Traveling with Lightroom: Moving images between two computers

When I’m on the road scouting locations or leading workshops, I use my MacBook Pro as my field computer. I store my images on a portable USB 3 hard drive and I use Lightroom on my laptop to manage, keyword, and process images.

The challenge with this approach is that Lightroom by its very nature is a single-user application. Unless you store your Lightroom catalog file on a portable drive, it means that you’re going to have to set up two catalogs: one on your main computer and one on your laptop. Keywords and adjustments are not stored in your images unless you use DNG files, so simply copying the images from the laptop to your desktop computer won’t preserve all your Lightroom adjustments.

The solution I use is to do the following while in the field:

I keep my Lightroom catalog on the laptop’s internal drive (a fast SSD for maximum performance). My images are stored on the external drive, using the same directory structure that I use on my main computer. In this case, the basic directory structure is Pictures/Year/. This matches the top-level directory on my main image storage drive on my desktop computer.

It’s important to keep the top-level directory naming the same if you want to have your images imported to your main hard drive in the same organizational structure. When I get home from my travels, I use the Lightroom Library module to select the folder(s) of images I wish to transfer, right-click, and choose “Export as Catalog.” This creates a separate catalog file of just the folder(s) you selected. Since my images are already on my external drive, I don’t check the “export negative files” option. If you saved your images your laptop’ internal drive, you’ll need to export them, too.

Use the "Export this Folder as Catalog" feature in Lightroom to save your image adjustments and metadata to an external drive.
Use the “Export this Folder as Catalog” feature in Lightroom to save your image adjustments and metadata to an external drive. Check the “Export negative files” box if the images aren’t already saved to your portable drive.

Next, connect your portable drive to your desktop computer and launch your normal Lightroom catalog. Use the “Import from Another Catalog” command to import your images. In the dialog box, you can specify where to copy the negative files (images).

Use the Import options to move your images from the portable drive to your main computer.
Use the Import options to move your images from the portable drive to your main computer. As long as the top-level directories match between the two drives, you won’t need to specify a sub-folder as the destination.

Depending on the number of images being copied, the import process may take awhile. Once it’s complete, you’ll see all your images with their keywords, labels, and adjustments intact in your main catalog.

Download my complete Lightroom Tutorials here.


9 thoughts on “Traveling with Lightroom: Moving images between two computers”

  1. Holy smokes, this was absolutely perfect timing. Now I can transfer all my photos from your class in Texas over to my desktop. Thanks so much!

  2. A variation you might want to consider, is to put your lightroom catalog into dropbox. I do this and it even works between my macbook pro and a big windows machine I have at home.

    My workflow is similar to your, but slightly simpler now… When traveling, the raw files go on an external drive, the catalog automatically syncs over dropbox and is my main lightroom catalog.

    When I get home I synch the raw files to my main machine using goodsync. The catalog usually is already synchronised by the time I get home. All I have to do in the Library module is to point lightroom either at the external hard drive for the mac, or the location on my D: drive at home where my main raw files are kept.

    This removes the need to do the whole export thing. Also as an added bonus, thanks to smart previews, I now always have the ability to work on any photograph in my catalog (even in the develop module) on those long flights…

  3. Jason;
    Thanks for this video and the many others you have done. When you say you bring the images to the portable HD, do you just copy them or convert to dng?
    David Arkin

  4. Jason;
    I have been rewatching your video and I finally get it. Your method is so simple and it works. Thank you for putting it together.
    My hope is too put images on my external HD but also use my laptop’s HD to store duplicates of the images on the external HD. This would be my belt and suspenders security method. First do you make a second copy of the images on your external HD? If you do so do you need to check the box “export negative files” if you have second copy. I would store the export locate on the external HD and also import the locate from the external HD.

    Sorry for being so long winded.

    Thanks again….David

  5. If you wanted to do that, then I’d start with the images on the laptop internal HDD, and then check the “export negative files” box during catalog export.

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