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Organizing Your Digital Media: 4. Working with Catalogs

How to organize and work with digital media files (images, videos, audios) on your Windows or Macintosh computer

Created by Health Science Librarians

Working with Catalogs

4. Working with Catalogs

This section discusses organizing with catalogs (databases) and metadata, using Adobe Lightroom for examples, including the following topics: 

Digital asset management expert Peter Krogh writes that folders are ideal for storing things (The DAM Book, page 130), but are limited as organizational tools. According to Krogh, “metadata and cataloging software offer much more flexibility and efficiency for organizing than folders do.” (p. 131).

Adobe LIghtroom is a highly-regarded cataloging program used for images (and to some extent, video files). This guide focuses primarily on techniques using Lightroom’s Library module (not so much on image editing, which uses the Develop module).

Other software programs have different user interfaces but the concepts are the same.

How Lightroom files are organized

How Lightroom files are organized

The following example shows one way to organize Lightroom files (as they appear in the Macintosh Finder).


Lightroom Demo 1


Each Lightroom catalog includes both a catalog file (extension .lrcat) and a previews file (.lrdata), shown below in a folder called LR_demo_catalog. The actual image files are separate from the catalog files (in the above example, images are contained in a folder called demo_pix).

The images folder (demo_pix) and the Lightroom catalog are both in the same folder, called LR_demo.  It is not required for them to be in the same folder. For example the catalog could be on your internal hard disk and the images could be on an external drive.  But keeping them together helps to avoid confusion, especially when it comes to backing up your files. 

IThe .lrcat file is the catalog itself, and the .lrdata file contains the previews of images (not the original images). The previews enable you to look at and manipulate images in your Lightroom catalog. 

There is also a folder for catalog backups. (This folder contains backups of only the catalog, not the images.) 

To avoid confusion you should know that while Lightroom is running, the folder containing the catalog files may look something like this: 


Lightroom Demo 2

The -journal and .lock files are temporary files. -journal holds information that has not yet been written to the catalog and .lock helps prevent the catalog from being corrupted. It is not necessary to do anything with these files– it is best to leave them alone.

Lightroom User Interface

User Interface Overview

The following is a brief overview of the Adobe Lightroom user interface. 

User Interface Overview 1
The user interface can be modified in various ways including showing and hiding panels and other elements of the interface, as well as what they contain. 

The user interface is divided into modules (Library, Develop, Map, Book, Slideshow, Print, Web). The most relevant module for our purposes is the Library module, which is where you import and organize images. 

The above shows Grid View, which displays a grid of image thumbnails. There is also a Loupe View, which show a single image at a time in the main content area:

User Interface Overview 2

Catalog settings and backups

Catalog settings and catalog backups

Lightroom only allows you to open one catalog at a time. This is not normally a problem if you all your images in one catalog, which is recommended. To check catalog settings, choose Lightroom menu > Catalog Settings… 

Catalog Settings

Lightroom automatically backs up your catalog according to the catalog setting for Backup in the Catalog Settings dialog box. Backup occur on exiting the program. If a backup is scheduled, the Back Up Catalog dialog box appears when you exit Lightroom: 

Catalog Backups

If you want to change the location of your Lightrooom catalog backup folder, you can do it in this dialog box.  NOTE: THIS ONLY BACKS UP YOUR CATALOG, NOT YOUR IMAGES!

Importing images into Lightroom

Importing images

When you capture or import images and other media into your computer, consider how to import them in such a way as to make them easily accessible later.  It is usually a good idea to keep your images (and/or video files) in their own space, separate from other files on your computer. 

Often it is best to store images and video files on a separate hard drive devoted exclusively to that purpose, especially if you have a large number of images (and/or videos) that you are organizing using a Lightroom Catalog. Keeping images in their own space on a separate drive helps to avoid confusion and makes backing up files easier. 

To import images into Lightroom, choose Import Photos and Video from the File menu, or click the import button. 

Importing Images 1

The Import dialog box appears:


Importing Images 2


The import dialog box takes up the entire Lightroom interface throughout the import process. The components of the Import dialog box are described below. 

Import Source

In the left panel of the Import dialog box, choose the source (where you want to import from). Typically this will be a media card, but it could also be from a folder on a hard drive. 


Import Source

Copy, Move, or Add

An area at the top of the dialog box is where you to specify if you are copying, moving, or adding to your catalog.

  • Copy as DNG copies RAW files and converts them to DNG format
  • Copy copies files
  • Move moves files
  • Add adds files to the catalog without moving them from their current location.

Copy Move or Add

Copy as DNG and Copy are usually the best options. What is the difference? DNG (digital negative) coverts proprietary RAW files to non-proprietary DNG format without losing any data. Many professional believe that this is a good thing to do. If you are importing files other than RAW (such as jpeg), there is probably no reason to convert the file to DNG.  

Move is risky in the event there is a problem during the process. 

Add prevents you from consolidating all your files to a central location (unless you want to import a file that already exists where you want to keep it). This can result in a Lightroom catalog referencing files from all over the place, which is not usually good practice. 

Note: What is RAW?

RAW is a format for digital images that retains all the information captured by the camera. Unlike jpeg, RAW files are not compressed. They contain much more data that jpeg files which is a good thing for photo editing. Most professional photographers prefer to work with RAW files, and Lightroom is an ideal environment for that. 

File Handling and Renaming

Lightroom allows you to select the quality of the previews it displays and to rename the files according to templates you can choose or create. For example, Custom Name + Original file number could result in filenames such as “SPHS_students-1236.DNG”  (“SPHS_students” is the custom text you provide; 1236 is the number in the original filename).

File Handling and Renaming

Apply During Import 

This allows you to assign metadata and keywords on import, which is not necessary but is very convenient. In this example I applied metadata from a template I created and the keywords “SPHS_students” and “HSL.” 

Apply During Import


Destination specifies where you want the imported files to be stored. Typically in Lightroom you would want all of you imported files to exist in a folder, which may include multiple subfolders, such as for year or year and month.  In the example used for demonstration purposes in this guide the destination folder is called LR-demo.




Click Import and the files will be copied or moved to the destination, and the images will be added to your Lightroom catalog. 

During the import process, and import bar appears that shows import progress. Importing may take some time, depending on the number and size of the images. If you choose to convert files to DNG format this will take some additional time.


Convert to Digital Negative and Import

File management

File Management

After you import images, the Import dialog box goes away, and the imported images appear in the left panel of the Library panel user interface (along with any other images that you previously imported). Clicking on the folder in the left panel allows you to view and work with the files you have imported. 

Moving Files and Folders

If you need to move or rearrange folders or files, you can do so from within the Lightroom.  (And you should do it this way, because if you move the files outside of Lightroom, Lightroom will lose track of them, and you will need to re-import them.)

To move a file to another folder, you can drag its thumbnail:

Moving Files and Folders

You will get a warning message that allows you to back out:

Moving Files and Folders 2

If you want to verify where a file is, right-click on the file thumbnail and choose Show in Finder to find its location in your operating system: 

Moving Files and Folders 3

Creating a New Folder

To create a new folder, click the plus (+) sign at the top-right of the Folders section of the left panel. Choose Add Folder…


Creating a New Folder

To create a subfolder inside any existing folder, right-click a folder and choose Create Folder Inside…


Creating a New Folder 2

Renaming Files and Folders 

Ideally, it is best to rename files on import, as was described above. But there are often times when it is desirable to rename files that are already in the Lightroom catalog.  

To rename images, select the image(s) you wish to rename, then choose the Library menu > Rename. This brings up a dialog box that allows you to rename the selected images. 


Renaming Files and Folders


When you click OK the images are renamed.  The new names for the files will also appear in the Finder or Windows Explorer if you look at them there. 

To rename a folder: Right-click on the folder in the left panel of the Library module. 

Renaming Files and Folders 2

Choose Rename Folder and then you can rename it.


Renaming Files and Folders 3

Working with metadata

Working with Metadata

You can view metadata by looking at the Metadata section of the right panel: 

Working with Metadata

Some metadata (e.g. exposure) cannot be changed, but some panel fields can be changed, such as Title, Caption, Rating, and Label. 

Assigning Keywords

It is optional, but good, to apply keywords and to images. This allows you to quickly search and find images later. 

To apply keywords to images, select the images, then add keywords to the Keywords panel, either by typing them or clicking on keywords from the suggestions or keyword list. 

Assigning Keywords

Another way to apply keywords is by using the painter icon (in Grid view). Click the icon, choose Keywords from the  popup menu, then click on thumbnails in the grid to “paint” keywords  to additional images. 

Assigning Keywords 2
Assigning Keywords 3

Assigning Ratings

The easiest way too assign ratings (one to five stars) to images is to select thumbnail(s) and type the number on your keyboard. The rating is displayed in the filmstrip, metadata panel, and (depending on view options settings) in the grid thumbnails. 

Assigning Ratings

Creating Collections

Creating Collections

Another great way to organize images using Lightroom is through collections. 

In Lightroom, collections are "virtual," meaning that a collection is a way of grouping images that can be located in different locations (folders). A single image could be in multiple collections, but only located in one folder. There is no need to create duplicate copies for different collections.

To create a collection, select thumbnails, then choose create Collection from the Collections section of the left panel.


Creating Collections 1

Then give the collection a name, and click Create.


Creating Collections 2


Creating Collections 3

Once you have created a collection, you  have convenient access to it. You can add to the collection any time by dragging additional images to it. 

Using filters to find images

Using Filtering to find images

In Grid mode, you can use the Filter Bar to view images that match criteria. 

To view the Filter Bar, choose View Menu > Show Filter Bar, or type the backslask key (\).

Click on a Filter heading in the bar (Text, Attribute, or Metadata).

Choosing Text allows you to enter text to search by several fields, including keywords, filenames, and metadata. In the following example, I search for filenames containing "sphs".

Using Filtering to Find Images 1


Attribute allows filtering by Flag, Rating, and Label. Just click on an attribute to filter. Below, I clicked on five stars to filter. Now, only thumbnails rated with five stars appear:  


Using Filtering to Find Images 2

Filtering by Metadata has many options, including filtering by keyword, shown below: 

Using Filtering to Find Images 3
Together, the options provided by the Filter Bar provide powerful searching capabilities.