Lightroom and its catalog can be tricky to understand when you start using it.  In fact, I wrote a tutorial last year about the trick question, “How do you save photos in Lightoom?

 (Yes, you might have noticed Lightroom is less than $100 right now.  That’s a good deal.  However, the price is reduced because Lightroom 5 will come out any day now.  Buy now if you want a great price.  Wait if you’d rather pay for the latest and greatest.)

I want to revisit the subject of Lightroom’s catalog today with a couple of new ideas that will help Lightroom newbies understand the concept:  card catalogs and permanent previews.

The first thing I want you to do is think about libraries before computers were invented.  How did we locate books in the library in the “olden” days? We went to the card catalog.  The card catalog is a cabinet that holds lots of cards.  These cards contain information about books.

Reading a card from the catalog would tell you:

  • a book’s title
  • a brief synopsis
  • the author
  • the publication date
  • the location where the book is shelved in the library

Note that last point.  The books do not live in the card catalog, right?  Information about the books lives in the catalog, but the books themselves live on a bookshelf elsewhere in the library.

Lightroom is exactly the same.  Your photos do not live inside of Lightroom (this is an especially hard concept for Aperture and iPhoto users).  They live wherever you decide to put them on your hard drive when you import them from your camera.  Lightroom only stores a series of information about the photos:

  • the photo’s name
  • the photo’s location (where it lives on your computer)
  • a list of edits that have been made to a photo

Let’s talk about that last point, remembering that photos don’t live inside Lightroom.  Lightroom’s catalog is a database that stores information about photos, but not the photos themselves.  (Do I sound like a broken record yet?)  So, when you make edits to a photo, Lightroom simply keeps a list of the edits.  You can see what these edits look like on the photo if you are inside LR.

Say that you take a photo, add contrast, convert it to black & white and sharpen it.  You can see how all these edits look on the photo in Lightroom.  However, if you go to the same photo on your hard drive (looking at your Finder or Explorer), you will only see the uncontrasty, color and unsharpened view of the photo.

What you see in Lightroom is essentially a preview.  A preview of what that photo on your hard drive would look like it you actually attached this list of edits to the image.  It’s a permanent preview, because it will be there every time you look at the photo in Lightroom.  Whether it’s tomorrow or ten years from now, you can look at that photo in LR and see the edits – you can even change the edits.  You never have to save them, because you are looking at a permanent preview.

So what’s the good of this permanent preview?  First off, you can do lots of things with it from inside of Lightroom.  You can print it to your home printer, burn it to a DVD, export it to Facebook, Flickr or Shutterfly, create a Blurb book with it, even email it.  You don’t need to have a separate file saved on your hard drive that is a combination of the photo with the edits – Lightroom saves this information for you in your catalog and takes up much less hard drive space than saving the original plus the edited photo would.

What if you need to do something with this edited photo that you can’t do from within Lightroom, like sending the photo to your print lab or posting it on your blog?  That is when you need to export your photo.  Exporting creates a brand new file that combines the original, straight out of camera shot with the edits you’ve made in Lightroom.  It doesn’t overwrite the original.  It can be any size you want it to be, and it will be stored wherever you tell Lightroom to store it.  You are in control.

So, let’s see if I can sum this up:

  • Lightroom is a catalog that stores information about the photos but not the photos themselves
  • The edits you make to a photo are not applied to the photo on the hard drive
  • These edits don’t need to be applied to the photo if you can “arrive at your final destination” from within Lightroom.  Your final destination might be Facebook, printing to your home printer, or burning a DVD.
  • These edits do need to be attached to a photo if you need to do something with the photo that you can’t do from within Lightroom.  Examples are sending a photo to a print lab or posting on your blog.  You attach edits to a photo by Exporting the photo and the edits together to a new file.

Does this all make sense?  Are there any lightbulbs going off now?  I hope so!

If you want to experience even more lightbulbs about Lightroom’s organizing and editing benefits, check out my Lightroom class that starts on June 10.