Today’s Question: I recently had to have my computer wiped for a virus and the operating system reinstalled. When I reloaded Lightroom Classic and imported the photos and catalog from my hard drive, none of my collections transferred. Is there any way to recover those?
Tim’s Quick Answer: Collection information is stored within the Lightroom Classic catalog. Therefore, in a situation like this you would need to be sure to retain a copy of your Lightroom catalog before reformatting the hard drive. Another option would be to recover from a recent backup of your catalog.
More Detail: When you add a photo to a collection in Lightroom Classic, that information is only stored within the Lightroom catalog. With standard metadata such as keywords, it is possible to have metadata saved to the actual source image files (or in an XMP sidecar file in the case of proprietary raw captures). Information about collections, however, doesn’t get stored in standard metadata fields. As a result, if you were to completely lose your Lightroom catalog, you would lose the information about collections (among other details) about your photos.
Therefore, the only way to retain collection information for your photos is to keep your Lightroom catalog safe, including backing up your catalog on a regular basis. If your primary catalog is lost or damaged for any reason, you could recover from a backup copy of the catalog. Obviously you would lose any updates that were added after the time of the last backup, but all older information would be preserved.
If you create a new catalog and import your existing photos to that catalog, you would lose information about collections, as well as the history from the Develop module, virtual copies, pick and reject flags, and other Lightroom-specific features.
So, in this case, if you have a relatively recent backup of your catalog, you could open that and work to update the catalog with information you updated (or photos you imported) since that backup was performed. But if you don’t have a recent backup of your catalog, you won’t be able to recover your collection information, so you would need to recreate collections manually.
Note, by the way, that this type of scenario is exactly why I recommend adding keywords to photos that you add to collections, to identify images that meet the criteria for being in a collection. For example, let’s assume you had a collection that contained photos you were including in a book. You could add a keyword to each of the photos that identifies those photos as being part of the book project. Then, even if you lost your collections due to problem with your Lightroom catalog, you would still be able to identify the applicable images based on the keyword.