a while. So I tend to create a new one each year.

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  2. I originally separated mine because of the speed issue. But then when speed wasn’t an issue anymore I left it that way. My workflow is to create a new catalog for each year.

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    • Me too. I think that one catalog per year is the right compromise.

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  3. Now if I have multiple catalogs how do you import into a single one or better yet what is the best way to get a number of folders from one catalog into another?

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    • In the File Menu there is an import from catalog item or something similar. I’m not in front of lightroom at the moment.

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    • Go to File > Import from Another Catalog, then locate your catalog. I hope this helps.

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  4. I’m a Lightroom user since RawShooter. I’m a sloppy organizer. I have images spread out over 10 or so portable drives, with some dupes. I would like to get them all on one big drive and in one catalog with dupes deleted. I would like to merge the catalogs but if that’s not possible, I wouldn’t mind losing my original edits.

    Any ideas? I’m sure I’m not the only one in this situation.
    Thanks

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  5. First off, that opening comp with catalogs coming out of the Mac is genius in concept and execution.

    Secondly, to weigh in on the one or many discussion. At one point I came up with a workflow concept where I created a new “working” catalogue for large shoots (ex. post-travel). Idea being smaller = more efficient DB = faster for a large batch process. With mind towards integrating into master when done.

    Unfortunately I never realized much of a speed benefit and now have a few “orphan” catalogues that I’ve been too lazy or preoccupied to import into a master. Which becomes a problem when you want to put images together for whatever purpose (portfolio, book, blog post, whatever) – you can’t do it all at once if they’re scattered. Plus you need to manage multiple backups. I’ve never checked but I’ll guess multiple catalogues take up more disk space than a single even with same image library – there must be a core DB infrastructure with each regardless of image volume.

    So as above I would agree that unless you have a very specific need (say separation of personal from professional images) you’re probably better off with just one.

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    • I have two catalogs. One is for the files that are “online” which is all personal files, client files from the previous year and client files from the current year.

      I have secondary catalogs that contains all client files older than that. The catalog resides on the “offline” drive (2-4tb) along with the images.

      Each year in January, I export the older images from the “online” and then import them into the “offline” drive. So I have “offline” drives for 2011, 2010, 2009, etc.

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  6. Thanks Matt

    I’ve been creating catalogs each year. As a computer weenie, large databases concern me, but I backup early and often, so maybe the single catalog is the way of the future.

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  7. Just this past week I exceeded 500,000 images in my Lightroom catalog.

    Back before LR 2.0 I used to have to delete my catalog every 4000-6000 images because LR became horrendously slow. But ever since 2.0 came out, that has no longer been the case. So the 500K+ images that I have in my current catalog are what I have taken since LR 2.0 came out (April 2008).

    My biggest reason to avoid multiple catalogs is that after shooting weddings for 13 years, I can’t remember what year two people got married. So cataloging by year makes no sense to me. I love that if I can’t remember where a set of images is located that I can find it just by searching the catalog.

    I also love the fact that I can tell which is my most used lens, my most used aperture or ISO, or that I can find all images shot at f/1.2 or all images shot at a specific location, all within seconds. The catalog is a great tool.

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  8. I’m one of those you speak about that keeps my nature and family shots in separate catalogs. I just can’t stand for them to mixed in together. I also like to keep a separate catalog for the sports shooting I do because sport shooting can lead to what seemingly is a ton of shots that look almost Identical do to using the fastest continuous mode to try and get the shot.
    So I have 3 catalogs; Nature, Family and Sports
    YMMV
    Jack

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  9. I have been creating catalogs based on years. I divided my photos into different year folders e.g. 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and I create a catalog for each.

    It works for me. I tend to think that if I put all my photos in 1 catalog I’ll be overwhelmed by the shear amount :)

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    • Larry,

      you can use a single catalogue with a Smart Collection setup for each year. The Smart Collection feature allows filtering photos based on capture date and can be set to a range, e.g., 2013-01-01 to 2013-12-31. This method will let you search photos across years and keep you from being overwhelmed when browsing through photos.

      mpt

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  10. I’m a Lightroom user for a while and I used to organize my photos into several “conceptual” catalogs (Vacations, Events, by Models, etc) I have a lot of catalogues and as i’m quite organized I have no problems tracking my photos. If you’re not pretty organized…thinking twice.

    As Matt says: If it works for you, is ok.

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  11. Thanks for this article. I just started including my videos in my LR catalog, but was worries that the additional files would make my main catalog too big. It’s good to see that hopefully won’t be an issue.

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  12. I used to have a single catalog and LR would give me “low disk space” warning. When I checked the drive properties it showed lots of available capacity. I believe that the previews were eating up all of my HD space but were not detected by Windows. I solved the problem by going to multiple catalogs. Any one else ever have this issue?

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  13. The key to a successful single catalog is to ensure that you keep each project, event, outing, whatever in a separate folder. Many folks I know maintain a one disk drive (plus a second for backup) for all their photos. They then have a folder for each year and then sub-folders for each project, etc. Lightroom’s Catalog system displays each folder so it is easy to ‘find’ what you may be looking for. Keywords is/are a separate issue.

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  14. I have never had Lightroom tell me it was out of disk space when the drive wasn’t full…

    HOWEVER, I do have a solution for you to clean up previews.

    Lightroom only cleans up 1:1 previews. If you have regular sized previews those can stick around forever. I currently have over 500,000 images in my catalog, so yes, this became an issue for me. (and no, having multiple catalogs, still totaling 500K images, would not have solved the problem since the previews would be there either way)

    Anyway, click here to read about the solution to cleaning up your regular sized previews:

    http://blog.dterryphotography.com/2011/08/cleaning-up-lightroom-previews.html

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  15. I
    Here’s another vote for annual catalogues…keeping things in year order seem to be the simplest process for me. Good article Matt!

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  16. Hi Matt,
    I have a master catalog which has over 100,000 images, with Master Folders of my major photography subjects ( Architecture, Portraits, …). For each major project, I create a separate Lr catalog, once that project is done ( delivered to the client and received payment), I merged it with the Master Catalog, using Import from Another Catalog. I then delete that separate catalog to minimized digital clutter and save HD space. In my Preferences > Default Catalog, I set it to “Prompt me when starting Lightroom”. In this case, I always see my outstanding single catalogs that needs to be processed. In my experience, it seems that Lr is more responsive with a smaller catalog and I am able to focus on a specific project at a time. Have a great weekend.

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  17. I have 5 Different Catalogues for Different Shoots I do, I find it easier when Looking for a Particular set of Images.

    I’m also not a big Hoarder of Images in Lightroom, once something has been full edited and the JPEGs produced I tend to export the Processed RAW Files and Clear it from the Catalogue, I just want to know what needs to Worked on.

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  18. I agree. I teach LR and encourage students to have just one catalog because, for example, cross-catalog searching isn’t supported (but check out Rob Cole’s lrXurchin – robcole.com/Rob/ProductsAndServices/XurchinLrPlugin/) and one ends up with independent keyword sets. However, I do have a few special cases:

    1) Almost all of my pictures – personal and professional – go into a main catalog

    2) When I get images from other photographers, they go into a separate catalog where I typically add shared copyright into the IPTC

    3) I do some infant bereavement photography for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep – those images all go their own catalog

    I tell students that if they are doing some specific photography that they want to only look at when the context is appropriate, like NILMDTS photography or, for example, funeral photography, nude photography, or secret/classified photography, they should create a new catalog. Can performance ever be impacted by catalog size?

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  19. I think I may have learned a bad habit and now need to unlearn it. Can anyone help?
    I have set LR to ask me to do a backup every time I close LR – and I do this most nights, as I do so many changes each day.
    Are these all different catalogs?
    I hope not, as I understood it to be saving just the latest changes, and I assumed all to the same catalog.
    I would gladly not have to save so much a I now have a folder full of loads of Catalog files, some very large.
    How do I consolidate all these catalogs into one or two catalogs? And how do I then instruct LR which catalog to save the changes to?
    Confused.com!!!

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    • Same exact issue here! That and I always created a new catalog for each new shoot because that is what the editor at the photography company I used to work for did. Gah. Trying to undo this gordian knot.

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      • You can use the File>’Import from another catalog …’ dialog to combine all those separate catalogs into one new catalog.

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    • Actually, Phil, that’s a very good habit. Don’t unlearn it; you just need to understand what’s going on.

      Each time you exit LR it saves TWO copies of the catalog, one is the ‘default’ that it will use next time you start LR and the other is a backup or second copy of the same default. You use Preferences>General to control where the default catalog is stored. You set the location for the backup in the exit dialog. For maximum benefit, you should store the backup on a different hard drive from the default. LR creates a folder on the backup drive which is named ‘2013-06-25 1635′ for example, the date and time of the backup. It then puts the backup in that folder.

      The previous ‘default’ is overwritten (ie. sent to the PC recycle or Mac trash bin) but the previous backup just stays there until you manually delete it. If you don’t delete them you will soon see a long list of backup folders with those numeric names.

      You ‘should’ keep the latest version and a ‘few’ backups at least – however many you feel comfortable with. But you can delete the older backups because you’ll likely never need them.

      What I do is rename the backup folder when I’m about to do something major, like install a new version of LR or when something happens so I know exactly which version of the catalog was affected. Here are some examples from my system:
      — ‘2013-07-01 1453 Last LR 4.4′
      — ‘2013-07-01 1906 First LR 5.0 after lrcat conversion’ – (I did this backup as soon as the conversion was complete and before I imported or worked on any new pictures – so those two backups are the same catalog but for different versions of LR).
      — ‘2012-08-07 1842 Backed up after powerfail’ – (I had a power fail during a lightening storm when LR was running so I restarted LR then did an immediate Quit in order to get a backup – lucky for me only a small amount of work was lost).

      Right beside your default catalog, you should see another file named ‘Lightroom 5 Catalog Previews.lrdata’ which contains the latest copy of your previews. LR does not back this file up because it can always recreate it if it gets lost.

      I hope the explanation helps. Good luck.

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  20. I’m brand new to LR4 and want to know if collections help better oragnize shoots inside of one catelog? Here is my thinking… One LR Catelog in my pictures folder. Inside of there I have a 2013 folder- for all imported pic for the year. Inside the year’s folder, I have each month month’s photos. And inside each month’s folder I create a folder for each shoot/event, personal or business but at this point each shoot/ event i’ll create a collection for each shoot /event. I don’t quiet understand catelogs nor collections at this point. And I have not started using this workflow yet, as i just got LR4 this week, but wanted to know if this makes sence to anyone, or if there a better way to avoid any forseen problems anyone sees? Please share your thoughts if you have been using LR for some time. Thanks a Billion
    Dee

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    • Dee,

      checkout the Smart Collection option. It’s like a Collection except you add a rule (e.g., “photos taken in June 2013″) and the Smart Collection will automatically include/add all photos that match the rule. It would be easy to, for example, create a Smart Collection that shows all photos taken in June 2013 with the keyword “flower”.

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    • That’s pretty much the same organization structure I use. I described it more thoroughly somewhere in the comments above. But I don’t use the ‘month’ level – only year & shoot#. It works well for me. I usually append a descriptive name to the shoot folder (for example ‘D13-147 Algonquin Night Sky’) so the description appears in the folder list in the left-hand panel so I don’t need to create a separate collection for that shoot. The folder is the collection. A typical filename inside that folder would be ‘D13-147-0013.cr2′. Picture filenames don’t get descriptions appended until they are exported – even then I keep the D13-147-0013 part so I can always identify the original. Note: I use presets to create the folders and filenames on import – if anyone has a clever way to get the created filename into the EXIF data on import I’d love to hear it.

      Some people advocate throwing everything helter-skelter into one ginormous folder and letting LR keep track of it. I suppose that works for them. But I was a computer programmer for 30 years and I live in mortal fear of the day I DON’T have LR available to find something – yes people that day WILL come. How then would I find any particular image file among the many tens of thousands in that folder? *shudder* No LR also means no collections and no keywords.

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  21. I do agree that keeping one MAIN catalog is a great application of Lightroom and using collections to sub-divide the catalog by category is perfect for me.

    HOWEVER when traveling I make a new catalog for each trip I take. The simple reason is because when I get home I export the whole catalog, changes and all and import that catalog into my main catalog.

    The benefits are many, I explain the whole process here:
    http://blog.lenstraveler18.com/tutorial/using-lightroom-to-manage-my-workflow/

    The most important benefit is the safety of knowing that all my work on the road is preserved while still keeping my images and work safe.

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  22. I used to keep annual catalogs but stopped that practice when LR3 came out. It just didn’t make sense to me as my photos generally don’t “expire” after a year and I found myself constantly having to mount old catalogs to search for things. In fact, I honestly can’t think of a good reason anymore for me to keep multiple catalogs because I do all my separation/organization inside LR using folders and collections.

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  23. May work if you’ve got a modern wizz bang pc or mac but if your dealing with an older quad core pc believe me that a large catalog will slow you down! My budget got me a new Canon 6d this year but a new computer isn’t on my near horizon.

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  24. How does Lightroom 5 compare for images per catalog? Currently I have 100,000 images per catalog in LR 4.

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    • There is no limit with LR5

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    • I was up over 500,000 images in my Lightroom 4 catalog at the time that LR5 came out. It took about 9 hours to complete the conversion from LR4 to LR5. But speedwise, I don’t see any problems at all with having 500k images in a single catalog. (and on the subject of speed, I’m really quite happy with how LR5 is working… LR 4.0 was a bit of a disaster performance wise and improved with each new release, but LR5 is looking really nice right out of the gate)

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  25. I like using multiple catalogs. I dislike the all eggs in one basket workflow. I use LR for adjustments only and MediaPro for cataloging and key wording. MediaPro allows multiple catalogs open simultaneously and search between open catalogs; it’s a superior workflow. MP is also much faster in rendering thumbnail previews when a catalog is scrolled and will display up to 6 images at time in compare view. I would like to have LR with multiple catalogs open at the same time.

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  26. I used to have a single catalog with all my photos, but this year I decided to create a new one. the problem is not about being more slow while adjusting settings, but being much more slow when doing the backup. My catalog was up to 800mb (using local adjustments makes it grow very fast), and the weekly backup would take around 3 minutes to complete (copy and optimize).

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  27. There should be no noticeable speed difference with catalogs of just about any size. My entire catalog with over 18,000 images is just about 500mb. It loads in less than about 3 seconds. I am on a 5 year old MacPro so it’s not like I have something fancy here.

    Much more important that LR catalog size is HOW you manage your catalog. I am often asked how to manage work flow as well as backup so I wrote a blog post that covers it pretty well. I hope it’s helpful to you, I have set up several students with this exact same system and everyone loves it.

    http://blog.lenstraveler18.com/tutorial/using-lightroom-to-manage-my-workflow/

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    • Thanks for mentioning what type of computer you have! This thread is all about the performance of Lr and nobody is talking what they are running the software on. Smh.

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  28. Hey all,

    To take advantage of my SSD in Lightroom, i use a separate catalog for ‘work in progress’. When I’m done editing I merge it into my master catalog on my second HD to keep my SSD clean.

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  29. I make a new catalog for each shoot. Each shoot is kept in a separate file folder. Multiple but similar themes are sometimes grouped under one thematic group folder (i.e.–animals might include sub-folders of deer, horses, etc.). When I open a catalog, I absolutely want it shoot-specific. That’s just the way I organized my photos 20 years ago and it simply works for me. No sehse in confusing my workflow with things labeled collections as separate entities in one overall catalog.

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  30. I have ONE single catalog in my LR 4. Few days ago I upgraded to LR 5 and yet to transfer my LR 4 ‘s Catalog to my LR 5. This time,I decided to create multiple catalog based on “year” because my present catalog grew too large and it slows down my processing time.
    Question: How do I create multiple catalogs from my LR 4 when I transfer to my new LR5?

    Please Help! Thanks a lot

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  31. As of this week I now have over 530,000 images in my catalog and it has not slowed it down (I have a much smaller catalog that I use from time to time and so I can easily compare the performance of both). Nobody should use performance as a reason to not use a large catalog these days. (for reference, these 530K images is everything since LR 2.0 was released)

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  32. I have two catalogs. One for personal/family stuff, and the other for business.

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  33. I have lightroom 4 and have had to change hard drives several times in the last few years. After Having had quite a few catalogues, I have now one master and have merged folders. This has made a complete mess and continually have question marks and confused metadata. I also didn’t realise that I must develop in only one of the catalogues. I don’t know what the best thing to do to clear this mess…and I have some photographs which have turned only into thumbnail JPGs. How can I clean up this mess? Advice would be much appreciated I have around 100.000 images, some of them still in an old iPhoto?

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  34. i would like to combine my two catalogs into one but i hesitate for two reasons: size – one has abt 300,000 pics the other 100,000. my experience is that lightroom 4 and 5 are not that speedy when retrieving files based on keyword as is. second reason is keywords – combining the two sets of non-overlapping keyword sets would create a really long keyword list and when i autofill to complete an entry, the combined keyword list is much more likely to produce duds. Example, i want to complete ro— and for plants i might get rosa floribunda, rosa multiflora, etc. but when combined with the other keyword set id get additional choices such as road, robert,rodent,rooster, etc. with the result that the choice set would be so large that it wouldn’t fit on the screen and i would have to type in several more letters to get a reasonable set. in my opinion lightroom really needs to work on its keyword functions.

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    • I agree, Rachel. My keyword list is hierarchical and getting more and more difficult to manage in the right-hand pane. I also use synonyms a lot. I do find auto-fill useful even though I often need to type 3 or more letters.

      I’ve often thought about using the Export & Import Keywords functions to manage them externally in a text editor but that whole process also seems a bit painful.

      Some of my friends prefer to use Photo Mechanic outside of LR.

      I would like to see Adobe add a separate Keywording Module. We could select a group of pictures and then take them to a different module (not Library Module) for keywording.

      Many people don’t care much about keywording, some need only basic functions, but some of us use it extensively. Not all my pictures are heavily keyworded but nearly all have 2 or 3 keywords while many have 10 or more with some up to about 50.

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  35. I’ve used separate catalogs for a few years now and what a mess. I am slowly merging them into one main catalog. Found this post wondering just how big can it be? I am only a third of the way done and have about 15,000 photos together and was concerned, is this making one catalog really a good idea with so many photos? If users have 500,000 plus without performance issues it is a no-brainer. I can’t wait until I can see any photo I have with just a few clicks. No more re-launching for me:) I do subscribe to the separate folders by year and event instead of relying on keywords to keep things orderly.
    Thanks for the post and comments.

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    • Looks like everybody is finding the limit of Lightroom and the disadvantage of a single catalog. I do not think the Adobe engineers anticipated such large catalogs. What we have done at Ziga Media is use PhaseOne Expression Media for our catalogs. EM can open multiple catalogs simultaneously and search among open catalogs, cut and paste. EM also supports collection sets within a catalog. Updating keywords is also well implemented. It’s really very flexible. Also, it is noticeably faster than LR for scrolling and review. It supports a 6 image “lightbox” for comparison, with a loupe and zoom for all displayed images in unison or separately; features that I wish LR had.

      When I need to process a series of images, I simple select and drag into Lightroom. My LR catalog only has images I need for retouching. It’s a great workflow.

      JimK

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  36. I have nearly 600,000 images in my Lightroom catalog and I don’t have delays in reviewing my images.

    You can watch a video demonstration (as proof) of how quickly I move about the images here:

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  37. i have been forced into three catalogs for keywording reasons. The first two contain plants and everything else and i segregated them for the reasons i explained above. The third catalog contains photos for my work project. the photos are taken from flickr creative commons and every time i download a set i have to delete about 5 million keyword tags (only a slight exageration). besides the nuisance of this, there is always the risk that as i rip thru deleting, i can delete my own keyword set. Lightroom, as far as i know has no simple way to restore a deleted keyword set (although i have started exporting the keywords to have some way of getting them back). So this forced me to create a third catalogue. since some of my own pictures will also be used, this is a nuisance, but i felt it was too dangerous to keep them together. if lightroom had some way of quarantining new tags that would help.

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  38. Actually this isn’t quite true. Adobe has no official response about catalogue size because it’s never officially been a problem. However, the LRCAT is an SQL Lite database and its performance limitations are well known. Basically, you will never go wrong with a smaller catalogue but Adobe won’t tell you that outside of the Lightroom SDK community.

    The addressable space can contain theoretically up to a million images and I can also drive my car up to the red line all of the time with in theory no problems; however, more practically smaller catalogues (under 10k-15k) will be more responsive, sync faster if you’re dealing with multiple users sharing a digital asset library, restrict corruptions and allow for speedy back ups while maintaining history states.

    (Hint, you can back up a database or have it live, not both. Running a back up on a live LRCAT will give you a messed up db.)

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  39. Thanks for all these useful tips. i will classify my pictures in 1 catalogue and organize them with tags and/or collections.
    very helpful!
    best regards
    patrik

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