Lightroom on Multiple Computers With Catalog Export / Import

Warning: Seriously Lightroom techie stuff ahead!

The Setup

One of the deficiencies that Lightroom has always had is the ability to share catalogs or have multiple people being able to work on the same catalog of images at the same time. This is the sort of feature that is normally reserved for a big imaging house you may think, but then one day, like me, you decide you want to do some key-wording on the train to work and realize that it’s not so easy to copy your 2G catalog and of course the 200G of images with it, and 30G of previews. So what’s the solution?

I asked this a while back to a photography podcast and they basically said “whatchu talkin’ bout Willis?” 🙁 So I had to come out with a solution for myself.

Now this isn’t the most elegant solution in the world, nor is it a fix for the use case of having multiple users using the same catalog at the same time. This is for a single user with the following situation:

  • Has a central computer with a master Lightroom catalog and negatives
  • Has a secondary computer (ie: a laptop)

This technique will let you to take a subset of images from the master catalog, work on them (key-wording, editing, etc) and then merge the changes back into the master Lightroom catalog.

Here’s the short version:

  • Export the images including negatives from the master catalog
  • Copy the folder to your other computer
  • Work on the images
  • Copy the folder back to the master catalog
  • Import the folder back into Lightroom

1: Exporting Images

First step is to select the images from the shoot and export them into a catalog. This will put the master images (negatives), previews, and catalog info (ie: all the changes already done to the images) into a single folder. In this case I’m selecting the last shoot I did, a dance based shoot that I helped out on with the Metro Vancouver Photography Workshops by selecting the folder in lightroom, hitting “select all”, and then going to File -> Export as Catalog:

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In the options dialogue, ensure that you select both ‘Include available previews’ and ‘Export negative files’. The first option ensures that any already created previews are copied over (why make your laptop re-create them again) and the second allows you to do edits to the images (instead of the dreaded ‘image not found’ error).

Note that the second will soon not be needed. One of the big new features of Lightroom 5 (currently in beta) is a so-called smart previews. When Lightroom 5 is released you’ll have one less checkbox to check when doing this.

Select a location and type in a name. I generally choose the desktop (Lightroom won’t let you export to a shared network folder or these three steps would only be two) and a folder name recognizable like “[modelname]-[YYYY]-[MM]”.

When the export is done you’ll have a folder with your catalog file, images previews, and the negative files.

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Before you can move to step 2 you have to get the folder over to your laptop. You can do this with a USB drive, AirDrop, FTP, or whatever your choice is. Remember that the folder could be pretty big, so use a method that’s not going to take too long (ie: use a wired connection instead of wifi, etc).

Tip: Once the file transfer is complete, I’ve started renaming the folder to “[foldername]-out” to remind myself that the folder is now on the other computer (helps avoid confusion when files come back to the computer).

2: Importing Images

Now the images are on your secondary computer, it’s pretty simple. Double click on the “.lrcat” file and it will open up Lightroom with your catalog loaded up. You’ll be able to rate, keyword, and edit at will. As long as you use lightroom “normally”, you’ll be able to edit images in an external editor as well (ie: edit in Photoshop, export to HDR and edit in Nik’s HDR Efex or Photomatix or similar plugins that create a .PSD or .TIF file). As long as the resulting images are saved with the original negative files, and they are by default, all is well.

Screen Shot 2013-06-04 at 11.17.54 PM

Ok, all done? The train trip or vacation is over and you want to re-integrate all the images back into the master catalog on your main computer.

Quit Lightroom and then use your method of choice to copy the folder that you copied to your second computer back. Same as before, use a USB key, AirDrop, etc.

Note: Before you can copy the catalog folder back to the main computer, you must quit Lightroom. If not when you try to import the catalog back it will be detected and won’t let you import due to the database being locked.

Renaming or tagging the folder on your secondary computer somehow to indicate that it’s been copied back to the master catalog will help here as well, the worst thing that can happen in this little dance is forgetting what’s imported, exported, edited, or not, and deleting the wrong folder, or re-importing the wrong one.

3. Re-Importing Into the Master Catalog

Ok, this is the last step. You’ve exported a set of images, edited them on another computer, and then copied the catalog back to your master Lightroom catalog. In Lightroom you need to go to the file menu and choose “Import from another catalog”. This will open up a file chooser where you can navigate to the catalog you copied over at the end of step 2 and select the .lrcat file.

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You’ll get a few options next for what to do with the new catalog.  Lightroom will detect if there are changed images and highlight how many there are.  Lets go around the dialog…

  • Top Left – the folders that you’re importing images from
  • Middle Left – File handling, you want to set this to “copy new photos to a new location and import” and very importantly set the folder where to copy them to.  I select the folder that contains the existing master files for this set of images.
  • Bottom Left – The Replace dropdown is probably needing to be set to “Metadata and develop settings only”.  The “Metadata, develop settings and negative files” will replace all the original negative files as well, which isn’t really needed.  This will update any develop / ratings and metadata changes you’ve made, and the “File Handling” setting will ensure that any new images are added.
  • Right – a grid of the images highlighting the ones that are changed (similar to the standard import dialogue showing already-imported images)
  • Bottom Right – Hit the big Import button when you’re done.

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When you hit import the new catalog will be merged into the master catalog, new files will be copied in, metadata and development settings will replace any in the existing catalog, and all your vacation / train ride images will now be updated and in your master catalog.  Yay!

At this point I’ve started to delete (well, move to the trash anyway) the “[catalogname]-out” folder from step 1 and the catalog copied back from the secondary computer.  This stops me from wondering “did I re-merge that catalog back in?” and “is this the old version or the new version?”  I’ll also remove the catalog from the secondary computer for the same reason.


Most of the things to watch out for are procedural, and not technical. That said, coming up with hard and fast procedures for yourself will help prevent a lot of pain.

  • I’ve had more than one case of forgetting if a catalog has been re-imported back into my master catalog or not, and have had to go through images on both computers at once to see which one had the newest changes.
  • Worse I’ve deleted an completed catalog off of both the second computer and the master computer, thinking it had been imported back in when it hadn’t. Thank heavens for time machine backups!
  • When re-importing images back to the master catalog new images (i.e.: stitched panoramas) will go into a sub-folder structure under the folder you choose, which could leave you with extra folders under your folders
  • This is not a real solution for “true” multi-user user of Lightroom
  • Not reasonable for large catalogs unless you have lots of disk space (remember when you export negatives, you need that same amount of disk space free again).

Most of the gotchas are procedures, and if you make a rule that you only delete a folder after it’s imported, or you never leave a file copy to do something else (so you don’t forget which files are where) these issues are easy to mitigate.


Lightroom isn’t ready for “true” multi-user work, and won’t be until Adobe makes it so. It’s not an easy problem to solve, with network concurrency, dependency resolution, conflict detection and resolution, and all sorts of things that are big and scary. However, for a single user who is willing to put up with learning a few simple steps (helpfully outlined above 😉 ), there are workarounds using the built in functionality to allow you to slice off a chunk of your catalog, work on it, and then merge it back.