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About Your Images and the Lightroom Catalog: The Library Analogy

A lot of people have a hard time understanding where their images are in the Lightroom environment, what the catalog is, and how it all fits together.  This is completely understandable, as the terminology is confusing.

Think of a public library — you have stacks and stacks of books everywhere — the main floor, 2nd floor, 3rd, …., in the basement, and even offsite.   And you have the centrally-located card catalog (or web catalog), which helps you find and make sense of those books.  The catalog has an entry for each book, with its location in the stacks, what the book is about, copyright and publication  information, a picture of the front cover, etc, etc.    When you want to work with books,  you don’t go to the stacks and walk along them until you find what you want — you go to the catalog.  Furthermore, if you put a paperback that you bought at the grocery store in the stacks, it is as if it is not there — it is not accessible to people until the librarian creates an entry in the catalog for it.

So here’s the analogy:  your images are like the stacks of books — they sit on your hard drives in folders however you decide to organize them.   The Lightroom catalog is just like the card catalog — it is a centrally located collection of information about each of your images that you have taken the time to create an entry for.   By default this catalog is located in a “Lightroom Catalog” folder in your Pictures folder on your internal hard drive.

Contrary to what you would think  “import” means, when you “import images” , you are not moving your images — you are simply creating an entry for each  image in the centrally-located Lightroom catalog.   Once your images have been entered into the catalog (i.e. imported), you can see them in Lightroom, and you can work on them.   You may have thousands of images on your hard drive(s) that you don’t see in Lightroom — just like the paperback that was put in the stacks, they aren’t accessible to you through Lightroom until you enter/import them into the catalog.

But, you say,  the Import dialog  asks you if you want to copy or move your  images, so importing must move your images, right?  No — the fact that the Import dialog allows you to move or copy images (usually used to copy from a memory card to the permanent location of your choice on your hard drive) is simply a convenience to you — it is not the import itself, which is simply the creation of catalog entries.

So what information is stored in an image’s catalog entry?   The location of the image,  metadata (data about the image – more about this in another post), keywords, ratings and labels you have assigned in LR or Bridge, jpeg previews of the image, and what I call the Develop recipe:  a set of instructions representing the enhancements you make to your image in LR.

An Image Catalog Entry

A Lightroom Catalog Entry for an Image (It doesn’t really look this way, but carrying the analogy along, think of it as a card  in the card catalog)

Note that when you look at an image in LR, you are looking at a jpeg copy/preview of the image  that LR has added to the central catalog — just like when you see a picture of the book cover in the public library web catalog, you are not looking at the actual book.  This way LR (the librarian!) doesn’t have to go get the image from the hard drive every time you want to look at it.

So let’s carry the analogy further:  in the public library, it really does not matter how the books are organized in the stacks — alphabetical by author first name, the dewey decimal system backwards, etc..  — as long as the card catalog can communicate to you where a book is located.  Same with LR — LR does not care how you organize your images on your hard drive, and it doesn’t help you to organize them — it is up to you to decide on a folder structure that works for you.  (For example, a Pictures folder with year folders within that, and shoot folders within the year folders.)  Lightroom would be just as happy if you dumped all your images on your desktop, as it will simply record that that is where it should go to find them — but we know that this would be a mess for us in other ways.

One of the things you may have heard about Lightroom or observed yourself is that it can do searches very, VERY fast.  I can do a search of all 20,000 images in my catalog for just winter tree images shot with my wide angle lens, and before I snap my fingers, LR will have them displayed.   Why is this?  Because LR searches the central catalog, rather than going out and looking for the images on your hard drive(s) — just like in the public library you can find a book much faster by going to the card catalog than walking up and down the stacks searching for it.

If you store your images on one or more external hard drives, you may have noticed that even when those drives are not plugged in, your images are still visible in LR, and you can do Library module work with them (assign keywords, rate, label, add metadata, sort, put in collections, etc..), as well as build slide shows and other output. How is this possible?  The same way that if you can do library research at night on the web, even though the library is closed — you are accessing information in the catalog, not in the stacks.

I’m sure I will have more to say about the catalog in the future, but hopefully this is a start to clarifying what the catalog is about.  If I have made any sense, next time someone asks you where your images are, you won’t answer  “they are in Lightroom”, you will say where on your hard drive you put them.

2017-08-02T11:23:56+00:00April 6th, 2009|49 Comments


  1. Kathy Bezy June 12, 2009 at 7:22 am - Reply

    Thank you for the clarification. It really helps me. Another question: I was cleaning out my computer and moving some photos from C: drive, My photos, by cutting and pasting to an external F:Maxtor drive sorted by date, and I possibly clairified the date with an addition of a couple of key words following. How do I re-connect these to the lightroom catalogue? My LR library catalog file folder shows them as “? date ” under the year.
    Can you copy your response to my email above? I’m not sure how to seek an answer on this ‘blog?’ thank you.
    Kathy Bezy, La Paz, Baja Sur, Mx.

    • Laura Shoe June 12, 2009 at 8:54 am - Reply

      Hi Kathy, you have confused Lightroom by moving and renaming your folders and/or files outside of Lightroom. It just doesn’t know where they are. If your folders have question marks, right-click on them and select “Find Missing Folder”. Navigate to the new folder name/location. Click here for a post on the issue. If just individual images have question marks, click on the question mark and Find the image in the same way. Next time, use LR to move and rename your files and folders, and you won’t have this issue.

  2. Ron Larsen July 27, 2009 at 7:39 pm - Reply

    I was doing some clean up within a catalog labeled 2007, but I noticed that the group of photo’s were taken in 2005 and need to be transferred into the 2005 catalog. How?

    • Laura Shoe July 27, 2009 at 10:35 pm - Reply

      Hi Ron, I’m in favor of having all years in one catalog unless it gets prohibitively large (over 100,000 photos with LR2), but here’s what you would do: In the Folders panel, select the 2005 folder. Go to File>Export as Catalog. Choose a name for this temporary catalog folder and put it on the desktop. Don’t include the negative files.

      In your 2005 catalog, go to File>Import from Catalog. Navigate to the catalog file within the folder on your desktop. This will launch the Import dialog. Add to the catalog without moving; Import.

      Done! Now delete the folder on your desktop, and Remove the photos from your 2007 catalog (select the images, hit the Delete button on your keyboard and choose Remove. (Not delete from disk!)

      Best wishes,


  3. Jeff Franzen August 12, 2009 at 8:46 pm - Reply

    Thanks and great information clearly explain and I like the analogy. It will certainly stick in my memory.

    One question:

    Lets say I have two catalogues:

    A Photos from 2005-2009

    B Photos from 2009

    Is there a way to insure any keyword assignment (for example) made in one catalogue follows with the photos into the other catalogue?

    Also – If I like to have catalogue B at home and at my work is there any easy way to keep this all in sync or do you recommend carrying an external hard drive?

    • Laura Shoe August 12, 2009 at 9:24 pm - Reply

      Hi Jeff,

      The easy one first — to use your catalog both at home and work, store the catalog and your images on an external hard drive. See my post on this topic here.

      I am not clear why you would want both a 2005-2009 catalog and a 2009 catalog. There is no automatic way to keep them both up-to-date. If you are going to go this route, in both catalogs I would go to Catalog Settings and check “Automatically Write Changes to XMP.” That way your changes in either catalog will be written to these sidecar files that tag along with the images. Let’s say you work in the 2009 catalog. Your changes will get written to XMP. Then when you open up the 2005-2009 catalog, you would want to select all images you have worked on in 2009, and go to Metadata>Read Metadata from File. This will update the 2005-2009 catalog with your changes, from the XMP files. However, if you don’t remember what you have done where, this can become very confusing.

      Say more on why you would want two catalogs, and perhaps I can help you come up with a better solution.

  4. Jeff Franzen August 12, 2009 at 9:59 pm - Reply

    I appreciate the swift response.

    I have 180,000 images from 1999 to 2009.

    My series of hard drives are something like
    Drive I 1999-2004
    Drive II 2005-2006
    Drive III 2007-2008
    Drive IV 2009

    I know it would be so much easier to have a catalog for each year and keep the file sizes manageable and catalogs zippier but here is why I keep mega catalog

    Inevitably I want to find a series of photos of my son at various ages or I want to find that one beachhouse photo – I don’t like the idea of loading and searching catalog year by year.

    I am experimenting with a 2009 only catalog but then the problem of keywords in one catalog and not the other.

    Am I missing something easier? How would you do it?

    Thanks for all your time and input.

    • Laura Shoe August 13, 2009 at 11:46 am - Reply

      I am in favor of one large catalog, with all my years, but clearly you do have alot of images for one catalog. The first thing I would do is take steps to keep it running efficiently. In Catalog Settings, I would automatically discard the 1:1 previews on a regular basis, and periodically Relaunch and Optimize (also from Catalog Settings).

      If it is still running slow, then I think you are doing what I would do. I would just commit to making all my 2009 changes in the 2009 catalog, so that I don’t have a mix of changes across the two catalogs to sort out. The XMP method I gave you has limitations – it will not carry collections and virtual copies across catalogs. If you use these, a better option would be to occassionally select your 2009 folder (or a subfolder you have worked on), right-click and select “Export folder as catalog.” (Don’t include the negatives.) Save this onto your desktop, then go to your 1999-2009 catalog, File>Import from Catalog, and select the .lrcat file from the folder on the desktop. This will launch the Import dialog. For images that LR sees are in both catalogs, select to update develop settings and metadata only. After the import you can delete the folder on the desktop.

      I don’t have any evidence to back it up, but I would bet that LR3 and future releases will continue to improve performance for large catalogs.

  5. […] links to it.  For those who haven’t read it, I thought I would call your attention to it:  click here to read. ▶ Comment /* 0) { jQuery('#comments').show('', change_location()); […]

  6. Jeff Franzen August 25, 2009 at 2:31 pm - Reply

    This is now taped on my wall by monitor – thanks.

    1. Occasionally select your 2009 folder (or a subfolder you have worked on),

    2. right-click and select “Export folder as catalog.”

    3. (Don’t include the negatives.)

    4. Save this onto your desktop,

    5. then go to your 1999-2009 catalog,

    6. File>Import from Catalog, and select the .lrcat file from the folder on the desktop.

    7. This will launch the Import dialog.

    8. For images that LR sees are in both catalogs, select to update develop settings and metadata only.

    9. After the import you can delete the folder on the desktop.

    One question though – just curious why I need steps 1-4 as opposed to selecting my 2009 catalogue directly in step 1? I am sure there is a good reason you could explain.

    Thanks again – huge help!

    • Laura Shoe August 25, 2009 at 5:00 pm - Reply

      I don’t know what I was thinking as I typed this, Jeff. Yes, you would skip steps 1-5 and in #6 select your 2009 catalog! Sorry for the confusion.

  7. Jeff Franzen August 25, 2009 at 6:37 pm - Reply

    Terrific – saves time. The entire process has really helped with speed, thanks.

  8. katie flessner - teaching adobe lightroom September 2, 2009 at 1:33 pm - Reply

    […] a good overview of the lightroom catalog concept: About Your Images and the Lightroom Catalog: The Library Analogy […]

  9. […] you import images into Lightroom, you are not moving your images into Lightroom.  (See my post The Library Analogy for how it actually does work.)  This trips up so many users — it is not uncommon for newer […]

  10. Emma November 13, 2009 at 4:53 pm - Reply

    I prefer the way Bridge handles files (just shows me everything in my folder tree, I generally steer clear of applications relying on catalogs). But having seen the light of Lightroom, I’m trying to make the switch. Is there a way I can set LR to auto-detect files in my folders and skip the Import process? This is especially annoying when I’m moving images into PS for editing, saving the JPG copy, and then having to hunt it down to import to continue proofing a large shoot. Slows me down tremendously. In Bridge, after editing in PS, the new copy just shows up on its own. Thanks!

    • Laura Shoe November 14, 2009 at 12:00 am - Reply

      If from within Lightroom you select “edit in Photoshop”, work on and then save your image within PS into the same folder and return to LR, LR should have automatically imported your file from PS. If not, you can right-click on your folder in the Library folder panel, and choose Synchronize. LR will detect anything in the folder that has not been imported, and import it (with or without going through the Import dialog, per your choice).

  11. […] taking the next week off, I thought I would repost my most popular article of 2009 — “About Your Images and the Lightroom Catalog — the Library Analogy.” If you have already read this, scroll down and check out what else you may have missed in the […]

  12. […] this blog post that I highly recommend you read, I talk more about the catalog concept using the public library […]

  13. Jon Miller October 6, 2011 at 1:52 pm - Reply

    How would you go about brining say 200gb of photos into lightroom, mostly but not all from Elements 9.0. Love the Analogy BTW, thank you

    • Laura Shoe October 6, 2011 at 2:41 pm - Reply

      Hi Jon, you can go to File>Upgrade Elements Catalog to bring in the Elements ones. Others, use Add in the Import dialog to add your photos to the Lightroom catalog without copying them. (Watch my Importing Photos video for details.)

    • Laura Shoe October 6, 2011 at 2:42 pm - Reply

      If possible, Jon, I would add all the non-Elements ones all at once … import the highest level folder you can, and include subfolders (again, watch the video).

  14. Leo S October 19, 2011 at 7:50 pm - Reply

    Hi Laura,
    My wife got a new Mac and now she wants to move only her photos (leaving mine intact) from my PC to her Mac, including the all the edits by the Lightroom. I also installed the Lightroom on the Mac. What would be the right way to move the files?

    • Laura Shoe October 20, 2011 at 2:34 pm - Reply

      Hi Leo, I would select all your wife’s images, then do a File>Export as Catalog, including the negatives. Move the folder that it creates over to the Mac, then in LR there, do a file>Import from Catalog. Once the process is done, you can throw this folder away, and also back on the PC, delete everything.

  15. Leo S October 20, 2011 at 6:04 pm - Reply

    Thanks Laura. I will give it a try tonight. –Leo

  16. RobT November 5, 2011 at 2:19 am - Reply

    I am convinced I am missing something obvious, but after I search for, and find an image in LR, I seem unable to see in what folder it is sitting? How do I do this?

    • Laura Shoe November 5, 2011 at 8:56 am - Reply

      Rob, right-click on the photo and select Go to Folder in Library.

  17. jayanthy April 5, 2012 at 6:15 pm - Reply

    laura I just got lightroom 4and have been using lightroom3.I usually improt from my camera into my picture folder and then on to light room. Is there a way I can import fromt he camera to lightroom and external hard drive all at once. and do I have to make a catalog in external drive and on desktop

  18. Nydia007 June 13, 2012 at 2:16 pm - Reply

    Just got LR 4. Never used any earlier versions so I’m a total newbie. Ok so import doesn’t mean import but do the “image previews”, snap shots, or virtual copies in LR actually take up space in my computer?

    • Laura Shoe June 14, 2012 at 3:54 pm - Reply

      Snapshots and virtual copies take up very little space — they are not duplicates of your photos, just some text instructions. Previews on the other hand do take up space — you will find the previews database in your catalog folder (probably Pictures>Lightroom). (It is an sql database, so the structure won’t seem to make sense — I leave it alone). You can read more about managing these previews here:

      • Nydia007 June 18, 2012 at 3:46 pm - Reply

        Thank you! You are so helpful! 🙂

  19. Luis August 12, 2012 at 11:29 pm - Reply

    Hi Laura

    You mentioned earlier versions of LR could reasonably handle large collections ( say 100,000). Do you find that newer versions are better at handling large catalogs?

    Would creating snapshots of heavily-edited photos (in LR) and deleting the history help speed up catalogs?

    Thanks !

    • Laura Shoe September 21, 2012 at 3:14 pm - Reply

      Hi Luis, my apologies — I have just seen your comment. I think that LR can handle very large catalogs, and that there have been great strides since the LR 1 days. You may see some slow downs, like in refreshing the grid if you are viewing all photographs, but I wouldn’t expect anything that would significantly impact your workflow. I am not an expert in this, but I wouldn’t think that snapshots vs. history would make much difference — these are both just small text information additions to the catalog.

  20. Bill Styles August 15, 2012 at 10:29 pm - Reply

    How do you remove duplicate photos imported into Lightroom? Also, is it possible to move folders in the Destination panel as I have accidentally imported a lot of folders straight into My Pictures Folder when I wanted to get them into the Photos Go Here as you have suggested on your DVD tutorials which I must say are really great . Clear and concise.
    In other words is there a simple way out of my mess?

    Kindest regards
    Bill Styles
    Brisbane , Australia

    • Laura Shoe August 18, 2012 at 8:50 am - Reply

      Hi Bill, you could sort your photos by capture time so that the duplicates appear next to each other so you can sort through them. I believe there is also a Lightroom plugin that finds duplicates — google this. I haven’t used it. On your second question, watch my video on managing your files and folders … you can move folders using the Folders panel.

  21. Tara Bennett January 7, 2013 at 10:51 am - Reply

    brilliant analogy… as a new LR user, I was searching for some clear cut explanations and happened upon your site! concept makes perfect sense now. THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!

    • Laura Shoe January 8, 2013 at 11:47 am - Reply

      You’re welcome, Tara! I wish I could say I came up with the analogy myself, but I am glad it is helpful to you!

  22. Lynn May 1, 2013 at 12:54 pm - Reply

    Hi Laura,
    I’m researching a solution to a problem we have in our communications department. We have no current photo management system in place which means we have all photos from photographers stored on cds or on several different computers. There are 6 graphic and web designers that are all networked together and use CS6 on Macs. I’m wondering if there is a way that we can use Lightroom to manage our photos so we can search for the photos we need. I was thinking we could move all our photos to a server, and then save five separate Lightroom catalogs (one for people, staff, buildings, events, etc) onto that server where we store the photos. I’m pretty sure this is possible (correct me if I’m wrong). However, I also realize we wouldn’t be able to be in the same Lightroom catalog at the same time. (That’s why I was hoping the separate catalogs would help with the bottleneck.) Could you tell me if this will work or not? Do you see a way around the problem of sharing the same catalog? What happens if two people try to open the same catalog at the same time? Will it tell you it’s already in use? If not, will it mess up the catalog? Any suggestions you have would be greatly appreciated.

    If Lightroom is not the right program for this problem, please let me know if you know of any other programs that would be better suited. Thanks!


    • Laura Shoe May 3, 2013 at 5:19 pm - Reply

      Hi Lynn, because of the issues you mention, Lightroom will not allow you to store your catalog(s) on a server. If everyone is in one location, an alternative would be to store the catalogs on external hard drives that people could pick up as needed.

  23. len docimo July 8, 2013 at 1:03 pm - Reply

    Greetings Laura,
    I hope you can tolerate one more question regarding importing images into LightRoom. I have been working in the “normal” folder structure since it came out (or thereabouts), so it takes a while for something new to sink in (I took an Intro to Java class three times before the light bulb started to come on).
    I thought I was buying a Lightroom 4 book (that’s what the Search result said), but it turned out to be version 1. And its pictures look different from my Lightroom 4 screen.
    What I want to do it consolidate my images using LR. I want to import them into LR and also copy/move them, in the same or similar folder structure, onto an external drive and back them up onto a 2nd external drive.
    I thought I was doing okay, but the LR folder just had filenames in it – no folder structure. I’m hesitant to purchase another Lightroom book when getting over the initial Import obstacle is all I need to do.
    I appreciate any simple direction you can give me – I am a visual graphic-oriented person.


  24. Ed February 23, 2014 at 8:43 am - Reply

    Is the following comment correct? Photo files [pixels] are not imported into LR, rather metadata is imported describing the photo along with a created path from that metadata to the actual file [pixels]. If not, what is the error?

    Is the following comment correct? Changes to “files” in LR e.g., changing contrast, exposure, etc., are actually changes to the metadata associated with those files which will be applied on export. If not, what is the error?

    • Laura Shoe March 5, 2014 at 4:47 pm - Reply

      Yes, Ed, this is correct.

  25. Dale Fazendin June 19, 2014 at 10:31 am - Reply

    Hi Laura,

    I just open lightroom 5.4 and there are no catalogues list on the left side of lightroom, any idea how to get them back?

    • Laura Shoe June 19, 2014 at 12:30 pm - Reply

      If you are missing your Catalog panel, Dale, right-click on your Folders panel (on the word “Folders”) and choose your Catalog panel. If you are missing all of your photos (meaning you are not in your main catalog), go to File>Open Recent, and choose it.

  26. Noeline August 31, 2014 at 6:46 am - Reply

    Hi Laura,

    I am about to move to LR and have found your site incredibly helpful. Thank you!

    I do have a specific query however, that your response to comment 15 may answer but I’d like to be sure and hope you don’t mind.
    Currently, using Finder etc. I have my photos filed by year then month/date. My intention is to gradually work back through them, importing the ones I want into LR and adding keywords etc.
    My MAC is due to be upgraded at the end of the year with a complete new hard drive (it’s a long story!). My questions is, will the catalog lose its links and will I have to relink every folder/image? Am I better off waiting until the MAC upgrade before going through a pretty laborious task – and potentially repeating some of it?!
    The reasoning behind my query being that, assuming I copy the catalog over correctly, will the ‘address’ still be different as the hard drive will probably have a different name even though I maintain my folder structure.
    Thank you.

    • Laura Shoe September 5, 2014 at 4:33 pm - Reply

      Hi Noeline,

      No need to wait. For the easiest transition, be sure all your photo folders are all in one master folder. This way if LR does lose the link to your photos, you’ll only have to do one redirect (right-click on the folder (it will have a question mark), choose Find Missing Folder, and select this folder on your new hard drive. If they are at least in year folders, you’ll just have to redirect each of the years — if they are in a huge number of miscellaneous folders and these aren’t in a master folder, you’ll have quite a bit of work to do.

      • Noeline September 6, 2014 at 1:08 am - Reply

        Fortunately I’m pretty disciplined with my filing (how dull!) so it sounds as though it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Your help is really appreciated. Thank you!

  27. Jayce November 24, 2016 at 7:18 pm - Reply

    Hi Laura, I have imported photos into Lightroom and my computer, during the process, went to sleep. The images appear in my library, but are gray and when I hover over them. the message reads something along the lines of “these images are ready to be developed”. I have done nothing to them other than imported them. How do I access this file again? Thank you for your assistance. Jayce

    • Laura Shoe December 5, 2016 at 5:10 pm - Reply

      Hi Jayce, I’m afraid I haven’t heard of that message. I’d suggest posting your question on

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