Lightroom Tips

TIP: Super Techie, But Important Catalog Tip & Lingo

Catalogs and photo storage is always one of the most popular topics whenever I’m out there teaching Lightroom. So I thought I’d do a quick post on one of the core concepts of the Lightroom catalog: Referenced photos vs. Managed Photos. This especially comes to light with Aperture not being developed anymore, but it’s still something good to know about when it comes to Lightroom. It sounds really techie but it’s not that bad. If you’re just a casual Lightroom user, you really don’t have to worry about what the difference is and what Lightroom does. Most people just happily plug along knowing that their photos are safe and sound. But if you like to dig a little further, let’s go:

Quick Side Note: UPDATE: The webcast mentioned is full. It’ll be rebroadcast on the onOne website after it’s finished though. Thx 🙂
I’m teaching a free webcast today on my 5 Golden Rules of Editing Landscape Photos using Lightroom and onOne Software’s Perfect Effects. It’s at 12pm Easter time and free to attend. Here’s the link to sign up. Now back to the post…

What’s the Difference Between Referenced and Managed?
Okay, first off, what’s the difference between a referenced system and a managed system. And… why do you care? Well, the main question/frustration/concern/hang-up (or whatever you want to call it) I hear is that people aren’t sure what happens to their photos when they import them in to Lightroom. Some think that Lightroom pulls them in to some mysterious vault or black box, hides them and just let’s people look at them through it’s pretty interface. In case you’re wondering, that’s actually called a “Managed” system (see, I snuck in a technical term in there, but hopefully made it more approachable). Apple’s Aperture started out that way actually (although they did add a referenced option too). iPhoto works that way too (unless you know the secret preference to turn it off, which is buried in a menu somewhere).

A managed system essentially pulls your photos in to it’s world. The photos still live on your computer, but they’re not in a folder that you have direct access to. But a managed system is NOT what Lightroom is. Lightroom always simply references your photos.

What’s A Referenced System?
A referenced system is just what the name implies. The program references the photos where ever they live on your hard drive. It could be on your local hard drive on the computer, on an external hard drive, or even a network hard drive of some sort.

For example, in Lightroom, when you Import your photos, it doesn’t actually move them. Well, it can if you tell it, but only to a different location on your hard drive (again, a location that you told it to). It doesn’t move them in to its black box/managed system because Lightroom doesn’t have one. I always tell people to first, put their photos where they want them on their hard drives, and then import them using Lightroom’s Add option in the Import dialog.

Lightroom Catalog

That way, Lightroom just becomes aware of the photos, and references them where ever you put them on your computer. In Lightroom, you’re in charge. Your photos are always exactly where you put them. It will only reference your photos on the hard drive that you stored them on. And your originals are always right where you put them.

So Managed Sounds Like A Bad Thing Right?
So is a managed system a bad thing? Nope, not at all. There’s probably many thousands of people that have used iPhoto and/or Aperture using the managed system and were perfectly happy. I have to tell you, it makes organizing things and backing up your photos a-heck-of-a-lot easier if you just let the program do the work for you. But most of us are pretty picky with our original raw photos and we like to know exactly where they are at all times 🙂

But I Don’t Have Access To My Originals With a Managed System
A lot of people thing they don’t have access to their original files with the managed system, but that’s totally not true. First off, I don’t know about you, but I usually don’t need the original file after I edit it. Now, I don’t want to delete it, but for me at least, I typically just export a JPEG version of the edited file. Very rarely do I need the original untouched raw file. If that’s the case, then the managed system works just fine to export JPEGs.

But let’s say you do want access to your originals. In a program like Aperture, using the managed system still let you get at them. It was a menu item that let you relocate the originals, if you ever wanted to. Basically it was like saying, “I know you’re managing my photos in your black box, but please take this photo (or many photos), and move the originals to some location/folder of my choosing”. So with any managed system you still had access to your originals if you ever wanted them.

Anyway, I hope this helps a little. I can tell you from years on the road teaching Lightroom that this is one of the most asked-about topics I hear. We’re very protective over our photos, and hopefully this helps shed some light on what’s happening to them behind the scenes when you use Lightroom.

See ya!



  1. Chris Bamford 8 August, 2014 at 18:18 Reply

    I am looking forward to doing the training at Kelby One. I have no problems importing or understanding the photos are only an image of what is on the drive. My problem is finding them after I have worked on them. I don’t use Lightroom often because it frustrates me that I cannot intuitively find the files, save, develop files as easily as I can in Photoshop. I have a PC so not used to iPhoto.

  2. Patty Hosmer 8 August, 2014 at 12:30 Reply

    I’m one of those control freaks and NEVER liked iPhoto because I didn’t like not knowing where my image files were. Any chance you would share the “secret” preference so I can track down my images in iPhoto? Thanks, Matt.

  3. Finn Hansson 21 July, 2014 at 12:05 Reply

    I have had a problem with Adobe’s use of the word/ term “Import” in Lr since version 1.
    To me the word import implies that somekind of movement is involved. I have found that if I use the word Register instead the whole concept makes sence to me – and obviusly my pictures can only be referenced.
    (English is not my 1′ language so maybe this mental workaround only makes sence to me)

  4. Alan 18 July, 2014 at 09:54 Reply

    For those that choose to copy images from the CF/SD card to a hard drive first and then point LR to add them to the catalog, is there are tools that will let me easily modify the file names on the way in (for example, append the capture date to the front of the file name) and also, when desired, create separate folders for each date on which the images were taken? I do this today by having LR do the import, but would consider this two step method for improvements to overall speed if I can ensure my images will still get named/organized in folders the way I want them.

    • Nick tsakiris 19 July, 2014 at 21:41 Reply

      You will still have access to the import dialogue and can perform the same methods as before. I always rename after culling in the library module.

  5. W. Stewart 16 July, 2014 at 20:55 Reply

    I thought I was doing it wrong all these years. I’m sure I’m doing some of it wrong though

    I put them on my main external HD that is basically part of my home desktop. I have folders for each year with folders in each of them for the 12 months. In each month I put a new folder for each shoot. I label the folder starting with the day then the shoot, like 16 daughters soccer game. I then import them into LR and when done editing I export the “finals” back into the folder I imported them from.

    So that last step is where I probably go wrong, I don’t use LR to manage my images. I have been doing it this way since before LR when I would just edit a few in PS with this system. I have started to use LR to manage my images as Scott Kelby made me start making books. 🙂 I have actually created a few collections now. lol

    I had start using LR properly on my “to do list” for some time and I’m pleased that on the the first day I subscribed to this site and followed Matt on Twitter, that I may be doing some thing not all that wrong. Sorry to go on and on, I was surprised by the first post I read here and looking forward to moving forward

    • W. Stewart 20 July, 2014 at 02:04 Reply

      Just watched your Lightroom 5 Basics for Photographers, and the first 7 lessons of Lightroom 5 In Depth: Importing, Catalogs, and Organizing Your Photos. Over a Kelby One, Looks like I’m well on my way to getting on track.

  6. Bruce 16 July, 2014 at 10:32 Reply

    Great article, Matt. My wife uses iPhoto and I use LR – now I know the difference. Question, why does LR sometimes place an edited Tiff that has been exported and then imported, (like with the Photomatix plugin) at the end of film strip and sometimes nests it with it’s original?

  7. David Pickles 15 July, 2014 at 16:17 Reply

    Not sure why you tell people to import their photos to their hard drive of choice first and then import to LR. Sounds like two steps when only one is needed. I always import from my memory cards through LR and I always tell it to place the photos in the hard drive/folder of my choice and it handles both tasks for me. Easy peasy!

    • Matt K 15 July, 2014 at 20:59 Reply

      Glad it works for you David. But most will disagree with you about being “easy peasy”. The import to hard drive first, and then adding to Lightroom is much easier to teach and understand. Good luck with your way though!

      • Nick Tsakiris 16 July, 2014 at 09:42 Reply

        The two steps may sound like more time but if you copy the images first then import into LR the process is actually faster. Although at first thought LR importing sounds like the best choice, it is not the fastest.

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