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Using Lightroom on Two Computers

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Video Transcript

One of the common questions about Lightroom is, “How the heck can I use it on two computers?” Let’s say you have a home or studio computer where you do most of your work and you also have a laptop that you take while traveling, and you’d like to use Lightroom on both of them and keep your photos and catalogs synchronized between them. Now, this can be a pretty intimidating prospect for a lot of people, so in this video we’ve going to try and simplify it.

First of all – if you’re wondering – yes, you are allowed to install Lightroom on two computers. You’re just not allowed to run both copies simultaneously. That’s the license agreement. So there are a number of different ways you can use Lightroom on two computers. I’m going to describe three of the more common ways.

The first way – which I’ll just mention briefly because it’s pretty self-explanatory – is to simply get an external hard drive. Put all your photos and your Lightroom catalog on that drive. Then, when you’re at home, you connect that drive to your home computer and when you travel you take that with you and connect it to your laptop. That way all your photos and your Lightroom catalog are with you all the time. And of course you’ll probably also want a duplicate external hard drive to serve as a backup, in case your travel drive gets lost or stolen.

It’s pretty straight forward, but many people don’t want that much hardware or don’t want to carry that extra drive around. So I’m going to tell you my two favorite methods that don’t require an external drive. I tend to think about them as the heavy-duty method, which I call the duplicate files method, and a more lightweight elegant way, which I call the import/export method. And I’ve used both of these successfully in the past. Now, I think of the duplicate files method as a heavy-duty technique because it involves keeping a complete duplicate set of your photos and your Lightroom catalog on both computers. Now, I like working this way for three reasons. It automatically provides an extra back-up copy for safety of all my photos and my Lightroom catalog on my laptop. An extra backup copy is never a bad thing to have. The second reason I like this method is mean I always have access to all my photos, no matter where I am. And that can be pretty handy. Third, it’s easy to understand. Just two identical copies of everything. That’s pretty straightforward. But it obviously requires a laptop with a lot of disc space. Now, some people would say this is an inelegant, brute-force approach to the problem, and maybe they’re right. Nevertheless, this method served me well for many years and many miles of road travel. So here are the keys for making the duplicate files method work.

First, you must keep an identical file structure for your photos on both of your computers, so let’s say this is my home computer and the one on the bottom is my laptop. You can see it follows the same path, the folder structure, from photos to the year to the month to the event and it has exactly the same structure on both. And I won’t bother explaining now why organizing this particular way because I go into that in great detail in my Lightroom course. But whatever structure you keep your photos organized in, just make sure it’s identical on both of your computers.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to keep all the actual photos there on your laptop if you don’t have the space. You could just choose to put a small subset of them on there, the ones you might like to work with while you’re traveling. But whichever photos you do put on your laptop, or any that you add to it while you’re traveling, they need to be in exactly the same file structure that you would put them on your home computer.

The next step is to simply copy your Lightroom catalog files from one computer to the other. But, be careful. Don’t do this with Lightroom open and running. If you see these files with the name “journal” and “lock,” that means your Lightroom software is open and running. You never want to copy the catalog while the files are open. So make sure you close Lightroom. I’m going to close it right now. Now, you see those files went away. Now I can actually see here in Lightroom 4, there are just two catalog files. There’s one called “Catalog Previews.lrdata.” Those are the image previews. And the one called “Catalog.lrcat,” that’s the catalog itself. You want to copy both of those from your home computer to your road computer and let it override the files that are there.

Now, if you’re using Lightroom version 5 or later, it might look a little different. You might have three catalog files, because in Lightroom 5 a new feature came along called Smart Previews, so you might or might not have a Smart Previews folder as well. If you have one of those, then you copy all three files to the new computer. The “previews.lrdata,” “Smartpreviews.lrdata,” and the “lrcat” file, which is the actual catalog file. Just take those three, copy them to your laptop and let them override the files that are there.

Now, this is important. Please, always make a backup copy of your catalog files on both of your computers, before you copy files from one computer to another. This is your insurance against doing something dumb, like copying them in the wrong direction and accidentally overriding your new catalog with an old version. Now, that would be a disaster. So please, make a backup copy in a separate folder or some safe location, before you copy any files anywhere. This is just common sense.

Of course you’ll also want to copy any photos that you’ll want to work with over to the laptop. Now, as I mentioned, I keep a complete duplicate set of all my photos on both computers. And I use a program called SugarSync to keep them automatically synchronized at all times. But you can just do it manually if you prefer. And you can copy over as many or as few as you want to your laptop for travel. Just be sure to keep the structure the same, as we discussed earlier. Later, when you get back home, you just reverse the process. Now, after making a backup copy for safety of your Lightroom catalog files on both of your computers, you simply copy the updated catalog files from your laptop, copy them over to your home computer and let them override the old version that’s there. I’m not going to actually do it here, but you get the idea.

And then of course you would copy any new folders full of photos that you added while you were on the road to the appropriate folders on your home computer. And that’s it. Then, when you open Lightroom on your home computer, it will look exactly as it did on your laptop, with all your photos and all the editing and keywording that you did while you were on the road. So this method may be a brute-force technique, but it’s worked well for me for many, many years.

Now here’s the second method. A more lightweight method. I will call it the import/export method. This method doesn’t involve actually duplicating and overriding your catalog files. Instead, you use a Lightroom feature called “export as catalog” to move little mini catalogs from one computer to another and then to integrate them. Now this is certainly a more elegant solution, but it’s also more confusing for some people, so let’s see if we can make it simple. With the import/export method, you’re not concerned with keeping the catalogs identical on both your computers. They can be entirely different.

Now on your laptop you can just work with whatever catalog you already had there, or some people like to create a new, empty catalog every time they go on the road. A catalog just dedicated to this one trip. You can create a new empty catalog if you like, just by going to the “file” menu, pick “new catalog,” and then just give it a name. You can save it in whatever location you save your other Lightroom catalogs. While you’re traveling you go ahead and import any new photos that you take, and you do all the stuff like you would do in Lightroom like keywording and metadata and editing of photos. Then when you get back home, you go over here in the left panel of the library module in Lightroom and you right click on the folder that you want to export. You say, “Export this folder as a catalog.” Now I’m actually going to use a different folder, because this one has almost 300 images and that will take awhile, so I’m just going to pick this one below which only has 22 images. Good photo of me and my dad drinking big beers somewhere! So I’m going to use this one for my example because I don’t want to have to wait for it to do 300 images.

So I’m going to right-click and I’m going to say, “Export this folder as a catalog.” Then I’m just going to give it the same file name it already has. And you can see you have a couple of little options down here. First checkbox says, “Export negative files,” which is Lightroom’s very confusing way of asking you if you wanted to include the photos themselves in this exporting catalog. And I see no reason why not. You might as well let Lightroom just move the files for you from one computer to the other. So I leave that checked. I also leave this one checked that says, “Include available previews,” because if you don’t, then Lightroom will have to regenerate the previews on your home computer. So why not just leave both of those checked. Then say, “Export as catalog.” Then it’s done. And then you simply go to the location where you saved that folder. You can put it anywhere – on your desktop, or in this case I just put it in my pictures folder. You can see it’s here. It creates a folder when it exports, and it has three things in that folder. It has the “previews.lrdata,” which are the image previews, it has the “lrcat” which is the catalog, and then it actually has a folder with subfolders that actually contain the pictures, because I left that box checked.

So then you want to take this folder and copy it over to your home computer. Now this is important. When you move this little temporary catalog folder that you’ve exported over onto your home computer, put it in the location where you keep all your photos. Put it at the parent-level where you keep all your photos. In my case it’s this one called “pictures.” On your computer it may be something different, but that’s the folder that contains all my photos, and you can see over here in my Lightroom tree, you can see “pictures” as the parent folder and inside that I have my “photos” folder and then all the months and all the years and all that stuff. So I’ve just found by trial and error experience that if I don’t put it in this parent-level folder where I keep all my photos, it gets the path all wrong when I try to import from it in Lightroom. So now I always put them in this folder. Again, yours may be a different name. Maybe you keep your photos somewhere else. But whatever the parent level is, where you keep all your photos, drop that little folder in there, before you go to try and import it into Lightroom and it will save you a lot of hassles about getting the path all wrong.

Then, you go over to your home computer and you pick “file,” “import from another catalog,” and you find that folder – your exported catalog folder – and then you pick on the catalog file itself, the one called “lrcat.” You choose it, and it gives you some options. It tells you there are 22 photos in here. I just leave both of these things checked. And then it gives you some file handling options that are similar to what you do when you’re importing photos. Now, if you had copied the photos over manually to your home computer, you could tell it to add photos to the catalog without moving them. But I actually had Lightroom include the photos in that exported folder. So I’m going to have it copy them from that location into their proper location in my new catalog. So I’m going to put “copy photos to a new location and import.”

Now this is where it can get a little tricky. Because what Lightroom is going to do – when it imports these photos – it’s going to create this whole path that it shows here: pictures, photos, the year, the month, and the folder name. So the location you want to tell it to import them needs to be one folder higher in your tree than this structure. You can see right now, it’s saying it’s going to copy it to this location, and that won’t work. That would duplicate the folder called “pictures,” so I would have “Users, Phil, pictures, pictures,” photos, blah, blah, blah. So you have to be sure you choose the right location. So I’m going to tell it to bring them to the top level. Choose that. Now I know it’s going to be the right path because it’s going to go to “Users, Phil, pictures, photos, year, month, folder.” This is the tricky part, and why some people find this method pretty confusing. You can get your files pretty messed up. Good thing is, if you mess it up, you can just remove it again and import it again. Remove it again, and import it again until you get it right. But these issues are why some people find my other brute force method a little simpler.

You also have some options down here, which it’s not showing me at the moment, but it would if it found existing photos. Say I had taken some photos with me on the road that I had already edited in Lightroom and I edited some more on the road and then I brought them back with me. It would give me some options here about what I wanted to do with them. Did I want to overwrite the older versions with the newer edits? Or there’s also kind of a cool option that will let you keep the edit but keep the older version as a virtual copy. That’s kind of slick. But we don’t have any in this condition, so it’s not showing me those options. So I’m just going to say “import,” now. And here it is, exactly like it was on my laptop. Now, it’s present and duplicated on my home computer. And if you had Lightroom copy the photos to their new, proper location like I just did, now you can go back and just actually delete that little catalog file that you used to make the transfer. It was just sort of a temporary storage vessel for the photos and the Lightroom edits, to get them from one catalog into the other.

Now, before we wrap up, I’d like to mention one little new wrinkle that came into this picture with the introduction of Lightroom 5, and a new feature in there called “Smart Previews.” This is something you might choose to use in conjunction with the import/export method. Basically, in Lightroom 5 and later, you can travel with what they call Smart Previews. When you don’t have space to carry your original raw files with you, but you still want to be able to edit your photos when you travel. Now this is a big topic in of itself. It’s worthy of a whole video of its own, and in fact I have a whole video on it in my “Lightroom Made Easy” course. So if you want to learn more about Smart Previews, you can check it out there.

So whichever way you choose to do it – either my heavy-duty way or the import/export way – I hope this video helps you take Lightroom with you when you travel.