The next stage for Lightroom

Adobe LightroomI am a happy user of Adobe Lightroom. It has helped me get a handle on my growing photo library. While it largely replicates the functionality of Adobe Bridge, it does so with a much better interface, and includes extra functionality that makes its price worthwhile. I do most of my photo processing in Lightroom these days, and don’t go into Photoshop unless I absolutely need it.

There are a few things that need to change in order for Lightroom to become a truly valuable addition to a digital photographer’s tool set. Sure, there are some small features that could be introduced here and there, and there are some bug fixes that need to occur as well. By and large though, what I see as the biggest needed improvement can’t be explained in a few words. It requires a more detailed explanation.

Say someone starts getting into photography in a serious sort of way. They begin editing their photos on their computer, and soon find, as they get into the several hundreds and thousands, that they need something to help them organize and manage their photos. Right? Well, say they get Lightroom. They’re happy campers now. They take more photos, and then even more. They can edit the meta-data, batch process photos, export for web and print, put together photo galleries, etc. It’s great!

Here’s where things start to get tricky though. As that photo library gets bigger, it needs to be moved off the primary computer, be it a laptop or a desktop machine. Its sheer size demands a large external device, and hopefully one that stores the data in redundant fashion, to guard against hardware failures. Well, no problem, they get a huge drive and move their photos onto it. That drive is connected via USB or Firewire, and they continue to work with Lightroom. Things are just peachy.

Guess what: at some point, that photographer will need to shoot on location. They’ll take a trip either out of town, or out of the country. If they don’t have a laptop already, they’ll need to get one, because every digital photographer knows they’ll very likely need to process some photos on location, away from home.

But guess where their photo library is? It’s at home, of course. So what do you think happens when you open Lightroom while you’re away from your photo library? Why, you can’t! It tells you drive X is not available. (I should specify this occurs when the Lightroom library is stored on an external device. You can, of course, store the library locally and the photos externally, but as the library gets bigger, you’ll run into space problems. I did.)

So what can you do? You can create a new photo library, import the photos into it, and work with them that way. But wait a minute? Where’s all that beautiful meta-data that you worked so hard at? Where’s your keyword database, with its hierarchical structure, so you can tag easier without having to remember all the keywords you’d want to use? Where are all your locations? Where are your collections? Nowhere. You have to start fresh, and then when you get home, you have to re-import those photos into your main library, then reconcile keywords, locations, etc. It’s just not pretty, and it’s not practical. And on top of that, you may run into certain import bugs

What Lightroom needs is the ability to have a two-part library: a portable, main library, that travels with the machine where Lightroom is installed, and an archive library that can sit on an external device, or multiple external devices. This is NOT the same as the Vault concept one finds in Aperture. No, it goes far beyond that. The Vault concept is meant for backing up the photo library, but doesn’t address the problem of running out of space in the main library. It simply allows you to back up your work on multiple devices.

Hear me out, because I realize the concept I’m introducing is a bit complicated. The Lightroom user needs to have the ability to have access to all of their meta-data from all of their photos while traveling or while away from their main photo library. It doesn’t matter whether that person uses a laptop or a desktop. If they separate their computer from the external device that hosts their photos, they should still be able to have access to their photo library — everything but the actual photos which are to be found elsewhere.

Huh? Stay with me on this one. This isn’t the same thing as having your photo library on the laptop itself instead of the external drive. In that case, should you have your laptop with you, only the photos stored on the laptop will show up in the library, while the ones to be found on an external drive will not show up when you open Lightroom. But this points out two problems.

One, you’ll run out of space on your laptop very soon if you have a large library, even if you store the bulk of your photos elsewhere, because Lightroom builds either full-size previews, or fairly large ones (you decide this in the Preferences). Those previews are stored with the photo library, and if it resides on the laptop, the drive will fill up pretty soon.

Two, simply making those photos stored externally unavailable when Lightroom is separated from the external device doesn’t help you much. You need to be able to see at least the thumbnails, and have the meta-data available for searching, not crossed out or grayed out.

Let me outline the main points of my proposed functioning for the Lightroom library. Perhaps this will make it easier to understand:

  • A two-part library. A local/portable one, that holds all of the meta-data and thumbnails, plus a portable collection of photos that the photographer would like to have ready for processing and use no matter where they are. And the main/archive library, that holds a backup copy of the library’s meta-data and thumbnails, plus all of the photos that have been moved off the local/portable library.
  • Obviously, the ability to move photos freely from the local/portable library to the main/archive library, as needed. This would allow the photographer to decide which photos to keep local and portable, and move others to the archive in order to save space on the laptop or desktop that they’re taking with them on location.
  • The two-part library syncs the meta-data and thumbnails automatically and perhaps offers choices for conflicting data when the external device that holds the main/archive library is reconnected to the laptop/desktop.
  • Just to make things clear, the local/portable library would hold meta-data, thumbnails for all of the photos in the library, plus whatever group of photos the photographer decides to keep local. This would keep its size small and portable while allowing the user to view thumbnails for all of the photos in the library even when away from the archive library. They would even be able to do searches on the meta-data and update it as needed. The changes would sync when the archive would be re-connected. The photos stored in the archive would be marked by a special border or icon to let the user know they’re not available in their full size while the archive would be disconnected.

This is the sort of functionality I will expect from Lightroom. It would make it a truly powerful and portable piece of software. I know some people say that Bridge does the same things, but I’ve used both, and I like the Lightroom interface a LOT more.


6 thoughts on “The next stage for Lightroom

  1. Pingback: How to transfer photos between Lightroom catalogs by Raoul Pop

  2. Well Keith, I hope my article will serve as the impetus you might have needed in order to finish the Aperture review. 🙂

    As for your points, well taken, but Lightroom can do the same things in its current version. What I’m talking about (and I wish the concept wasn’t so hard to explain) is the ability to store previews separately from the thumbnails and the photo library, and the ability to work with photos and the meta-data associated with them inside the library when the external storage isn’t available.

    By working with them, I’m talking about changes to meta-data such as tags, keywords, titles, etc. — you name it — while the photos are unavailable because they’re “back home”. Then when I’d get home, I could sync those changes back to the library and write them to the photos. Sort of like working offline, then syncing back when you re-connect.

    But by far the most important feature I’d like to see is the ability to store previews for photos stored on external devices somewhere other than with my Lightroom library, which could reside on my portable computer. Let’s say I define two locations for previews: local and external. Photos residing on my portable computer would have their previews stored locally, and photos residing externally would have their previews stored externally. When I move photos back and forth between the local and external locations, their previews would travel with them. Do you see what I mean?

    The idea is to keep the size of the local photo library as flexible as possible, while still allowing the user to work with the entire collection of meta-data and do searches across all of the photos in the library.

    I’d rather not maintain multiple libraries and have to divide my meta-data among them, when it could all be kept in one place.

    I hope this explanation is easier to understand.


  3. This comment is going to steal a little bit of the thunder from my upcoming Aperture review, but I’m feeling the need to jump in here!

    Aperture does indeed handle this type of situation in a most elegant manner. It does so by modularizing its storage architecture and compartmentalizing all of the information that it needs to store. A quick run-down:

    – Images can be managed (metadata and images in the Aperture library) or referenced (metadata and previews in the library, images elsewhere–online or off). You can arbitrarily move one or more projects, albums or individual images into or out of the managed library as needed.

    – Previews for entire projects or albums can be generated by default, or on-demand with the press of a button. I don’t generate by default, but will generate for those albums and/or projects that I know I’ll need while away from my office.

    I have a fraction of my images on my MacBook Pro, and previews for albums that I use often. I can still perform metadata searches within my library, and even create sets for publication. The next time I attach the disk with the images that I need, I execute the actual export.

    Pow 🙂


  4. Okay, when you’re going to extremes you’ll definitely be able to fill up your harddrive with just the previews. 🙂 Previews and Thumbnails are stored within the Aperture Library, which is on your Computer. Only the RAW files are moved to the external disk.

    For reference: I have a project with about ~2.000 photos which are only referenced to my external disk. The current size is about 1.25 GByte (800 MByte thumbnails, ~220 MByte “minis”, resolution 1440×900 matching my display).

    If I was running out of space I would delete/deactivate the previews for some “unimportant” projects or just decrease the resolution of the previews.

    That being said, I tried Lightroom and didn’t like it due to the lack of management features like these. I love the speed of LR compared to Aperture, but I prefer an integrated backup, etc. over a few seconds that I gain using LR.


  5. Not quite, Holger. I haven’t used Aperture myself, so I’m only speaking from my understanding of its specs, but the way I see it, the library still resides in one place: your computer. As that library grows bigger, it will eventually grow bigger than your laptop’s hard drive (or at least will get so big that it’ll become an inconvenience).

    I’m not sure how many photos you have in your library at the moment, or where Aperture stores the previews and thumbnails for your photos (if it stores them with the photos, in their folders, or in separate Previews or Thumbnails folders, with its library, like Lightroom), but rest assured, if those previews and thumbnails are getting stored together with the library, in time, if you shoot constantly, you will find that your library has grown beyond what you can accommodate on your portable computer.

    That’s why having a two-part library like this, where you decide where to store the really portable data (meta-data and thumbnails) and the larger data (previews) is important. And why it’s also important that Lightroom be aware of internal and external storage devices, and know how to accommodate the way it sees the photo library when external devices are present or not.

    I hope this makes sense.


  6. Hi Raoul,

    if I’m not missing anything big, this is exactly what I’m doing with Aperture. I have some photos, in my case the most recent ones, on my MBP, and older ones located on an external drive (plus the really old ones in archives created by Aperture, which are saved apart from Aperture). If I choose to create thumbnails I can view the “remote” photos. The metadata for them is also saved locally in the Aperture database. I can store the photos wherever I like, in the Aperture DB, on my local disk or on the external disk. All that movement is being done in Aperture.

    You might run into problems when it comes to using more than one computer. I haven’t looked into this because I only have my notebook, so I can’t comment on basically running the same Aperture library on two computers.

    But I agree with you: these management features could use some improvements…



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