Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

Mission Critical: Your Lightroom Catalog

I’ve mentioned this topic in several previous posts, but I’m devoting this entire article to the critical issue of Lightroom database backups and, to a larger extent, the nature of the .lrcat and databases in general. (Admittedly, this isn’t sexy stuff, but you need to treat your Lightroom Catalogs with loving care!) This article will help you understand the Lightroom Catalog and to develop healthy workflow habits for maintaining the Catalog in optimum condition.

Note: in official Lightroom-speak, the database is referred to as the Catalog. In this article I will use the two terms interchangeably… Catalog = database.

The database is one of Lightroom’s great strengths. Not only does it make finding and organizing things easier, it’s what allows the wonderful flexibility of non-destructive editing using metadata. The unlimited History maintained by Lightroom is one example; another is Virtual Copies – also one of Lightroom’s greatest features – made possible by the use of the database.

Lightroom databases (Catalogs) are contained in what appears as a single files in the file system. If you don’t know the location of your main Lightroom catalog, take the time to find it. If you are using the default name (as I do), it’s called Lightroom Catalog.lrdb. If you use Lightroom for your photo editing, you need to protect this file at all costs.

In my work training clients since Lightroom was released I have seen a half dozen cases of corruption in the Lightroom database. In some cases, my client had good backups. Other cases were complete losses. Imagine rebuilding your image library and redoing all the editing you’ve done for the past year. This can be avoided, and I’ll tell you how in a moment.

First, we need to understand a few basic facts about computer databases. A typical database contains multiple tables, which in turn are made up of records. A Lightroom Catalog file for version 1.4.1 has nearly 200 tables, each containing a specific kind of data. There are tables that contain your image edits, others that hold information about your workspace and preferences, and other tables for keywords, etc.

Each record in the database is an entry in the table that contains the actual data, such as the value of a specific slider.

Problems can arise within a database containing hundreds of tables and potentially hundreds of thousands of individual records. The Lightroom Catalog uses a very robust database engine called SQLite, based on the industry standard MySQL. Your operating system (Mac or Windows) works with Lightroom to handle the data transfers in the background. So it’s natural that we’re not often aware of everything going on in the database.

However, there are signs that begin to appear when there’s trouble somewhere in the database. Lightroom running slowly, a Missing Files collection in the Library panel, or files that mysteriously disappear are all indications of data corruption somewhere in the database.

(Interestingly, one of the more common database problems I’ve seen makes itself known with an error when switching from Develop to Library. As this demonstrates the database really has a huge effect on all aspects of working within Lightroom.)

So what’s a photographer to do? Take care of your database. Maintain it. Prune it. Clean it up. Baby it. And back it up obsessively.

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