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My Lightroom Workflow- file management ideas (updated)

November 11, 2009

When I started posting Adobe Photoshop Lightroom tutorials a few weeks ago I started with the adjustment brush. It occurred to me that the adjust brush is a weird place to START a series about Lightroom, so I decided to go back to the beginning and talk about my workflow. For me, the most important part of “workflow” is the FLOW. The more images you deal with the more important it is to develop a system to keep track of them easily. It’s much easier to think creatively about your work when you’re not trying to find lost images and worrying over files and hard drives. This is about what works for me, and maybe it will give you some ideas for your own workflow.

I started thinking seriously about “workflow” after reading The Digital Photographer’s Notebook by Kevin Ames. Kevin deals with TONS of images and has great ideas about how to keep track of them. Just when I thought I had a system worked out, I switched from an iMac to a Macbook Pro for most of my editing and added two small external hard drives. I didn’t realize how much that would end up changing my routine, or how much happier I would be after the change. This is how I go about importing images, and where I keep them all…

My system involves two hard drives and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. I happen to use two external drives, but you could just as easily use your computer’s hard drive and one external drive. I have two directories on my main “photo” drive- “photos” and “catalog”. When I import a shoot, I create a new folder inside the “photos” folder and give it a serial number and a descriptive name. I like using a serial number because it keeps your files in chronological order, and I find it easier to use a 4-digit SN than a 6 or 8-digit numerical date.

I use the ‘Import’ dialog within Lightroom. All of the photos get converted to DNG and copied into this folder. I add my copyright info as a metadata template, and add any keywords that apply to all of the photos. I select ‘standard’ for the initial previews and import the photos. I do most of my sorting and adjustments in this catalog.

I use an app called Carbon Copy Cloner to backup the “catalog”and “photos” folders to another external drive immediately after importing new photos, and three times a week. By keeping the catalog and photos on external drives I can easily use virtually any computer that has Lightroom 2 installed. I can download photos each day when I’m traveling, then when I want to print my photos I simply plug my “photo” drive into my desktop computer that drives my printer. Nothing needs to be copied or exported because I’m using the same drive and catalog with both computers.

I will talk about how I sort my images next week, including how I use collections and smart collections. Have a great week!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2010 2:49 pm

    Wow, you have a really interesting approach to using Lightroom catalogs. A “master catalog” and multiple “shoot catalogs” – all pointing to and containing metadata about the same directories of images.

    But surely there is a data integrity problem with this approach? If you make a change to a photo using Lightroom’s tools in you main catalog the changes will not be reflected in the corresponding shoot catalog.

    Even if you set the option to write LR’s changes to XMP the shoot catalog will show that the file and the catalog are inconsistent and you’ll have to synchronize them using the “read metadata from file” command.

    Also, LR does not write your editing history to XMP so you’ll lose that, and the ability to undo, in the shoot catalog.

    I’m not sure how the other catalog will handle things if you create virtual copies or stacks in one catalog.

    Why not have only the master catalog and use collections (possibly smart ones) to organize by shoot or other criteria?

    I can see the wisdom of using a temporary shoot catalog to handle pictures while on location, perhaps using a laptop. But I had not thought it wise to keep the shoot catalog around for subsequent use.

    I have a very complex keyword hierarchy that I keep in my Master Catalog. I would not want to have to keep multiple Shoot Catalogs up to date.

    My approach is to have one Master Catalog and hope that Adobe will enhance LR’s scalability faster than I can take pictures.

    If you’re interested, I’ve talked about My Workflow at

    Ian Fuller
    Bangkok, Thailand

    • January 7, 2010 3:09 pm

      Hi and thanks for the comment.
      It’s funny, I began using this “system” a couple of months ago, and I have already stopped using the “shoot catalogs” precisely because of the points you made about continuity between catalogs. I was trying something new here, but I have since gone back to a single catalog that uses Collections and especially smart collections for organization. I wrote an article about my smart collection workflow at the DPexperience, if you’re interested.

      I have been so busy in the last couple of months that I have neglected to update this post. Thank you for reminding me and sharing your ideas,


      • bkkphotographer permalink
        January 8, 2010 4:26 am

        Ah OK. Have you had any problems with one Lightroom catalog holding many thousands of pictures? My catalog has 57.549 pictures and it is still OK but I live in fear that it will have problems before LR 3 is released to save me. I wish Adobe would be more definitive about the scalability issue.

      • January 8, 2010 4:32 am

        I haven’t had any problems caused by a huge catalog, and I asked my friend Kevin Ames about it just last week. He has THOUSANDS of images in one catalog, and he said there is no reason to use smaller catalogs. He has many terabytes of images on several disks in one catalog with no problem.

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