I got this question from readers twice in one day last week, so I thought a blog post was in order.

It’s the ultimate in Fall/Spring cleaning — essentially you will build a new closet, put copies of everything in it ( nicely organized), and then throw everything away from the old one.  This may not be a cost-effective way to reorganize your clothes, but it works for your photos!

This particular method will start you over with a new blank Lightroom catalog, and will organize all your photos into shoot (date) folders within year folders within a master folder.   You can choose to organize them differently, but my way allows you to automate the reorganization process.

This process is efficient, but it does have costs: you will lose any collections, flags, and virtual copies you have created in Lightroom.  You will also lose your Develop step-by-step history (not your Develop edits or the ability to undo your work, just the step-by-step record of it shown in the History panel.) If you have question marks all over files and folders, and your photo organization system is a mess, this may be for you.  On the other hand, if you don’t have too many question marks to resolve and your photo organization can be easily cleaned up by dragging and dropping using Lightroom’s folders panel, I wouldn’t recommend this more drastic method.

If working with files and folders makes you uncomfortable, this process also may not be for you.  Read through all the instructions to make sure you are comfortable with the whole process before starting.  (If you like the idea of this, but doing it makes you nervous, I am available for private sessions, either in-person or over the web.)

If you want to start over with a new catalog but don’t need drastic rearranging of your images, see the note at the end of this post for which steps to follow.

Here goes:

1. Save any Lightroom work you have done to photos (keywords, stars, color labels and other metadata, Develop work) out to the folders where your photos live:

In the Library module, click on All Photographs in the Catalog Panel (top left), make sure you are in Grid view (G), select all your photos (Ctl/Cmd-A), and go to Photo>Save Metadata to File, or do a Ctl/Cmd-S to do the same.  By doing this, your work will still be available when you re-import the photos.  (You may see little .XMP files in the folders with your photos — just ignore them.)  Note that this will not save work for missing files – you must locate these before performing this step, or accept losing your work on these. You can see how many files you have missing by going to Library>Find All Missing Photos. Click here for more on missing files.

2. Make sure you understand where your current Lightroom catalog is, as you are going to delete it later:

Go to Edit (Lightroom on a Mac)>Catalog Settings.  The general tab shows you where the catalog folder is – make a note of this.

3. Decide where your photos and your Lightroom catalog are going to live — on an external hard drive?  In your Pictures folder on your internal hard drive?

I prefer to keep my photos and my Lightroom catalog folder together in one master folder.  I will assume for the rest of the article that you will do this, but you can of course put your catalog and photos in separate places, as long as you make a conscious choice.   (Note that while image files can be stored on a network drive, Lightroom catalogs cannot.)

Using Mac Finder or Windows Explorer/My Computer, go to the location you have chosen and create a new folder.  Call it something like “My Lightroom Photo Library”.  Open up this folder and create a new folder inside it called “My Photos”.

4. Create a new Lightroom catalog:

In Lightroom, go to File>New Catalog.  For the location, specify the My Lightroom Photo Library folder you created above (not the My Photos folder).  For File Name, call it “My Lightroom Catalog“.  Click Save (or whatever the choice is on the Mac).  Lightroom will relaunch with this new blank catalog.  (Your old one hasn’t been deleted, Lightroom just isn’t using it at this point.)

Go to Edit (Lightroom on a Mac)>Preferences>General, and under Default Catalog, When Starting Up Use This Catalog, click on the dropdown and choose the catalog that you just created.

Still under Preferences, click on the Presets tab.  If the box is checked next to “Store Presets with Catalog”, then in order to have all the presets and templates that you created, you will need to copy your Lightroom Settings folder from the old catalog folder to the new one.  (If the box isn’t checked or you don’t care about preserving any presets or templates, skip this step.)   Click on the Show button to go to your new Lightroom catalog folder.  Open it, and delete the Lightroom Settings folder.   Open another Mac Finder or Windows Explorer window, and go to your old Lightroom catalog folder (from step 2).  Open it and Ctl/Cmd-drag the Lightroom Settings folder into the new catalog folder in the first window.   Now close these windows, and close and restart Lightroom.

5. Have Lightroom’s Import Process create a copy of all your photos and reorganize them:

You are going to import photos from everywhere you currently have them, have Lightroom create copies and organize them correctly, and then when this is all done and you have verified that all is well, you will delete the original versions.

In the Lightroom import dialog, on the left, choose a source for existing photos (If there are photos in your Pictures folder, do this one first, then return and do other locations where you have photos.)    Be sure to check Import Photos from Subfolders at the top of the Source panel.  Choose Copy, and on the right, down in the Destination panel, navigate to and click on your new My Photos folder inside your My Lightroom Photo Library folder, so that My Photos is highlighted.  At the top of the Destination panel choose “organize by date”, and from the drop down below this, choose  yyyy/mm-dd or yyyy/yyyy-mm-dd.  (The “/” after the year is important!)    This will put all of your images for each day’s shooting into separate subfolders, within year folders. In the top right of the Import Dialog in the File Handling panel, be sure to check “Don’t Import Suspected Duplicates”.  

Repeat with every different source, taking notes on where these photos are coming from.  Because you have “Don’t Import Suspected Duplicates” checked, Lightroom will just put a copy of the photos in your new folder if it hasn’t already.

6. Reveal your folder structure.

The Folders panel in the Library module now most likely just has a list of date folders within year folders.  Right-click (or Cmd-click) on one of the year folders and choose Add Parent Folder.  This will reveal your My Photos folder.  Right-click (or Cmd-click) on My Photos, and Add Parent Folder to reveal My Lightroom Photo Library.  Right-click on this, Add Parent Folder to reveal wherever this lives — now you can be clear where all your photos are.

7.  Rename all your date folders.

This isn’t fun if you have a lot, but it is a one-time investment — don’t skip it!  Click on each date folder to see what’s in it, then right-click on the folder name, choose Rename, and add a description of the shoot.

8. Work with your catalog for a while.

If all went well and nothing is missing, you are ready for the final two steps:

9.  Delete the original photos.

Using Windows Explorer/My Computer or Mac Finder, go back to each photo source that you noted earlier and delete your original photos.  Don’t delete anything from your new My Lightroom Photo Library folder!

10. Delete the old Lightroom Catalog.

Go back to the location noted in step 2 and delete the catalog folder (most likely named Lightroom.)

11.  Sit back and admire how organized your photo library is!!

Once you have enjoyed this for a bit, it is time to start keywording your photos!

What if your photos are organized reasonably well, but you just want to start over with a new Lightroom catalog?  In this case, you will do 2, 3, 4, 5,  8 and 10.  In step 5, the Import, choose Add rather than Copy, so that your photos are just added to the catalog, and stay where they currently are on your hard drive.


Thank you to Mike Nelson Pedde for his valuable feedback on this article.