Today’s Question: A friend has a massive number of photos and recently lost his Lightroom Classic catalog (including backups) because he used a hard drive scrubbing utility not realizing it was erasing the hard drive rather than cleaning out viruses and clutter. He has his photos, but none of the information about his photos.
Tim’s Quick Answer: This is a dramatic reminder of how important it can be to turn on the “Automatically write changes into XMP” checkbox on the Metadata tab of the Catalog Settings dialog in Lightroom Classic. With this option enabled, the vast majority of metadata updates and Develop adjustments could be recovered easily even with a total loss of the catalog.
More Detail: I have often advocated for photographers to turn on the “Automatically write changes into XMP” checkbox for their Lightroom Classic catalog. When I do, I often explain that part of the reason for this is to provide a way to recover from the loss of a catalog. I often hear from readers (and have the same thought myself) that losing the catalog and all backup copies is not very likely. But it is possible, as the story above conveys, which was recounted to me by a friend who knows the person who experienced this loss.
This is a stark reminder of how helpful it can be to have this option turned on for a worst-case scenario related to your catalog. I really wish Adobe would have this option turned on by default, but it is disabled by default under the auspices of improving performance in Lightroom Classic.
I strongly recommend (now more than ever) that you make sure this checkbox is turned on. To do so, go to the menu and select Edit > Catalog Settings from the menu on Windows, or Lightroom Classic > Catalog Settings on Macintosh. Go to the Metadata tab and turn on the “Automatically write changes into XMP” checkbox. You can then close the dialog, and Lightroom Classic will start writing updates to the source image files (or XMP sidecar files in the case of raw captures) for all existing photos, updating as needed when you make changes to metadata in the future.
It is important to note that this option will not preserve all metadata outside the Lightroom Classic catalog. Among other things collections, virtual copies, and pick/reject flags are not included in the source photos when you enable this option in Catalog Settings. However, standard metadata such as star ratings, color labels, keywords, and even Develop adjustments are included.
With this option enabled, if you were to ever lose your entire Lightroom Classic catalog and all backup copies, you could simply create a new catalog and import all photos. The metadata that had been saved out to the source images based on this setting will be included with the photos being imported to that new catalog.