Reducing the Lightroom Catalog size (significantly)

My Lightroom catalog contains something like 35k images at the moment, from 2007 when I first began to become more interested in photography (with my first DSLR, a Nikon D70) all the way up until today. The catalog size grew and grew and grew, all the way to 4.5GB. Backup and optimization where taking longer and longer.

One solution would of course be to split the catalog into multiple smaller catalogs, by date. That however defeats the purpose of having one searchable archive. If a client sends me a filename or thumbnail of a photo they’re interested in, I don’t want to search multiple catalogs until I find the file*.

So most recently, I went through a major cleanup and deleted about 2000 older images that actually never made the cut, but that I never rejected (market with the black X flag) immediately, either. Funny enough though, while deleting 2000 crappy photos freed a substantial amount of hard disk space, the catalog size didn’t change at all – even after using the “Optimize Catalog” feature. What the heck?

So I looked into things a little more, and it turns out that what really blows up the catalog is Lightroom’s Edit History – every single editing step is recorded in the catalog, and that sums up over time. I don’t know about you, but since Lightroom’s edits are always non-destructive anyway (meaning I can always revert to the original if I want), I really don’t need to retrace my editing steps once I’ve finalized these edits. So I just wanted to clear the entire edit history for the older folders in my library (I sort my photos by date).

WARNING: doing this will actually and really remove the edit history, as advertised. :-) So if you have information in there, placed by a plugin or whatever else, that may be useful to you (for example, when you last exported a photo), you will lose that information. Removing the Edit History will not remove the edits to the photo itself though. Your photos won’t change. It’s only the History of these edits.

Lightroom's Develop menu where you can clear the History
Lightroom’s Develop menu where you can clear the History

It’s not quite obvious how to zap the history for a large amount of photos, so here are the necessary steps:

  1. in the Library Grid view (press “G”) and select all images (Ctrl/Cmd+A).
  2. If you’re using image stacks, make sure to do the “double S” keyboard combo to first collapse, then expand all stacks. Then, press Ctrl/Cmd+A again to really select all images. ;-)
  3. Switch to the Develop module (press “D”)
  4. From the Develop menu (that’s important), select “Clear History” (clicking on the little X in the left-hand History panel will only delete the history of the active image, that’s why you need to use the menu – see screenshot)
  5. Lightroom will now ask if you want to clear the history only for the active, or for all selected photos – obviously, you want to clear it for all selected photos.

After I zapped the history for my photos from 2007-2010 (I kept it for 2011-2013 for now) and optimizing the catalog, the catalog size was down a whopping 1.2GB, from 4.5GB to 3.3GB. Nice!

If you found this tip helpful, you can buy me coffee. Thanks!

*) I do have different catalogs by topic/subjects, ie. one catalog for my real estate photography, another for landscapes. Wedding and event photographers often create a new catalog for each of their jobs – once they delivered the images to their client, they’ll hardly ever need them again. It depends on your individual preferences and the type of photography you do.

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2 Responses

  1. I have over 3 times as many photos (starting with a Coolpix 950 and later a D70s) and my catalog is about the same size as yours. I’ve always had the habit of undoing edits instead of letting the history grow. If I try multiple presets what’s the purpose of keeping them in my history?

    1. That works too. No single approach is right or wrong. Undoing edits for the sake of trimming the history would probably get in the way of my “flow” with too much thinking. I usually zap the Edit History every three months, once I’ve done the copyright registration for photos.

      And my LR catalog is now at ~9GB (the article was originally written in 2013). ;-)

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