Guillermo Esteves’s profile photo.

Guillermo Esteves

Jackson Hole, Wyoming

How I back up my Lightroom catalogs

In general, I keep all my photos in a single Lightroom catalog, organized by date. This catalog, and the photos in it, reside in my Dropbox folder, and is backed up by Time Machine frequently, which gives me a couple levels of redundancy if something were to happen to my laptop. I keep the final, full-size, edited JPGs in iCloud, Flickr, and my own website, so I have ways to retrieve them if I have to.

However, keeping this one catalog around means it can get pretty huge over time, which is a problem because I don’t have unlimited space in either my Dropbox account or my laptop’s hard drive. I almost never revisit old photos, so most of the raw files in the catalog are just taking space for no real reason, except in the rare case I need to submit them as part of some photography competition. This means I’m happy to move my raw files out of my laptop to save space, as long as I still have access to them when needed; to do this, I follow this process more or less once a year, and every time I have to re-remember how to do it, so I might as well write it down here in case it’s useful to others.

The TL;DR

Step 1: Exporting the past year’s photos as a new Lightroom catalog

Once a year, usually at the beginning of the year, I go into Lightroom, select all the photos from the previous year by right-clicking on the year’s folder, and export them as a new catalog, ensuring “export negative files” is selected.

A context menu in Lightroom, with the "export this folder as a catalog" option selected.

This creates a new catalog, including all the raw files for all the photos from that year, in a new folder elsewhere on my computer. From there, I copy them to at least two external hard drives, so I have some redundancy if something were to happen to them (ideally one of them should be kept offsite). If I ever need to look at these catalogs, for example to grab the raw files as I mentioned above, I can simply plug in the drive, do what I need to do, then put it away again.

Step 2: Uploading the new catalog to Amazon Glacier

Next, I upload these catalogs to Glacier for long-term storage. This is optional, but I like the peace of mind of having this as a last resort if I were to lose all my external drives somehow.

The first step is to create a DMG image of the folder containing the new catalog and all its photos, by opening Disk Utility, selecting File > New Image > Image from Folder, and selecting the appropriate folder. I leave the default checkboxes checked; I don’t think compressing the image does much but I leave that on, and I don’t encrypt the image, but you may do so if you want. This will take a while, and at the end I have a .dmg file somewhere on my system.

The Disk Utility app in macOS, with a dialog open to save a new image.

To upload these files to Glacier, I use an app called Freeze, which makes the process a snap. It requires setting up an AWS user for it with the appropriate permissions to access Glacier (which I will leave as an exercise to the reader). With that user’s access key and secret set up in Freeze, I’ve created a new vault in Glacier to store my catalogs, and then it’s a simple process of dragging the DMG files into the vault and waiting for the uploads to complete.

The Freeze app for macOS, showing a couple of uploads in progress.

Step 3: Reclaim hard drive space

Once the catalogs and their photos have been copied to the external drives and uploaded to Glacier, I delete those photos from the main catalog and remove them from my computer to clear up that space. And that’s it!

Caveats

That said, this strategy has worked well for me so far, and I feel it strikes a good balance between having access to old photos, keeping them safe, and preserving space on my laptop’s hard drive.

← More articles