But I Backed Up My Catalog!

Perhaps one of the most frequent topics on Lightroom websites (in particular) and the Internet (in general) is the importance of backing up. I cannot stress the importance of this practice enough. Despite all of the warnings, horror stories, unfortunate accidents, and general tales of woe, users continue to ignore or misunderstand what backing up entails.

Recently I helped three different readers with three different issues. The common thread?: Images were missing and there was no backup. The problem in all three cases was the reliance on Lightroom's built in backup. Yes, it is true that Lightroom will back up your Catalog. But what does that really mean? Does that back up everything you need? Let's start with how to use Lightroom's backup routine and then we can discuss what it doesn't do.

Start in your Catalog Preferences.

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Under the General tab you will find the Backup section. Click on the dropdown menu to choose the frequency.

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Even though Never is a choice you should not choose that one. How often you backup your Catalog will depend on how often you work on your images. Once a week, once a day, or on every exit are my recommendations. The more you work in the Catalog the more frequently you should back it up. OK. So now you have your frequency set. Your next task is to decide where that backup should go.

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When you exit Lightroom you will be presented with Back Up Catalog dialog. For reasons unknown to me, Lightroom will offer to save your backup to the same location as your Catalog. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER do this! If your drive crashes and both your Catalog and your backups are on that drive you will be out of luck. The very first time you encounter this dialog click the Choose… button and point this to an external drive. If you don't have an external drive…go and get one.

The other two options in this dialog are also good to have checked. These will make sure there are no internal errors in your Catalog and remove any of the leftover trash from adding, deleting, and manipulating your images. That will help Lightroom run more efficiently.

So do this and you're all set, right? WRONG! All you have done here is to make a backup of your Catalog. While that is important it isn't the whole story.

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There are many other little pieces of Lightroom that aren't backed up by this process (the green section). More importantly, your actual image files (the blue section) have not been backed up either! You could certainly recreate, with some difficulty, settings and presets. You could even start from scratch with your catalog. Not a pleasant thought but it is possible. But if you lose your image files you cannot get them back. Those are moments in time that will never happen again. You need to back them up.

It is important to understand that your Catalog does NOT hold your image files. Yes, you import them into the Catalog but this merely creates reference pointers to the physical files on the drive. If you move or delete one of those files you will see Lightroom complain by putting the missing file icon in the upper right corner of your thumbnail in the Grid. So what should you do?

One excellent resource I've mentioned before is dpBestflow.org. Go there and read all about what a good backup workflow requires. I would also recommend Peter Krogh's excellent work The DAM Book which covers everything you ever wanted to know about Digital Asset Management. Peter proposes the 3-2-1 Backup System. Three copies on two different types of media with one copy offsite. This is sound backup practice. You should adopt the mindset that any important file (such as an irreplaceable image) doesn't exist at all UNLESS it exists in three places. There are numerous solutions for backing your system up. Cloning software such as SuperDuper, Carbon Copy Cloner, or NovaBackup can help to to easily backup your entire drive. Offsite solutions such as Carbonite can help with the offsite solution. What ever you choose make sure you back everything up on a regular basis.

A note about Time Machine: Mac users are familiar with Time Machine which will automatically backup changes on a regular basis. The problem is that too many users either turn this functionality off or use it manually. This often leads to large gaps in your backup strategy. Time Machine is an excellent short term solution but only if you let it do its job. I would not rely on it for long term backups.

For all the other pieces of Lightroom I'll direct you to Matt "The Photo Geek" Dawson's great plugin LR Backup. Not only will this grab all of those little Lightroom bits it also solves the issue of the ever growing Lightroom Catalog backup. Lightroom will backup your Catalog but it is up to you to weed out the old backups or they'll continue to pile up. Matt's plugin helps with that.

I love helping readers with whatever Lightroom issues they have. But I really don't like it when I have to say, "I'm sorry. There's nothing we can do without a backup. Those images are gone." So do your research and adopt a sound backup strategy. Then make sure you actually put it into practice. Like any new behavior it will be bothersome or uncomfortable at first. Stick with it, though. Soon it will be second nature. And when your drive crashes (and it will) you will be able to get back up and back to work.