Rebuilding The Lightroom

Posted on June 28, 2021 by psu

Back in the late 90s I bought a pair of books called Darkroom and Darkroom 2 originally published in the late 70s that interviewed a couple of dozen “fine art” photographers about the nature of their work in black and white darkrooms. In retrospect the 70s and 80s were probably a peak, of sorts, for fine art photographers who worked in black and white darkrooms. This peak held on through to the 90s, with enthusiastic enthusiasts still willing to gobble up behind the scenes “how to” information about building a perfect room in your house to sit alone in the dark to make pictures. This enthusiasm started to wane by the end of the 90s and then was completely destroyed by the consumer digital SLR in the early 2000s and now you never hear about people’s darkrooms anymore except when they are selling the pieces on ebay.

This timing is an interesting personal coincidence for me because my personal digital picture archive stretches back to exactly around 2002 when I started using a shitty digital point and shoot for kid pictures while still shooting black and white film with my “real cameras”. It is notable that I still have most of the digital pictures, but never look at the film ones at all.

My working method with these pictures was never really that interesting. Until about 2007 I used an ad-hoc and cobbled together set of tools to store a year or two of full sized pictures on my laptop and work with reduced size pictures on my web site. Older pictures were offloaded to an iMac with a larger disk and various other backup media. I stuck with this year at a time kind of scheme until around 2015 when laptop disks started to get big enough to store more pictures at once on the laptop.

After 2007 I started using Lightroom as a single tool that did all three previous jobs. Since then I have moved from Lightroom to Lightroom and never really thought about it. I even stuck with the tool after Adobe committed the unforgivable sin of switching to a more sustainable subscription-based business model in the 2010s. For better or worse Lightroom had my data in it, and I didn’t want to move it.

Of course, the Lightroom landscape has been a bit confusing in the past few years. Let me summarize…

  1. First, the subscription Lightroom became “Lightroom CC” … for Creative Cloud (barf).

  2. Then Adobe released a simplified and mobile-syncing version of Lightroom that is completely different from the old Lightroom. And confusingly called that Lightroom CC and called the old one Lightroom “Classic” or “Classic CC” (I think, I can’t actually remember). I think this convention bounced back and forth multiple times.

  3. Since that was confusing, later they changed it up again and called the new Lightroom CC just “Lightroom” and the old one just “Lightroom Classic”. So it all ended up in a good place.

I watched all this with detached amusement and ignored it because this new Cloud (Fog) tool seemed half baked and using a far away server as the way to get pictures from one device to another device when both devices are in my house always seemed dumb.

So of course in around 2019 I started to noodle with using the new Lightroom as my main tool because using a far away server to get pictures from my phone to my laptop even though they are both in my house right next to each other is actually easier than any other possible solution … sigh. I waited 10 years for something better and it never came, so I gave up.

I ran the catalogs for my 2019 pictures in parallel for a while until it was clear this new Lightroom did most of the things that I needed it to do. Digital cameras are so good these days that even a photo dork’s needs for elaborate post processing are pretty limited now. My main gripes about the new tool are that the navigation through the user interface is weird, they moved a few key commands around, and there is no clear way to make a local backup of a catalog (more on this later), although backing up the photos so you can remake a catalog (except for albums) later is easy enough.

After a couple of years with the new tool, and a new laptop where I could store all of the picture files in one place, I also finally got started on a project that I had been putting off for ten years or so: rebuilding the old reduced sized picture albums I had made in the early 2000s before disk space was infinite. This is where you really find out how different the new and old tools are.

My old catalogs are split into three groups: one catalog covers all the old pictures that I did not split into single years between around 2001 and 2004. Then there is one LR catalog per year until 2015. And then 2015 to 2018 are all in one catalog.

Old Lightroom to new Lightroom migration is mostly straightforward except for the following hiccups:

  1. In old Lightroom catalogs stored only meta-data and album/file structure, not the photo files themselves. This means that various bits of auxiliary data could be stored both in the LR catalog and in the file system so they would be constantly out of sync. The migration engine is picky about this, so you are in for some tedium in trying to get rid of these conflicts before moving things.

  2. You can only migrate a given catalog once. So don’t fuck up.

  3. Sometimes the migration engine will tell you that it migrated 0 pictures, when it actually copied all of them. I’m not sure what this means, but it’s a bit upsetting.

  4. Related to the above, after migrating a catalog you can’t migrate copies of the catalog, or copies of the copies. So if you made new catalogs from year to year by copying the old one and removing all the pictures you will be sad. Luckily you can workaround this by making a new catalog in old LR and importing the original catalog into it, and then migrating that. Sigh.

  5. Most migrated pictures seem to start in a state where they have “legacy” settings, which makes new Lightroom throw up a warning which you have to click off by hand before you can edit them. Sadly there is no way that I can find to clear this flag except picture by picture. Which is kinda tedious if you have around 70K pictures.

  6. Finally, some obscure bits of meta-data, like old camera profiles, migrate to the desktop version of the new LR but not the mobile versions. And again, because of the warning above there is no easy way to fix this in a big batch in the new LR. So it’s best to do as much of this batch editing as you can in the original catalog before moving it.

Overall the migration process is pretty painless and except for the very earliest catalogs had the advantage that it brought over my old albums so I did not have to go through the pictures one by one and rebuild those. It takes a few minutes to suck in the original files, and then a few hours to sync them to the fog.

I did have to spend a bit of time reconstructing the oldest albums (2002-2006 or 7) and while this is a sort of tedious exercise in principle, in practice it turned out to be great fun to reacquaint myself with what I was interested in taking pictures of back them. It’s mostly kid pictures, and a lot of people who I have not seen as much of lately for various reasons. If you ever have time to do a leisurely scan of your old photographs I recommend it. It was also an opportunity to add some photos that I edited out before for various reasons, but mostly because I tried not to have too many similar pictures of things taking up space. Now space is not really a concern, so I can toss a few extras in for the fun of it. There were also a lot of pictures that I just missed before, so overall this whole exercise has been enlightening and fulfilling.

I also have to say that the old D100 and the D70 cameras were incredible machines for the time. I have been constantly amazed as how well those old image files hold up. The D200 is a distinct step down in many ways. And of course the D700 was a big step up. Having looked through all these old pictures I also conclude that I probably could have just shot JPEGs this whole time. And yet I still shoot camera RAW files with my new non-iPhone cameras. Stupid brains.

The only remaining bit of anxiety that I have with this new tool is the lack of a more transparent local backup solution. This was my major reason for not moving to it before, and at some point I just decided to solve the problem later rather than worry about it now.

In theory the Adobe Lightroom web service is the backup. But we all know better than to trust that to work out, given the fog and all. You can tell the desktop version of the new LR to store a copy of each original in your local file system. But this is more to facilitate offline editing and exporting at full resolution than backups. The new Lightroom explicitly forbids you from copying your local library to a new machine and then opening it there. Instead you have to login to the service on the new machine and download the catalog from there.

This weird and arbitrary limitation is similar to the strange thing about only being able to migrate an old LR catalog once, even though it’s actually easy to migrate an old catalog as many times as you want. It feels like a UI decision dictated by some obscure part of their database schema rather than being something that you would want to do on purpose.

I think what I will end up doing is exporting copies of all the pictures that are in the yearly albums so that one could easily make a new catalog from those, so at least I have a second backstop for the most important stuff.

Or, maybe I’ll do a backup export of all the photos, but as JPEGs or HEIFs instead of RAW. This has the twin advantages of both being more universally readable and baking in the current processing parameters. Even with the great job Adobe has done preserving my processing instructions there are still some subtle differences caused by the evolution of their imaging engines … so baking in the current state is not a bad tradeoff to make.

In any case, after all this work it will be nice to have full resolution versions of all the old pictures, and some new old pictures besides. In addition to looking better just by being full size, they also look better because I could not resist tweaking them a bit to match how I make pictures look more recently.

In this way the spirit of the old darkrooms lives on in the new Lightroom.