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LR4 – Catalog Files – One vs Many

The Problem

I have almost 60k images in a single LR4 catalog file.  This file is approaching 1 GB in size and whenever I make any changes, the entire file must be saved or backed up with the requisite amount of time required.  On a slower system, this can take more time than you might want to spend.  I decided to explore alternatives such as breaking up my one large catalog into several smaller catalogs.

LR4 Catalog Location

Reviewing several online references I found conflicting advice.  Here is a sampling of what I found:

Option A:  One reference recommends putting the LR Catalog files (*.lrcat) on the System drive.  This could be a problem if free space on the System drive is limited and the LR4 catalog is large, or if you have multiple LR4 catalogs.

Option B:  Another reference advises putting LR4 catalog files on a separate “scratch” drive.  This could be useful if you have a drive that you can dedicate to photography, as the drive could also serve as a working or scratch disk for PhotoShop.

Option C:  A third reference suggests creating multiple small catalogs where each unique folder of images has its own catalog.  This sounds similar to my initial concept.

The obvious answer is the location of a LR4 catalog doesn’t matter.  You can clearly put the catalog wherever you choose.  However there might be other issues to consider before making your decision.

LR4 Catalog Size

Adobe claims there is no limit to the LR Catalog size (it’s just a database, after all) and that size does not impact performance.  Practitioners disagree, with some claiming catalog performance degrades when the file size exceeds 15k images, although this limitation may be driven more by the computer’s capabilities than by the catalog file size.

My catalog has almost 60k images and I don’t feel hampered by save times, etc.  I guess I don’t expect instantaneous operations from my machine.

Catalog Creation

I decided to create multiple smaller catalogs from my original large catalog.  First I needed to create my first smaller catalogs.  As with any powerful software package, there are multiple ways to accomplish a given task.  One two-step process is simple:

  1. Create a new catalog … File -> New Catalog … and locate it wherever you desire on your storage system.  LR4 creates the catalog folder and ends up ready to work in the initially empty new catalog.
  2. Now you can create subfolders and import the images you want into the new catalog … File -> Import Photo and Video … you can select any folders, or individual files, which you want in this new catalog.  You can choose to MOVE, ADD or COPY them as you desire.  Once you’ve accomplished this, you are in business.

I used this process to create a number of smaller catalogs by copying data and images from my initial all-in-one catalog.  My smaller catalogs were based on the year the images were taken (2004, 2005, 2006 … ).

This process actually happened faster than I might have expected.  Remember I was dealing with a catalog of nearly 1 GB of data and 60k files.

Catalog File Size

Once I created the smaller catalogs, I found to my surprise that the aggregate size of the new catalog files occupied more than twice the space of the all-in-one catalog (over 2 GB vs. less than 1 GB for the original)!

So there is a tradeoff between the speed of day-to-day operations and the storage space required if you implement multiple catalogs.  You will have to decide what is more important to you based on your system capabilities and workflow.

Work Flow Issues

There are some other impacts on work flow when using multiple catalogs that must be considered.  LR4 only acts on one catalog at a time, and does not provide the ability to search or work across multiple catalogs.  One of the major functions of LR is to organize and manage images, and I am interested in an overall database that allows me access to everything I’ve shot so I can search for any image with only a single query.

Searching

For example, if I want to find every photo of Sarah, I want to search the entire database for all of Sarah’s photos.  If I had multiple catalogs, I’d have to perform this search once on each catalog.  That would significantly slow down the work flow.  Since LR4 can only operate on one catalog at a time, you will need to spend time switching between catalogs in order to search for all the photo(s) you want.

Obviously, searching across multiple catalogs has drawbacks.

Common Keywords, Categories and Flags

LR4 offers multiple ways to index your images using keywords, flags and the like.  If you have multiple catalogs, you will inevitably end up with multiple independent indexing systems, one for each catalog.

Perhaps there is a way to export indexing information from one catalog and then import it into another catalog (I’m not sure how to do that at the moment), but this just increases the periodic maintenance required to maintain an overall system.  I’m not sure it is worth the effort.

Conclusions

You can locate the LR4 catalog file wherever it is most convenient for you.

Replacing one large catalog with multiple smaller catalogs will decrease access and storage times at the expense of significantly increased storage space, but you will sacrifice the ability to easily search your database for images with a common subject.

Maintaining common keywords, categories and flags across multiple catalogs increases the overall PhotoShop/Lightroom maintenance requirements.

My solution was to establish a separate drive dedicated to photography (Option B), and I placed my LR4 catalogs on this drive.  I installed a solid state drive (SSD) for this purpose, and it will also serve as my PhotoShop scratch disk.  The speed of the SSD more than compensates for the large catalog file size, and I retain the ability to search with a common set of keywords, categories and flags.

At some point I’ll probably need to create multiple catalogs just because the number of images will grow too unwieldy.  Hopefully Adobe will have a solution to the problems I found before I get to that point.

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Mark Bobb

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