Understanding catalogs, collections, and folders in Lightroom

A review of catalogs, collections, and folders in Adobe Lightroom

Since Lightroom is a database some of the most powerful features of Lightroom are organizing your images. But since Lightroom has many different types of ways to keep your files stored it can get a little confusing when starting out. Today I want to cover a quick review of the 3 ways you can organize your images in Lightroom. On the left hand pane of the Library module in Lightroom you will see 3 main sections: catalogs, collections, and folders. So what are the differences between these 3 sections? Let’s dive in and see what they are all about.

Lightroom catalogs – The catalog in Lightroom stores everything that you have imported into Lightroom when this catalog was open. This gives you a view into everything in the database and the catalog will have a database file associated with it. This database file (normally named Lightroom 3 Catalog.lrcat ) is by default located in the pictures folder in your commuter and will hold all of the details about these photos (metadata, previews, photo history…). You can choose to save this catalog database on any drive or location that you choose and can have as many catalogs as you need. You can only have 1 catalog open at the same time so I usually suggest not creating too many. Lightroom is pretty powerful and can handle a very large database without any really performance issues. I generally create a catalog for every year and even though I have a few hundred thousand images it still performs just fine.

lightroom_foldersLightroom folders – While the catalog shows you everything in your database the folders section of lightroom shows you the folder structure of where the original files live. Normally for my wedding shoots I have a folder with the brides name and inside that 3 folders (Color, B&W and Artistic tone). In Lightroom when I import the main folder i’ll include the subfolders and will see this same hierarchy on the folders section on the left.

Also since the folders point to your original file you can’t move the file without breaking the link with Lightroom. If you did move the folder of images you will still see the folder on the left side and when viewing the thumbnails they will still come up just fine since Lightroom stores the previews in the database. But when trying to view the full size image or make any changes in the develop module it will come up that the image is offline or missing.

understanding lightroom folders

What if you moved the folder to an external drive for storage. I actually work on my images on one drive but then once the shoot is done back them up on a Ready NAS NV+ system. Don’t worry you can easily re-setup the link by Control clicking on the folder name and choosing Update Folder Location. Then just navigate to where the new folder is and it will update the link in Lightroom.

using lightroom folders

lightroom collectionsLightroom collections – The collections section in Lightroom are pretty powerful for organizing. Think of these like smart playlists in iTunes, you can easily group together certain images based on metadata. It doesn’t move any of your original photos just creates a new view so you can quickly find photos across your entire Lightroom catalog.
You can have a photo in as many collections as you need and it won’t create duplicate images. By default there are a few smart collections already in Lightroom like a grouping of your 5 star images and you can add as many collections and smart collections as you need.

Look out for a deeper look into Lightroom collections coming up later this week!

That’s it, not really too difficult right? I hope you enjoyed this review of Lightroom catalogs, folder and collections. If you ever have Lightroom, Photoshop or any other photography released questions just let me know I am always looking for new ideas for content to write.

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Author: Mark

Mark is a fine art wedding and portrait photographer from Northern California. He has been passionate about photography since childhood and started his studio 12 years ago to bring a fresh style of photography to the wedding and portrait world.

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  1. This is very helpful; thank you!

    Question… My laptop memory is full, I’m a photographer still getting the hang of lightroom & storage, and I need to transfer my exported folders to a hard drive so I can free up space. Most of my photos in Lightroom are in Collections, which based on your above post, it would be better to start putting photos in the Folders.

    Do you have any suggestions? How do I backup my Picture Folders on my computer that were exported from Collections in Lightroom without Lightroom losing them or saying they’re lost? I’m a bit lost & would love light on the matter. Thank you in advance!

  2. Hi Ashley,

    Happy to help 🙂 The collections you have are basically just a organized group of your images but they will also show up in your folders section. All images will show up here when imported. If you move the files from your pictures folder to any other drive then just use the “Update Folder Location” tip in the article to point where Lightroom thinks the images are to the new location. This will fix the images in the folders section as well as the collections.

    Let me know if you need any more help!



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