Sara Collaton asked this question on Twitter yesterday of a number of Lightroom users. I could say experts, but it’s you guys and girls that get to decide who is or isn’t an expert! Anyway, to the topic at hand and my opinion on the matter.
Lightroom can have as many catalogs as you like, but there’s one very compelling reason to use just one catalog: Access to all of your photos. Of course finding what you’re looking for means that you need to at least name your files with something corresponding to the photo, and some generic keywords. This usually gets done on Import. Assuming you’ve done this, finding your images in Lightroom is a matter of searching text (which is where yesterdays Quick Find tip came from). You can find images in the OS with filenames and metadata too, but you’d not going to get the corrected version of the file (without it being a DNG or having XMP written). From a visual standpoint, you get to see these finished images after the search in Lightroom, which beats an OS search.
One catalog means a big catalog. In the past this would mean a huge Lightroom slowdown. Currently I’m running my catalog on a Firewire 800 drive, and I’m not finding any particular speed issues. There’s 185,000 photos in it. It stays around this, because I’m getting rid of more duds as time goes by.
What are good reasons for more than one Catalog? Well the work/play spilt is one. It may be beneficial to have separate Client and Personal catalogs. This works only if the 2 are completely separate, otherwise you could just use Collection Sets to manage them in one large catalog.
There is a 3rd workflow that uses many catalogs that can work too. I call the wedding/job method. Basically for each wedding or job, you create a folder for the job, with a catalog in the folder for that job. You do your selection and editing from that catalog, then using ‘Export as Catalog’, create a temporary catalog of the final images. Then switch to the your main catalog, and ‘Import from another Catalog’, bringing the selects into this. Delete the temporary catalog. Make sure the photos are imported using Add though. Why? Because you can right click the photo and ‘Show in Finder/Explorer’ to go back to the original folder and get to the job catalog quickly if you need to. With the selects in one big catalog, you can search your work easily.
Are there other workflows? Probably, but the key is to have some way to manage your best images in one place. One I can think of is the Catalog per Year system. As time passes, your memory of exactly what year a photo was taken can fade, so you could waste time searching 3 or 4 catalogs before you find the right one. There’s nothing to stop you adding a selects catalog, as with the wedding/job method above.
I will say that there is a bad catalog workflow, and that’s random catalogs with no cohesion. If you’re doing this, start a new catalog, and import the others into it, then uses Collections and Collection Sets to manage them.
Like I said at the beginning, this is just my opinion.