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So this questions buzzes around in forums and blogs all the time.  How do I move my lightroom catalog from my laptop to my desktop (and then back again)?  The reality is there are many ways to go about it.  Some are "proper" and others are "jerry rigged".  But there are some pros and cons to each and some things to watch out for.  Read on to find the best way to avoid fatal mistakes.

Many people try and move their Lightroom catalogs back and forth between computers by actually copying and pasting files.  While this can work, it is prone to many issues and for the most part is more difficult anyway.  So how should we make the transfer?

Let's take the example of someone with a desktop computer and a laptop (which they may be using in the field, or on vacation, etc).  In this example you have not yet moved anything to your laptop yet.  Just follow these steps and you should be ok.

  1. Open up your Lightroom program and go to File>Export as Catalog.  This is going to create a full version of this catalog including meta, previews, and original images etc.
    1. Give the new export catalog a name like "export top laptop"
    2. You can now take that saved file and move it to your laptop via usb, web, disc, external drive, or whatever.
    3. I would place this export file in the location you want it to stay at.
  2. IMPORTANT! note that it will only export those "Folders" which you have selected.
    1. If you want to export the entire catalog then you need to select the top level folder which includes all other folders.
    2. If you just want to export certain folders then select them only
    3. even individual photos within different folders can be selected.
    4. Finally note the three checkbox options at the bottom of the export box - If you ONLY want to move information and not actual photos (for instance the images on both computers are identical but the development and tagging may have changed) then uncheck the negatives and previews boxes.  This will make the process much faster and files much smaller.



  3. Now open your Lightroom application on your lap and File>open catalog.   You will have to navigation to your new folder, then go inside and look for the catalog file (extension .lrcat)
  4. Now you should be up and running.  Go ahead and enjoy your vacation, make changes to images, flag, rank, develop and add new photos.

Now you have returned home.

  1. Follow the above steps and bring the Laptop export over to the desktop drive.
  2. Open Lightroom and go to File>Import from Catalog
  3. You will have a standard search box show up.  Browse to the exported folder and then select the .lrcat file inside.
  4. Now you will be presented with a dialog box with many options.
    1. You can move new files to a new location
    2. You can leave new files where they are
    3. Or skip new stuff all together
  5. note the checkbox for "existing files" where it say to create a "virtual copy" of previous settings.  this is kind of a failsafe.   You will end up with a virtual copy of all the photos with new META preserving the settings you had before you changed them on the laptop.  However you also will clutter up your catalog with a bunch of virtual copies.  Personal preference,, you'll have to figure this out for yourself.
  6. In any case, now you can import the laptop files into the desktop files.  Basically you are merging two catalogs together.


Going on another trip again?

  1. This time you will export your desktop catalog like before, BUT instead of just opening the new catalog on the laptop you would want to "import from catalog" on the Laptop to keep it in sync with the desktop.

Some other resources to help figure it out.

  • http://layersmagazine.com/working-with-database-catalogs-in-lightroom.html
  • http://media.kelbymediagroup.com/lightroomkillertips/video/podcasts/lightroom_laptopdesktop.m4v (this video is very good, but is outdated and may be missing some options).

So that was the "official way".   Here's another way which may have issues but I don't really know why it would.   I am not endorsing this because I simply don't know the answer.  if you have a reason why this would not work, please let me know.

Using basic backup and syncing programs which you can find for free on the web (I use "SyncBack") you can simply create a profile called "lightroom" which monitors ONLY your lightroom folder (containing the catalog, presets, etc) and your Photos (containing all your original photos).  When you leave you would hook your laptop to your desktop (or to make things easier run it all off an external HD) and simply let the sync move all the new information from your desktop to your laptop.  Then upon returning home you would then again let sync do it's thing and it would copy all files which have changed to the desktop (that would include your xmp files, catalog file, previews, etc.. so anything that was changed would be copied back over).

Once again.  Don't blame me if this doesn't work, but I have found no major issues.

Anyone with better ideas on migration and/or warnings about the above information please let me know in the comments area.  Thanks,

Your Instructor


My goal is always to teach WHY a technique works, not just HOW it's done. This is the fundamental difference between Big Sun training and most other photo courses who teach only by route. By learning the reasons behind the practice, you are able to move forward on your own, breaking away from the mundane and expanding your creativity.

 As with any service you should research what/whom you are investing in to ensure the right fit.

I encourage you to review my own work before signing up for any photography class.

Gene Tewksbury
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