How to Save a Lightroom Catalog After an Epic Mistake

Hypothetically, picture yourself at the end of a long day of shooting photos, you’ve imported your shots into Lightroom (not Lightroom Classic), and you’re taking a few minutes to look through them. You remember my excellent advice for laying down a foundation for tagging and rating newly-imported files, which allows you to add keywords and star ratings to the whole batch to save time later.

That involves selecting all the files, and, as one example, setting them to one star as a baseline. When you do that with many files, an alert pops up to warn you that they will all be affected. But because you know what you’re doing, and you’ve done this before, you click OK without reading the text closely. Hang on, what was that number?

Then, hypothetically, you realize that at some point while you were perusing files, you switched to the All Photos view, not the Recently Added batch. And instead of applying one star to all of the new photos, you just changed the rating on all 42,000 photos in your library.

As you can guess by that unusually specific number, this wasn’t a hypothetical for me.

There were many more 4-star photos in my library previously.

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Normally, the correct response is to utter a curse word (or seven) and choose Edit > Undo. Unfortunately, Undo didn’t work in my situation, because I’d made other edits and actions for a while before I realized what I’d done.

So if, like me, you’re occasionally a doofus, here’s how to restore those lost ratings, or any grand goof that involves the entire library.

Turn to the Backup

The first step is to restore the Lightroom catalog (.lrlibrary) file, from Time Machine (on a Mac) or another backup. By default it’s located in the Pictures folder in your home folder. As a precaution, copy the current (goofed) file to an external drive or elsewhere, just in case, and then restore the backup. Note that I’m talking about just the catalog file, which includes all of the metadata and edit history of your library; you don’t need to restore any image files that are located elsewhere on disk.

Lightroom’s default behavior, though, is to store everything inside that catalog file, so depending on the size of your library, that could be a hefty copy operation. (I store most originals on an external hard drive, but even so, with thumbnails and other data, my catalog file was around 75 GB in size.)

This right here, by the way, is a great argument for ensuring you have a backup system in place that frequently backs up the catalog file.

Restoring an earlier catalog file doesn’t entirely solve the problem, though. In Lightroom, the Creative Cloud version is the canonical version; you can view it at lightroom.adobe.com. As soon as you relaunch the app, Lightroom starts syncing with the cloud and forces the 1-star ratings back on the images.

So, the very first action to take after opening Lightroom is to immediately:

• Click the cloud icon, and then click the Pause Syncing button.

Pause Lightroom’s syncing. Note here that my metadata isn’t my only current issue; I’ve filled the cloud capacity on my Creative Cloud plan. Even full, though, metadata and edits for existing images continue to sync.

Folders to the Rescue

With syncing suspended, we can start to repair the damage locally. To do that, we’ll create folders for each star rating except 1 star (since that’s what most everything is set at). I use all five star ratings in my organizational system, but you may use only two or three.

  1. Filter photos to view only those rated 5 stars: In the Filter bar, click the equal or greater than button once so that it becomes the = (equal) button. Then click the 5 stars.

Make sure the selector is set to “=” when filtering.

  1. Select all those images and create a new album called “5star,” and make sure the “Include the selected photos” checkbox is enabled.
  2. Do the same for 4-star, 3-star, and 2-star ratings.

Albums created, organizing the photos without relying on their ratings.

Now, with the photos separated according to their ratings, we don’t have to worry about the rating disappearing. Select All Photos to view everything, and then resume syncing.

The cloud will impose its own ratings on the images, which means all those high-rated images are still going to get kicked back down to one star. Let it proceed. You can tell by looking at the number of selected images when you filter by a rating, such as 3 stars; the number will start to go down as the cloud-synced 1-star rating is applied. This process will take some time. In this case, I set the filter to greater than or equal to 2 stars and waited until the count stopped dropping. Lightroom transfers just the metadata about the photos, not the image files themselves, so the process is relatively quick and not bandwidth-intensive.

That number ticked down like a bomb in a James Bond movie.

When the numbers stabilize, double-check Lightroom on the Web (lightroom.adobe.com) that the counts match for each star rating.

Undo the Damage

Next, select the 5star folder we created to view those images, all of which are now rated as one star. Choose Edit > Select All (or press Command/Ctrl-A), and apply the 5-star rating at the bottom of the screen.

To verify the change was made, select All Photos and filter for 5 stars.

Do the same for the other folders we created, and then let Lightroom sync the results back to the cloud in the background for a while. I’ve noticed that while the ratings are updated pretty quickly at Lightroom on the Web, the filters take longer to catch up, so don’t be surprised if at first filtering for 5 stars doesn’t display all the results, even though you can go to one of your five-star images and see the correct rating applied there.

Fixed! That’s the correct number of 5-star images in my catalog.

The lesson to be learned from all this is two-fold: be careful and attentive while assigning metadata to many images at once, and always always always have a recent backup of your Lightroom catalog.

  • How/where do you set Lightroom Classic to give the popup to warn you that you are about the change the rating on XXXXX number of photos? The only time I recall seeing something like that is when you have multiple images selected and make a change in the Develop module. And then it tells you that YYYYY number of photos have been modified as it is making the modification. It doesn’t warn me that it is about to do it (which would make more sense) so I can cancel. It makes the change and the popup says what it did.

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