Lightroom is different from Elements in so many ways.  Most of which are easy to understand.  But the one thing that doesn’t click with many people is saving photos and edits.  How do you do it?

I think the reason that people don’t get it is that the answer is scary.  You don’t save your photos in Lightroom.  We all have a healthy distrust of software.  What if it breaks?  What’s going to happen to my photos and all the work I put into them?  Please let me save it somewhere.

Lightroom is based on a catalog.  The Organizer in Elements uses a catalog also.  So does iTunes, for that matter.  The first time you use iTunes, you can’t just open a song and play it.  You have to import the song into your Library first.

The first time you use Lightroom, it asks you to create a new catalog.  You have to name it, and then import photos into it.  Most of us only need one catalog, although it’s certainly possible to have more than one.  I only use one myself.

When you import photos into your catalog, you aren’t moving them.  Say you’ve been shooting a couple of years and you have 2000 photos stored in a My Photos folder on your hard drive.  The first time you use LR, you import those 2000 photos.  They stay right inside your My Photos folder.  However, you can see them from inside Lightroom.

What you are doing when you import photos that are already on your hard drive is “introducing” LR to the photos:

“Hey Lightroom.  I took these pix a few years back and I want you to edit them.   Don’t move them, just know they are there.”

LR isn’t going to move these photos into its catalog, as I said.  It’s not going to duplicate them.  The catalog simply stores a list of photos and where they live on your harddrive.  LR knows that you have a photo named “Baby’s First BIrthday” and that this photo lives in My Photos/2011/January.

So what happens when you are importing photos from your camera or its memory card?  Lightroom does two things:

  1. It copies the photos from the card to a location of your choosing.
  2. It imports the photos, or the location of the photos if you’d rather, into LR.

Folks who are new to LR often wonder where LR puts those photos when you import them from your camera card.  Especially those who use iPhoto, which really does hide the photos deep down in the bowls of your computer somewhere.

However, in LR, you get to choose where to put them.  Once you hook your camera or card to your computer, the Import Window will open automatically.  If not, go to the File Menu and select Import Photos and Video.You’ll see the above Destination panel on the bottom of the right side of your Import Window.  You use this panel to say, “Hey LR.  Take these photos on my camera and copy them to the August 2012 folder on my hard drive.

You see where it says “La Cie” at the bottom of the panel?  That’s my external hard drive.  If I wanted my photos to live there rather than on my internal hard drive, LR can handle that.  A catalog can be made up of photos from both – it’s not location specific.

You can use this panel to create new folders on your hard drive as well as to store photos in existing folders.

Ok, I think you probably get it now.  The catalog is essentially a list of photos plus their addresses (where they live on your computer).  It does not contain the photos themselves.

So let’s take it a step further now.  What happens when you start changing the photos from within LR?  You add stars, flags, keywords.  That’s all called metadata.  And then you edit it.  LR’s catalog keeps track of all these changes.  So now the catalog has several lists:

  • Photos and their addresses
  • Metadata assigned to each photo
  • Edits applied to each photo

Here’s another hard-to-grasp part.  LR is storing a list of your edits, but it is not actually applying the edits to the photo.  It looks like it has, within LR, but the photo on your hard drive hasn’t changed a bit.  An example:

You can see that I’ve converted this photo to B&W inside LR, but the original file on my hard drive isn’t reflecting that edit, or any others.  So that’s scary, right?  How do you tie the edits and metadata to the file?

To answer that question, you need to know what you’re going to do with the photo.  If you are going to do something from within Lightroom, you don’t ever need to tie the edits to the file.  If you need to do something outside of LR, you export.

What can you do inside of Lightroom?  More than you might realize.

  • Burn a CD for your clients
  • Post to Facebook, Smugmug and Flickr
  • Print on your home printer

There are some things you can’t do inside of LR.  This is when you need to export your files:

  • Send to a print lab
  • Post on your blog

How to Export in situations like that?  This tutorial will help.  It covers some of the same info as this post and gives you specifics on exporting.

For those images that you don’t need to export, because you will only use them from within Lightroom, are you still concerned that your edits and metadata aren’t saved?  You should be.  That’s why Lightroom makes it easy for us to backup the catalog.

All Lightroom users should do this right now, if you haven’t already.  Go to your Preferences (on the Lightroom menu for Mac and the Edit menu for PC) and select Catalog Settings.  Look at the General tab and use the drop down menu to schedule how often LR should back up your catalog.  Mine backs up every time I quit Lightroom.

While you’re in this dialog, note where the catalog is located.  You will want to backup your catalog somewhere else.  If your catalog lives on your hard drive, back it up to an external hard drive.  If you use an online service, make sure that it is backing up the folder that contains the Lightroom catalog.

You can change the location where your backup is stored the first time you see the backup reminder.

There is one last important thing to think about regarding this catalog.  When you back up the catalog, are you backing up your image files as well?  No!  You need to back them up separately.  If you back up the catalog but not the photos and your computer crashes, all you’ll have is a list of photos and where they should live (but don’t), and a list of edits.  If you back up the photos but not the catalog and your computer crashes, you’ll have the photos with no edits applied.