The Most Confusing Thing About Lightroom

As a photographer and educator, Phil Steele has found there is one fundamental misunderstanding that causes many amateur photographers to get confused when working with Adobe Lightroom. Unfortunately until you understand it, you will never really be able to use Lightroom without causing yourself problems. To help tackle this common confusion, Steele created this insightful tutorial on how to better understand the behind the scene aspects of Lightroom:

For beginners, Steele has found there are multiple sources of confusion when it comes to this program. However, the largest issue can typically be broken down into three common questions:

  1. Where does Lightroom put my photos?
  2. Where are the edited photos?
  3. What is the Lightroom Catalog?

Where Does Lightroom Put My Photos?

While a common question, Lightroom doesn’t actually put your images anywhere. Your photos stay exactly where you put them, and Lightroom doesn’t do anything to change that. When you import your images, you are essentially telling the program to do four things:

  1. Take a look at these photos.
  2. Recognize they exist.
  3. Make some internal copies.
  4. Don’t touch the originals.
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The Lightroom Catalog is stored somewhere on your computer.

What is the Lightroom Catalog?

Steel recommends thinking of the Lightroom database as the mind of Lightroom. This is where everything happens that you see when working within the program. However, you will never be looking at the original photos when working in Lightroom. Each of your original files is left untouched and exactly where you placed them. What you’re seeing within the program are little internal copies (previews) that the program keeps inside its database, which allows you to view and edit the photos without destroying your original files.

While you don’t have direct access to the files within Lightroom’s database, it’s important to understand where they are stored, because you need to ensure these files are regularly backed up to avoid losing all the work you’ve done while working in Lightroom. Otherwise, if the files were to get lost or damaged, you would lose all your hard work.

Generally these files are stored in what is called the Lightroom Catalog. Located somewhere on your computer, it is typically stored in a folder called Lightroom with the exact file name Lightroom Catalog.lrcat. This file contains all the information about every photo you have ever imported and generally has a companion file called Lightroom Catalog Previews.lrdata, which contains all the thousands of little internal copies Lightroom has created while editing.

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When you export an image, the image exported is an entirely new file.

Where Are the Edited Photos?

Your edited photos will never replace your original files. To get your edited photo out of Lightroom, you have to export the image. When you export the file, Lightroom goes back and looks at the original image and then copies your photo placing all the new changes you made during editing. After these changes are applied, a new photo is created, and you can save it wherever you want to place it.

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One Comment

  1. J. Ross says:

    What would be the protocol that professional landscape photographers use when they finally edit a photograph and it is exactly the way they want it (at least for that moment)?

    Do they export it in a format for archive purposes to assure that it is safe and secure in storage?

    If so, what format do they use?

    How is it filed?


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