The Lightroom catalog
Martin Evening | Software Techniques | Published Dec 28, 2012
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is built atop a database architecture that relies on a centralized catalog to house information about your still images and video files.
One of the most common questions I’m asked about Adobe Photoshop Lightroom from new (and sometimes not so new) users is, ‘Why do you have to import photos to the catalog first before you are able to edit them?’ The answer to this question goes right to the heart of Lightroom’s approach to information storage and retrieval, which to my mind more adequately addresses the needs of today’s photographer. In this article I’ll lay out the basic principles of image management in Lightroom and explain how this approach can actually make the task of locating your images more efficient.
Image browser vs. database manager
As computer users who’ve come of age during the PC revolution, we have grown accustomed to the idea that everything needs to be sorted into folders, and indeed folder hierarchies have become the primary means of organization. This file directory management approach may make sense with task-specific Word documents but becomes extremely limiting when applied to large collections of less easily-defined images. Yet this is exactly how image browser software, like Adobe Bridge operate. For all their admittedly useful features, they simply browse the existing folder structure on your hard drive.
And my chief complaint about sorting images by folders is the very real problem of determining just which folder they should go in. Someone once told me about an underwater photographer who maintained a small photo library of his work. When adding new transparencies, he would have dupes made so that a photograph of say, a diver with a shark could be filed in one set of physical folders labeled ‘sharks’, another named ‘divers’ and another broken down by ‘location’. This physical duplication was necessary in order to make the library system work effectively, but no one would call it efficient. Yet there are people who work this way with digital files precisely because they are not using a database-driven management system.
Here is an example of an underwater photo (in this instance a photo shot by Jeff Schewe). It makes sense to categorize this by the location it was shot in, the presence of a diver, as well as the coral featured in the foreground. In the folder-based example I mentioned above this could involve duplicating the master image several times. Using digital asset management software such as Phase One Media Pro or Lightroom, however, there is no need to create physical duplicates.
I can’t count the number of times I have sat through a seminar where the instructor has come unstuck when relying on folder/browser navigation to locate their demo files. Meanwhile, the audience waits impatiently while the instructor sifts through a complex hierarchy structure of folders known only to himself. Sound familiar?
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