Everything you do inside Lightroom, from adding keywords to making tonal adjustments, is recorded into Lightroom’s catalog file. Therefore, it’s crucial that you take good care of the catalog file and keep it backed up to protect yourself from data loss.

Highlighting the importance of the catalog, Lightroom contains a built-in function inside the Catalog Settings dialog box that allows you to schedule how often to run backups. When the backup process runs, it saves a working copy of your current catalog to a location of your choosing. It’s important to understand that the only thing backed up in this process is the catalog file. Lightroom doesn’t provide a function to back up your photos, which means that you need to back those up using a different application outside of Lightroom. Adobe assumes that you already have a full system-backup process in place that takes care of all your important data.

Let’s go through the steps for configuring the backup schedule:

Go to Lightroom > Catalog Settings on Mac or Edit > Catalog Settings on Win to open the Catalog Settings dialog box (see Figure 1). While we’re here, take a look at the Information section of the General tab. Some key information about your catalog is displayed here, including the catalog’s location, filename, and size. If you ever need to open the folder containing the catalog file, just back come here and click the Show button.

Catalog Settings

In the Backup section on the General tab, click the arrow button to open the “Back up catalog” drop-down menu, and choose the frequency with which you want the backup to run (see Figure 2). This is where you need to make a decision. Should you ever need to use a backup copy to replace a lost or corrupt catalog, you’ll want it to be as fresh as possible. Your choices here range from “Never” (not advised) to “Every time Lightroom starts.” The frequency you choose should reflect how often you use Lightroom. If you’re working in Lightroom every day, backing up daily might be best. If you’re not using Lightroom that often, a weekly schedule probably would be a safe choice. Click OK.

Backup Menu

Lightroom 2 Tip

The backup process runs only when Lightroom 2 starts. If you’ve just put in a long day of work and want the security of backing up your catalog immediately, choose File > Catalog Settings, select “Every time Lightroom starts” from the list, click OK, and then close and restart Lightroom. Granted, that’s not an elegant solution, but until Lightroom has a “backup during shutdown” option, it’s the best you can do.

Lightroom 3 and up

There is a change in functionality in Lightroom 3 in regards to catalog backup. The backup function now runs on exit from Lightroom instead of on startup. This means that you can rest knowing that all the work you just did is backed up at the end of the session.

Lightroom 3 Beta Backup Schedule

When you launch Lightroom 2 or exit Lightroom 3+ and the timing corresponds to the backup schedule you selected, you’ll be prompted to back up, as shown.

Backup Dialog

One difference in Lightroom 3+ is that the relaunch and optimize function was added to the backup dialog box and removed from the Catalog Settings dialog. I suggest leaving this checked.

Lightroom 3 beta catalog backup

Follow these steps to make your backup:

If desired, click the Choose button to change the location where you want the backup copy to be saved. Navigate to the desired folder and select it. This is where you can tell Lightroom to save the catalog to a different drive.

Select the “Test integrity of this catalog” option. This feature is really the best reason to use Lightroom’s catalog backup function, as it can provide an early warning if there’s a problem in the catalog. Integrity testing adds a bit of extra time to the backup process, but I think it’s worth doing. I’ve seen cases where a catalog can become corrupted, but still be operational. The corruption isn’t detected until the backup process is run. If you have iterative backup copies to fall back on, you should be able to go back to an earlier, uncorrupted state.

Note: Every time the backup process runs, it creates a new copy of the catalog and ignores any existing backup copies. The upside of this approach is that in time you’ll have multiple iterations of catalogs that reflect different points in the catalog history. The downside is that, left unchecked, your catalog backups eventually will fill up that drive. With that issue in mind, choose a different drive then the one your working catalog is on and that has ample free space, and remember to delete outdated backup copies periodically. I typically delete all but the last two backups.

Click the Backup button to start the backup process. Lightroom warns you that the backup process can take several minutes. When the process is complete, Lightroom opens, or in the case of Lightroom 3+ shuts down.

If you’re pressed for time or want to just get to work rather than waiting for the backup, click the Skip Now button to bypass the backup process until the next time. Don’t skip too often, but it’s good to have the option.

Once you’ve set up your backups, you just need to remember to manage the backup copies as they grow.

Restoring from a backup catalog

Here’s hoping you never have to, but the process is very simple if you do:

  1. Close Lightroom
  2. Open the Lightroom folder containing your working catalog file in Finder/Windows Explorer.
  3. Move the “bad” catalog file out of that folder to another location for safe keeping.
  4. Move the “good” backup catalog copy into the Lightroom folder to replace the bad one.
  5. Double-click the catalog file to open it into Lightroom and take it for a test drive.