Lost Catalog

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Today’s Question: I’m hoping you can maybe point me in the right direction. My computer crashed and I’m trying to use my portable drive on my husband’s new laptop. Although I see all my folders and images on the external drive I do not see the catalog they live in. I’m worried it’s just gone!

Tim’s Quick Answer: Hopefully you can locate the catalog that had been in use on the computer that crashed (even if that is a backup that isn’t completely current). Failing that, if there is no existing catalog to work from, the only solution would be to start with a brand new catalog and import all photos from the external hard drive into that new catalog.

More Detail: This type of situation underscores how important it can be to maintain a regular schedule for backing up your Lightroom catalog. By having a backup of your catalog, the loss of your master catalog can be a minor inconvenience rather than a bit of a crisis.

Perhaps even more important, this issue underscores how important I feel it is to enable the option to write metadata from Lightroom out to the actual image files on your hard drive. By making use of this option, if you lose your catalog the majority of the information about your photos (such as keywords, star ratings, and other standard metadata values) will be preserved along with your original photos. As long as you keep your photos backed up securely, most of your metadata will be available even if you lose your Lightroom catalog. The exceptions would be Lightroom-specific features such as Pick and Reject flags and Collections.

The setting for saving metadata out to your photos can be found in the Catalog Settings dialog, accessible from the Lightroom menu on the Macintosh version or the Edit menu on the Windows version. On the Metadata tab, you can turn on the “Automatically write changes into XMP” checkbox to enable this feature.

The first step in this case is to try to locate the original catalog. By default the Lightroom catalog is stored in the Pictures folder on the internal hard drive of the computer from which you’re using Lightroom. In other words, if that computer experiences a catastrophic failure, you will have lost your Lightroom catalog.

If, however, you stored your catalog somewhere else, you can search for the file with the “lrcat” extension, which is the main Lightroom catalog file. If you have been backing up your Lightroom catalog regularly, this search may also yield a recent backup you can make use of.

If you can’t locate the catalog (or a recent backup) that you can make use of, your only real option would be to create a new catalog and import all of your photos into that catalog. Note that if you had enabled the option to save metadata out to the actual image files, this process would effectively recover the majority of the metadata that had been included in your Lightroom catalog, including all of the adjustments you had applied to your photos.