Apr 152010

(Updated 7/21/11)

A reader pointed out recently that I have never written a post on the topic of doing backups — both backing up your Lightroom catalog and your images.  I was surprised by this since I agree it is a very, very important topic.  I checked back through the archives, and  indeed, he was right.

Have you ever  thought (as I did today) that you would burst into tears or have to break open a bottle (before noon!) if you lost Lightroom work you did or images you captured?  If so, you are going too long between backups.

Let’s first go back to a public library analogy for Lightroom:  if the stacks of books burned down but the card or web catalog was saved, could the library function?  Could it function if the stacks were saved but the catalog was destroyed?  Of course the answer in both cases is no.  It is true that it would take less time, expense and effort to recover from the catalog destruction, but both are critical pieces to the functioning of the public library.  With Lightroom, your images are like the stacks of books and the Lightroom catalog is like the card catalog in the library.  When you think of backing up your photo library, you need to plan to back up both the images and the Lightroom catalog.

It is obvious what you lose if your hard drive crashes and you lose all your images, but what do you lose if you lose your catalog?  YOU LOSE ALL OF THE WORK YOU HAVE EVER DONE IN LIGHTROOM — your keywords, ratings, flags, entered metadata, develop fixes and enhancements, collections and more.   (Yes, if you are saving to XMP you might still have much of your work, but that is a topic for another day.)     Could you recreate what you would lose?  Perhaps — but do you have enough free time and patience to do so?

My first recommendation is that you store your images and your catalog in one folder (which I’ll refer to as your photo library folder), so that you know that all you have to do is back up this one folder.  This folder can reside either on your internal hard drive or an external drive.  By default your catalog is in a folder called Lightroom in your My Pictures or Pictures folder on your internal hard drive.  If your images are also there and you are happy with that, you are set.   (If you regularly work on two computers, having your catalog and images on an external hard drive has the advantage of allowing you to easily move from one computer to another — see my post on this topic.)

If you are not sure where your catalog is, or you know where it is and you want to move it, see this post on how to do so.

If you don’t want to move things around, that is fine — just make sure that you understand that you need to back up both your catalog and your images.

Once you know where things are, backing up is pretty straightforward.  While you could do a straight copy to a backup external hard drive, this manual approach becomes tedious over time. It’s better to use a backup program like Time Machine on the Mac, Windows  Backup on the PC, or one of many third party programs —  a colleague of mine recommends Acronis True Image for the PC, and Carbon Copy Cloner for the Mac.  Advantages to using a backup program include (1) that the backup is verified, so you can be sure it was 100.000% successful,  (2) it can be scheduled, so it does not rely on you to remember to do the backup, and (3) after the first backup is done, future ones only copy things that have changed, so it is quicker.

How often should you do a backup?  Frankly, it depends on how risk averse you are and the stakes involved.  If you photograph or work your images every day, and it would be emotionally or financially distressing to you  to lose any of this work, then back up every day. If it would be upsetting to lose even one day’s work, back up after 4 hours.

How many backups should you have?  Again, it depends on how risk averse you are and the stakes involved for you.  At a minimum have a backup on site for convenience, and one offsite or online, in case a burglar breaks in and steals all your hard drives.  For an online backup, I use Backblaze because it’s inexpensive and automatic – the first backup of my 3 TB or data took several weeks, but now it just automatically backs up everything new that I do.

So what about the Lightroom-guided backups that you are prompted to do when Lightroom closes?  Contrary to popular belief, these are just backups of your catalog, and not your image files.  This backup is critical as well.   Lightroom catalogs can become corrupted and unusable.  It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.  If corruption occurs right before you do the hard drive backup discussed above, all you have on your backup drive is a corrupted catalog.  You also need more backups of the catalog spread out over time, so you can get back to one before the corruption occured.  This is what the catalog backup prompt is for.   I put these backups on the same drive as my main catalog, in a Backups folder in my catalog folder (By default, PicturesLightroomBackups).   As a result, I have backups on my main drive, and backups of the backups on my backup drive.  I like the redundancy that this creates.

I have Lightroom prompt me to do this backup once a day.  If I haven’t done any significant work, I  just hit the Skip button.  To change the frequency of this prompt to whatever works for you, up in the menu bar in Lightroom go to Lightroom (Edit on a PC) > Catalog Settings.

I recommend occasionally going in and deleting many of these backups, because they accumulate and over time consume a tremendous amount of hard drive space).  (See my post on deleting backups.)

In summary, I do a hard drive backup (of my photo library folder as well as of all my other documents) every day or two to a backup external drive, I have a cloud backup program running all the time (BackBlaze), and  I back up my catalog every time I have done any significant work (otherwise I hit the Skip Now button).    Figure out a plan that works for you, and stick to it!


  15 Responses to “I Would Cry if I Lost the Work I Did Today: How to Back Up Your Lightroom Photo Library”

  1. You are correct to emphasize the importance of back up. The most thorough treatment of the subject that I have found is at http://WWW.Outbackphoto.com Over the course of several months they did a seven part series that I would recommend to anyone doing digital photography.

    Link below:


    The icon used for the articles is a building with a construction crane because it was a work in progress for some period.

    Bob Mc

  2. […] If you back up your catalog as often as I do mine, this will save you many gigabytes of hard drive space.  Next time you do a backup, in the backup prompt dialog box note where the backups are being stored. Outside of Lightroom, using Windows Explorer or Finder, go to this folder and delete most of the date folders. I like to keep a few spread out in time — a day ago, a week ago, a month ago, three months ago. The rest can go. If you are not backing up your catalog and your images, read this post on backing up everything. […]

  3. While I’m a big fan of Acronis True Image, I would not use it to back up data. I use it weekly to create a drive image (a single BIG file) of my operating system and installed software. I use SyncBack to back up my data every night.

    Acronis stores your data in it’s own format, so accessing it involved another step which isn’t always as flawless as the program would have you believe. I’ve had times, even when I’ve set Acronis True Image to validate the back up, that the file can’t be restored. Syncback which simply backs up your files, so you know they are always there.

    • Good to know, Reid! Thank you for posting.

    • Not true! Well …… it’s not true if you CLONE the disk, which I always do. I’ve been using Acronis for about 7 years, and they had some problems when Win7 came out — it took them 6 months before they figured out what was wrong with the Clone function and fixed it. Anyway, the only function I’ve ever used with Acronis is Clone disk. Why? If my C drive (or any drive) fails, I can unplug it, and replace it with the cloned backup drive and go. Down time? Perhaps 5 minutes total. Over the years, I’ve had to do this a couple of times. Now if Acronis used a proprietary format to compress data when backing up, then what I just described would not work! It’s possible they use proprietary formats for some of the other functions, but NOT for the Clone disk function.

      • Hello,
        I have been at this for five days now just trying to basically copy and paste in simple terms my RAW files to two seperate hard drives. I did not think it would be so difficult. I looked into Shadow copy but no go. I heard that Acronis does not keep the files in RAW format but turns everything to jpeg? I have a pc so can’t use the carbon copy. I am really
        new at all this only having lightroom now for four months. I am big on backing up but can not figure out how to put it on multiple hard drives and that they will still talk to lightroom in case I do have a crash. Help anyone please:) I read through the article but it doens’t really address multiple hard drives and how it could be successful with out cloning?
        I am not looking to just move the files but have multiple copies basically with the work
        I have done on them in lightroom saved.
        I miss copy and paste…. I do understand the catalog along with the actual image needs saved but I don’t want to just move them I want to copy them in case I need them like a CD back up in a scense.

        • Hi Forever,

          I use Acronis. It will not convert your raw files. It is better than a copy and paste in that after it makes the first backup (essentially a copy and paste), it will just back up your incremental changes. I backup every night.

  4. Is there any way to backup the Lightroom program software to a backup external? i have the downloaded version of Lightroom on my laptop hard drive with all the catalogs on my main external hard drive plus I have all my files/photos/etc backed up to my backup external. My biggest fear is my laptop crashes and i am stuck with having to re-purchase LR software.

    • Hi Christy, I personally don’t think it’s necessary to back up the software. You can always download it again from adobe.com. If you bought it through them and have an account, they also have a record of your serial number. If not, it is the serial number that you need to make sure you keep in a safe place — you can download the free trial version, enter your serial number, and be back up and running.

      If you also want to be able to recover immediately from a hard drive crash, without having to reinstall software, then you will want to create a backup clone of the drive. You can google this for more information.

  5. Laura,

    In addition to backing up on an external hard drive, are there any cloud or online digital photo storage options that you’d recommend?



  6. Hello Laura

    I’m using, for some months now, the synctoy and would like to know the differences between this and acronis. Coul you help me? Thanks

  7. I have my Lightroom set to backup on a weekly basis, I edited a lot of photos today. Is there a way to do a one-time catalog backup, and not have to go through the catalog settings dialog and change the backup frequency.

    • Scott, change the setting to “next time LR backs up”. Lightroom will automatically change the setting back to your prior choice (weekly) after it does the backup.

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