Creating a Lightroom Catalog

Lightroom is an enormous leap forward in organizing and developing your images and getting started is simple. Let’s start with some background on the Lightroom Catalog and then get you rolling on how to set up your first catalog. When working in Lightroom, we are actually working with three independent entities:

1. Lightroom (the program)
2. Your photographs

3. The Lightroom Catalog (the .lrcat file )

1. Lightroom (the program)
Lightroom is a program like Microsoft Word or Apple’s Pages. It can work with photographs that live anywhere. You can have Word documents in many different folders or even on different drives and Word can still work with them. When you open a Word document it is opening INTO Word. The document isn’t stored in Word.

2. Your Photographs
Your images live in a FOLDER on your computer, not in the Lightroom the program. Generally this folder is either your Pictures folder or within your Pictures folder.

3. The Lightroom Catalog
The Lightroom Catalog is the RECORD of all of your images and the things that have been done to your images in Lightroom such as cropping, exposure, etc. It is above all a Database.

Think about it this way. Lightroom (the program) is like your community Library. A place to check out and read books. The Lightroom Catalog (the .lrcat file) is like the card catalog. You would use this to find your desired book. Your photographs are like the books on the shelves.

When you launch Lightroom (the program) it opens with your catalog (don’t do this yet!). That means it is opening and using your very own created catalog.

Lightroom (the program) has the ability to work with many different catalogs. You could have a catalog for your family pictures, one for your client work and another for travel photography. It can, however, only work with one Catalog at a time. So if your Family Catalog is open in Lightroom, you will not have access to your travel pictures. It is generally agreed that working with one catalog is the easiest way for the Lightroom novice to begin working. Plenty of my colleagues, myself included, work with multiple catalogs. I only recommend multiple catalogs for the experienced user as more than one catalog can get confusing very quickly.

So let’s get going on creating your Lightroom Catalog. When you start Lightroom for the first time you are greeted with the dialog box seen below. This is asking you where you want to create a folder that will contain your new catalog. You can see this is the title of the window below. Notice that I have typed Tims Lightroom in the Save As box (Red). This will create a folder called Tims Lightroom in My Pictures Folder (circled in Blue).

Many pros choose to create this catalog on an external drive. If you tend to travel a lot or you work between your laptop and your desktop, I highly recommend getting an external drive that is dedicated to your photographs. When Launching Lightroom for the first time, you would create Tims Lightroom Folder on your external drive instead of your Pictures folder on your laptop or desktop.
Once you hit Create in the above box, Lightroom will start and open your newly created catalog. If you go back to your pictures folder, you will see what Lightroom has created for you.

At this point we realize that Lightroom (the program) is running and is opened with Your Catalog that you just created. That would be the .lrcat file you see above. Next time you open up Lightroom by double clicking the icon, this catalog will open again. Provided you do not create any new catalogs, this will be the only one that ever opens.

Now Lightroom is running with your new catalog, but you will not have any pictures in it. Time to import. If you have older images on your computer, start with those. You can see above that I have three folders in my pictures folder. Clients, Family and Travel.


In the Library Module click on Import in the lower left hand corner (click to enlarge).

You will see the following box. Click on the down arrow in the lower left to expand the box and show more options.


Here you can see the import box works from left to right. Starting on the left is our source. Where are our images coming from? I have chosen to import images from my clients folder which is in my Pictures folder.


The frame in the center shows the content of that folder. If images are checked they will import.

Moving to the right along the top we can see what will happen to our images upon import. Copy as DNG, Copy, Move or Add. In this case the images are already on my computer so I just want to ADD them to the Lightroom Catalog. Hit import in the lower right and your images will now be a part of the catalog. You can continue this operation with all of the folders that exist on your hard drive.

Another option is to move your images. Lets say you want to organize all of your images and folders into one main folder on your hard drive. Or perhaps you want to move images from an external drive onto your main drive. Move is the option you will need. In this case I will create a new parent folder called LR_Photographs. I will move my Clients, Family and Travel Photos folders into LR_Photographs.

I begin by hitting Import. Next I choose my Clients, Family and Travel Photos folders at once by Command+Clicking (Control+Click for PC). At the top I choose Move. The next step is to determine where they are going.

In the upper right you can see they are going to Tims Laptop. In the destination box below I clicked on Pictures. Next I checked the Into Subfolder check box, and typed in LR_Photographs in the adjacent box. This allows Lightroom to create this folder within my pictures folder. Below that I chose to Organize by Original Folders. This keeps my images in their respective Clients, Family and Travel folders.

You can see in the red square below (right) that the newly created folders are gray rather than white. Pay close attention to the Destination Box. This is where most people make their mistakes. If you closely monitor this box and make the necessary changes before you hit import, you will always know where your images are located!

The last type of import involves new images from a card reader or camera. Here we will follow all of the same steps as above except we choose Copy As DNG or Copy instead of Move. It is important to let the camera do the formatting of the card rather than your computer. So copy your images to your computer then place the card back in the camera to format it before your next shoot. I choose to Copy As DNG so all metadata stays in the raw file as opposed to being stored in a sidecar file. The choice is yours, but there is no harm to your raw files when changing them to DNG.

Organizing Your Photographs

There are two main ways to organize your photos:

1. By Date
2. By subject, theme or place

Either is fine, just stick to one approach rather than mixing them. In the above example I chose to organize by subject. If I decided to organize by date the Destination box would change somewhat.


Here you can see that I created a folder 2012 inside of Pictures. Then I chose to Organize by date. In the lower right you can see how the folder hierarchy will look upon import. Again the best approach is to choose one system and stick with it!

Good Luck!

















You can catch Tim at one of our upcoming Photo Weekends in 2013 in these cities:
Spokane, WA
San Antonio, TX
Morrisville, NC
Huntsville, AL
Oklahoma City, OK
Las Cruces, NM
Portland, OR
Great Falls, MT
Hartford, CT
Rochester, NY

Tim is also leading these Workshops in 2013:
Colorado Mountains and Wildflowers
Glacier National Park
Vegas to Zion: Dusk to Dawn