How do you organize your lightroom library (libraries)?

Since I am a casual photographer, I have a single huge library with all my photos in it. Then I create smart collections to be able to find my photos faster.

For instance, I have a smart collection named Trips with the places I have been under it as sub-collections. Some of these photos are also tagged as Family, which is another collection.

My concern is that in a few years this collection will grow so much that the software will not perform so well anymore. But, if I split my libary into many libraries, I will have to hunt for the photos I am looking for.

What is your approach?

>> Also asked by Igor Oks >>

How do you use catalogs in Lightroom?

Or perhaps, how do you organize your photos in Lightroom 3?

I got a feeling that the way I do it is not very convenient.

The flow that I do on every new set of photos is:

  1. Copy the photos from the camera to a new folder on the HD (e.g. to C:\Photos\Bobs_bday_2010).

  2. Create a New Catalog, and save it to the same directory where the photos are.

  3. Import all photos from the directory to this catalog.

Does it make sense? Should I use catalogs for photos organization, or should I rather use something else? Should I create a new catalog for each new set of photos, and where to save all these catalogs?

Thank you!


12 Answers 12


Keep everything in one library. Lightroom 3 has overcome some of the past performance issues with large catalogs, so the benefits of having a good search ability dictate a single library.

I use a lot of Smart Collections that are based on metadata and workflow steps. I also create standard collections for each client job that I shoot.

Caption and keyword anything that's worth keeping.

Much like GMail showed the world that powerful search is better than a jillion manually-managed folders for email, good DAM tools like Lightroom or Aperture reveal that keywording and search is more efficient than manually managing collections and folders.


It took me a while to get organized and after having an idea I found this article (The author replaced and removed the 2009 article with this 2012 article on the same topic) very useful. It is written by one of the engineers working on Lightroom. There are no one solution fits all but what I ended with is:

  • One catalog for Everything.
  • All imports are done in-place, without copying or moving any of my files.
  • The files themselves are organized in a hierarchical structure with each top-level directory containing at most 4.5 GB, the size of a single-layer DVD. When it does reach 4.5 GB, I create a new top-level. When my disk is getting full, I remove the oldest top-level one. Each one of course is backed up with one local backup and one in a safe at a bank.
  • Withing the top-level folders I got a split for Family and Photography. Under the Family folder, there are folders per months for general photos and folders per event too. Under photography there are folders per assignment and subfolders per location in case an assignment spans multiple locations.
  • If there are files that do not stand as photos themselves, such as panorama pieces or HDR brackets, then they go in their own directory called 'Sources'.
  • If there are files which need to be modified for ANY reason, such as being cropped. They are also moved to a directory called 'PS' (for historical reasons since the first time I manipulated an image was in Photoshop) to indicate that these were not output directly by the camera.
  • \$\begingroup\$ Note this means that the catalog gets backed-up separately. It gets backed up with my user-data rather than with pictures because pictures NEVER change but a catalog can, since I can add keywords to old photos. This helps tremendously with backups because the pictures volumes can be backed-up incrementally while data volumes are backed-up entirely each two weeks. \$\endgroup\$
    – Itai
    Nov 6, 2010 at 0:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ "If there are files that do not stand as photos themselves, such as panorama pieces or HDR brackets, then they go in their own directory called 'Sources'." Stacks are very useful for this \$\endgroup\$
    – eflorico
    Jan 10, 2011 at 11:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @eWolf - I will see if I can stack things in different directories, never tried. Never though of it, I guess it would save visual clutter. \$\endgroup\$
    – Itai
    Jan 10, 2011 at 14:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, I always use stacks for panos, HDRs and photoshop edits.. Keeps the clutter away :-) \$\endgroup\$
    – eflorico
    Jan 10, 2011 at 15:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ The link is broken because the author replaced it with a 2012 version: ericscouten.com/blog/2012/03/05/…. I made an edit but it's pending peer review, it's the first time I've tried editing someone else's post. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kioshiki
    Jul 4, 2015 at 8:19

For a casual user, one library is enough

I'm a fairly serious amateur, with tens of thousands of images, and I keep them all in a single library.

I haven't experienced any problems with this in the 18 months that I've been using Lightroom.


I have recently upgraded to Lightroom 3.0: still no problems with the single large library.


I would suggest use just one catalog for all your photos. I have 12,000 photos in a single V3 catalog and the performance is fine. I have read of people with many tens of thousands of photos in a single V3 catalog without any problems.

I use my filesystem folders to break up by year and by month, similar to @Nick's setup. When I want to organise photos other then chronologically then I use Lightroom's collections.

The only time I use a new catalog is when I am dealing with a group of photos that I know I will not be keeping as part of my regular collection, such as a temporary project I will move to an offline archive as soon as it is complete.

It's my understanding that some people using earlier versions of Lightroom did experience performance issues with very large catalogs but these issues have been resolved in later versions.


This is a bit arbitrary but works for me as a hybrid between a keyword-based and a directory-based workflow management. I use a very specific directory structure explained below.

While I do like and use metadata, keywords and smart collections, there is a drawback to them: what happens if I want to look at and search my files on a computer that doesn't have Lightroom installed for example? How can I share my photos on my network with devices like an XBox or an old piece of electronic that only supports a directory-based structure, as opposed to a database? What if I need to quickly send my photos with my phone, or create a ZIP files for friends or clients?

In my directory structure and database I keep track of both the RAW files and sRGB JPEG exported copies. The JPEG files are stored in a subfolder level by broad category first (say Celebration, Concerts, Sports, Urban Exploration). At the second level I use a strict "What - Where - When" naming convention automatically generated by Lightroom (most DAM apps support this feature). The RAW files are stored by year, then by date with a short description.

It looks like this from both the catalog/database/library view and a basic File Explorer (this is only a subset of course):

            St. Patrick's Day - Albany, NY - 09, Mar/
                St. Patrick's Day - Albany, NY - 09, Mar - 01.jpg
                St. Patrick's Day - Albany, NY - 09, Mar - 02.jpg
            4th of July - Albany, NY - 09, Jul/
        Urban Exploration/
            Hudson Cement Factory - Kingston, NY - 10, May/
            2009-03-22 (St. Patrick's Day)/
            2009-07-04 (4th of July)/
            2010-05-12 (Hudson Cement Factory)/

When I import my RAW files, I let Lightroom put them automatically in a RAW/year/year-month-day folder, based on the date the photos were taken on. I then add a suffix to that directory with a quick description (say St. Patrick's Day or Hudson Cement Factory, etc). I select all my RAW files, and update their metadata by setting the Scene attribute to "what" the subject is (here St. Patrick's Day or Hudson Cement Factory, which I still have conveniently in my Copy/Paste buffer). I also set the Location attributes, i.e. the City, State and Country. The earlier you set this kind of metadata, the better.

When I'm done processing, keywording and geotagging my RAW files, I export sRGB JPEG copies (and upload them to Flickr from Lightroom later on). My export preset automatically creates files that follow the "Scene - City, State - YY, Mon - Counter" naming convention, fields that I have filled by now (the date is found in the photo itself of course). I finally use Lightroom to quickly move the files to a subdir under a broad category subfolder (Celebrations, Urban Exploration, etc).

At this point what I have is a catalog/database that I can explore by metadata (date, location, scene, keywords), as well as a reasonably clear directory structure that I can use without Lightroom. This directory structure tells me what, where and when just by looking at the file names. My XBox will organize and present my photos the same way. A simple file search will quickly retrieve my photos based on these criteria.

This whole JPEG directory doesn't have to be managed by LR, but I found it pretty convenient since I still have a lot of JPG files that don't have a RAW counterpart. Why manage some, and not the others? Granted, keyword searching will return both the RAW file and JPEG file (since the JPEG file has the same keywords), but this can be easily worked out by adding a rule that will filter our either JPG or RAW/DNG files (in smart collections especially). I also use smart collections of course, to keep track of the files, versions and virtual copies I used for clients, galleries, contests and print shops.

Anyway, this worked fine so far, but I have only 6000 photos in there.


Even simpler in my case. About 50k photos stored straight in directory structure like this:


One catalog, backed up regularly to two external hard disk drives, one of which is stored at my house and another one at work.

The basic question here is: do I trust Lightroom to do the right job? If I do, no matter how I store files I'll be able to find them by their tags. If I don't I need a fancy directory structure so that when Lightroom fails, I can still find my way through my photos.

I generally do trust lightroom, but just in case it failed, I keep track of when I went where to find my way through photos if it ever fails (hasn't happened yet).


I used to keep two libraries, one for personal shots, one for assignments, but over the years that I've been using Lightroom I've found that it can handle pretty large databases (+30000 pictures) pretty well.

Another reason why I had to libraries is because Lightroom 1 didn't handle external volumes very well and I kept my two libraries together with the pictures on different external volumes. Since Lightroom 2 this has been improved very much.

I will be merging all my shots into a single library.

Also, I recommend sticking to a simple scheme of importing your shots into directories based on date, for example, and not worry too much about the lack of usefulness. You've got collections to group relevant shots together.


For another perspective:

Kevin Kubota, who runs a wedding and portrait studio, recommends using one catalog per job, for precisely the concern you outlined above.

For his sitation, it's more important that the catalog perform quickly. For a particular job, he will have several folders representing different stages of the job (e.g. originals, edited-out, jpg-proofs, slideshow, and prints) so you still have some structure to navigate.

For him, if he still needs searching, he uses a different indexing program which uses the keywords and information from the EXIF file.


Most people I've heard (and how I will do it once 2011 comes) uses one catalog per year.

The way I have my folder setup is like this:

~/Pictures/Photo Library/2010/10 October/18 MyBirthday
~/Pictures/Photo Library/2010/11 November/06 SomePhotoShoot
~/Pictures/Photo Library/2010/11 November/06 AnotherPhotoShoot
  • \$\begingroup\$ Back in the Lightroom 1 days, there were issues with performance with big catalogs. That's been fixed with LR 2 and 3, so there's no reason to split things up yearly. With separate catalogs like this, you're unable to quickly find, say, all photos of Halloween or all Landscapes. \$\endgroup\$
    – ahockley
    Nov 6, 2010 at 17:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ I guess if you're not running a more powerful computer and you're having performance issues, it's probably the next best step. I personally haven't gotten to four months of photos yet so I'm yet to see. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 6, 2010 at 23:21

Use a single catlog - nobody I've spoken to has noticed any problems with large catalogs in Lightroom, and having everything in 1 catalog makes it a lot easier to find your photos.

You probably shouldn't store all of your photos in 1 folder however - many file systems have performance problems with folders containing many files (for example NTFS is reported to see noticeable performance issues with folders containing in the order of 300k files or more). Whenever I import my photos I tend to use Lightrooms "copy into folder based on date" which splits up my photos into a sensible structure without me needing to think too much about it.

When cataloguing my photos I try to use tags and other metdata as much as possible, and instead use Collections for grouping photos that I want to publish. For example I often apply tags based on events such as "Reading Festival" or "Jamies Birthday", this means I can easily find all the photos I've ever taken at Reading Festival, and then use dates to filter by a specific year (Events like "New Years Eve", "Christmas" or Birthdays that I can remember don't get a tag!). The location metadata is also great - want to find photos of the trip to America I took last year? No problem!

I create collections when I want to work with or publish / show off photos, for example I might create a collection "Best of 2010" of my favourite moments of 2010 - Because I my collections list is usually pretty empty it means I can be fairly liberal about using collections in my workflow.

I'm only an Amateur photographer, but I'm fairly certain that with discipline the same strategy could work even for people who take many more photos than I do.


Phil Nelson wrote an excellent guide Mastering Image Organization with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

I sleep better since I found it.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Hi Darjan, thanks for your answer and welcome to the site. Could you please summarize the main points of your linked reference so that if the link goes down there is at least a trace of what the main ideas were? \$\endgroup\$
    – Francesco
    Sep 17, 2012 at 4:17

I set up collections based on the 'genre'. Fine Art, Weddings, etc. within these each client has about 3 folders, raw, edits, final. I never have a problem finding a file if it's organized this way. I do not keyword anything. Probably not the best way but it works for me. I don't do stock work so no need for me to tag/keyword. I am a full time professional.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This doesn't seem to answer the question which is about how you use different libraries, not how to categorise things within one library. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philip Kendall
    Jan 12, 2015 at 11:43

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