To merge, or not to merge. That is the question. Imagine a time in the not-so-distant future when you truly have just one window into your entire digital photo library. This means, no matter where you are, and no matter what sort of device you’re using, you’ll be able to easily access any photograph you’ve taken since the dawn of digital (admittedly, not that long ago, relative to geologic time).
Today, having a good cataloging or asset-management system and maintaining one master catalog for all of the photographs in your digital library is a solid step in that direction. And this article assumes that you’re already on that track. But what do you do when you go on location? Many of us already have libraries far larger than our laptop hard drives will hold comfortably. And even if we could carry our entire library on location on a portable hard drive, would you take the risk of that drive being stolen or lost?
When we shoot on location, we typically want to download and possibly edit and organize our photos every chance we get. Assuming that you maintain one large master catalog of your digital photographs (and I think most people do), and that you want to edit in the field while shooting, when using Adobe Lightroom you essentially have two options when you get back home: to merge, or not to merge.
The first option—to merge—is actually a bit trickier than the second, but once you get a feel for the ins and outs of how Lightroom handles catalog merging, you’ll become comfortable with it. And it’s worth learning how to do.
If you plan to create a temporary location catalog and then merge it with your master catalog when you get home, here’s how I would proceed. For the location part of the setup, all you need to have is a laptop with a copy of Lightroom installed on it and enough hard-drive space to accommodate the photo files you’ll be shooting. Next, create a folder for the photo files. Because Lightroom always first looks to a relative path when searching for your photo files, I find that it sometimes helps to put them in close proximity to the catalog. I recommend creating the folder for your photo files (I’ll name this shoot folder “Location Photo Library”) in the same parent folder as your Lightroom catalog folder. This could be in your Desktop folder, or in your Pictures folder, or wherever. The exact location really doesn’t matter—as long as they’re in the same parent folder. Then as you shoot, download your photos into that library folder on a daily basis, arranging them into subfolders named with the when, who, what and where objective metadata scheme that I outlined in my previous DPP articles (December 2009 and March/April 2010). If you’ll be using Lightroom’s default installation location for the catalog on the laptop, that scheme will look something like Figure 1.
“Library” Or “Catalog”?
Throughout this article I use the terms library and catalog, but not interchangeably. When I talk about your library, I’m talking about your photographs—meaning, the actual digital photo files. When I use the word catalog, I’m talking about the database that you use to manage those photos, and with which you view and organize them. Lightroom calls this database the catalog. Due to the fact that the Lightroom user interface has a Library module, there’s much confusion surrounding this distinction. Your catalog is not your library!