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How Lightroom works: Where it keeps your images, and how to back up

Lesa Snider | March 30, 2015
Lots of people are leaping onto the Adobe Photoshop Lightroom bandwagon. One reason is licensing and pricing--for $150 you get a stand-alone copy with a perpetual license or you can subscribe to it, along with Photoshop, for a slick $10/month. Another reason for Lightroom's popularity is that it's a superb alternative to the soon-to-be-dead Aperture.

Lots of people are leaping onto the Adobe Photoshop Lightroom bandwagon. One reason is licensing and pricing — for $150 you get a stand-alone copy with a perpetual license or you can subscribe to it, along with Photoshop, for a slick $10/month. Another reason for Lightroom's popularity is that it's a superb alternative to the soon-to-be-dead Aperture.

While Lightroom is light yearseasier to use than most editors, it works in a unique way and, as such, has several pieces and parts. This begs (legitimate) questions such as, "Where are my pictures?", not to mention "Where are my presets?", and everyone's favorite, "Which files do I back up?" In this column, you'll learn all that and more.

Where does Lightroom store my images?

The short answer is that it doesn't. Unlike Photoshop and its image browsing companion, Adobe Bridge, Lightroom is a database (other databases you might know are iPhoto, the new Photos, the Photoshop Elements Organizer, and FileMaker Pro). Lightroom doesn't store your images, it stores information about your images in a catalog that contains a record for each image you tell it about (technically speaking, the catalog is the database).

Each record includes a smorgasbord of image info, including where it lives on your drive, camera settings at capture, any descriptions, keywords, star ratings, flags, or labels you've applied in Lightroom's Library module, and every edit you've ever made in the Develop module. (If you're using Lightroom Mobile on an iOS device, you're editing previews of the images referenced by the Lightroom catalog back on your desktop Mac.)

This segregation of image files from editing info means you can undo anything you do to an image in Lightroom anytime you want. This setup also lets you store images wherever you want: in your Pictures folder or in a custom folder structure (say, by date or event) on an internal or external drive, or network server. You can also control where your Lightroom catalog lives, though you can't put it on a server; catalogs must reside on local drives attached to your Mac. For the speediest Lightroom experience, store your catalog(s) on your fastest drive — say, a solid-state (SSD) or hybrid (part SSD, part traditional spinning platter drive).

Once you've told Lightroom about your images using its Import command, don't move, rename, or delete them behind its back (say, using your Mac's Finder). If you do, Lightroom won't be able to find them (though you can relink images if you forget). It's best to reserve such file management chores for the Folder panel in Lightroom's Library module so it can update image records as you go. By the way, when you delete an image in Lightroom, the app asks whether you want to delete it from the catalog, which only deletes its record, or if you want to delete it from your hard drive, which moves the image to your Mac's Trash.

 

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