Backing up the Adobe Lightroom Catalog
One of the great things about Adobe Lightroom is that it stores all your metadata in an actual database, making searches much more efficient than without. But if you don't take care of your catalog, it's possible that sooner or later it could break. Computers do that sometimes. But with a little bit of planning you can make sure you're covered in case that day ever comes.
Exactly how catalog backups work depend on which version of Lightroom you are running. Regardless of version, you can control how frequently Lightroom prompts you to backup in all versions, but the prompt happens at different times in different versions. Up through version 2.7 (the current "official" release), if a backup is scheduled, Lightroom prompts you when the program starts. As of version 3, it more sensibly prompts you when you exit the program. Here are the exact choices possible:
Up through Lightroom version 2.x:
- Next Time Lightroom Starts
- Every Time Lightroom Starts
- Once A Day, Upon Starting Lightroom
- Once A Week, Upon Starting Lightroom
- Once A Month, Upon Starting Lightroom
Starting with Lightroom version 3:
- When Lightroom Next Exits
- Every Time Lightroom Exits
- Once A Day, When Exiting Lightroom
- Once A Week, When Exiting Lightroom
- Once A Month, When Exiting Lightroom
To tell Lightroom what you want it to do, go to Edit >> Catalog Settings on Windows, or Lightroom >> Catalog Settings for Mac OS X users. Once there, go to the "General" tab. Lightroom remembers which tabs you've previously been to, so even though this is the first tab it may not be the active tab when you open the Catalog Settings dialog. Just click on the tab heading if you find yourself looking at the wrong one when you open Catalog Settings.
Exactly which option you choose depends somewhat on your needs and appetite for risk, but even Adobe recommends you don't select the "Never" option. One of many things about version 3 I really like is the switch to backing up the catalog when the program exits rather than when it starts. This makes it much easier to create backups more often since you don't need to wait for them to complete. You just close Lightroom as you would any other program and walk away from it. Even if Lightroom takes a few minutes to back up your catalog, you don't need to wait for it. With version 2, it was always too tempting to click on "Skip this time" when prompted to start a backup since this always happened when you wanted to actually do something. After all, you started Lightroom in the first place for a reason, and it probably wasn't just to watch it do a backup.
Lightroom lets you control where the backups go too. By default, they end up in timestamped folders underneath where the catalog you are backing up lives. If you haven't moved your catalog folder, this will be "C:\Documents and Settings\username\My Documents\My Pictures\Lightroom\Backups\yyyy-mm-dd hhmm\" on Windows and "/User home/Pictures/Lightroom/Backups/yyyy-mm-dd hhmm/" on Mac OS. The timestamp includes the year, month and day, as well as hour (24-hour format) and minute of the backup. When the backup prompt shows up based on your selected schedule, you can specify an alternate location if desired. Whatever folder you pick, the timestamped subfolder always gets created underneath that. The backup itself is an *.lrcat file, just like your real catalog, and ends up in that subfolder. Oddly, you can't pick a different location directly in the Catalog Settings dialog. Once you do change the location though, Lightroom will remember your choice for next time. If you have more than one drive, it's a good idea to put your catalog backup on a different drive from the one that holds the catalog itself so that the loss of the drive won't take everything with it.
If you decide one day you want to create a backup right then and there, you have to first start Lightroom to change the Catalog Settings. If you tell Lightroom to create a backup when it next starts/exits (depending on your version), the frequency will revert back to whatever you had for a default after the backup completes. This makes it easier to stick with a regular schedule after your current backup finishes.
The backup dialog prompt also includes options to test the integrity of your catalog before backing it up, and to optimize the catalog after the backup completes. Both are good ideas. You can also optimize your catalog via the File >> Optimize Catalog menu option.
If your catalog ever does get corrupted, you can restore a backup via File >> Open dialog, or simply copy the backup *.lrcat file back where the original was outside of Lightroom.
You might be able to avoid thinking about this entirely if you're lucky, but I wouldn't recommend risking it. It's really fairly easy to add creating catalog backups to how you use Lightroom. And a bit of prevention now may end up saving you some day.