I have just purchased Lightroom 4, and taking advantage of Adobe's enlightened two system licensing policy, I have it installed on a laptop and desktop PC. I take the laptop with me on trips and often edit photos while away. To save space, I usually transfer the raw files to a large external hard drive when I return home.

Naturally I would like to synchronise the photos (and thus the LR catalog file) between the two systems. When importing photos, I believe LR gives you the choice of copying them into the catalog, or merely referencing them. If I do the latter, I assume the catalog itself remains fairly small in size.

Assuming that's correct, what I plan on doing is keep the catalog on a USB stick (regularly backed up), and keep the photos on the external drive, which I can access either locally or over my home network. I can then use the catalog file merely as an 'index', and just plug in the stick in whichever of the two systems I happen to be working on.

My questions are:

  1. Is my assumption that using referenced photos keeps the LR catalog relatively small (i.e. small enough to fit on a USB stick) correct?
  2. If I edit photos on my laptop while I'm away, then transfer them to my external HDD when I get back, is it easy to update the location in the LR catalog so that both systems access them on the HDD?
  3. Is there a better way to do this without going through the rigmarole outlined in the top answer to this question?

EDIT: I should point out that my external HDD is a PITA to move because of how it is plugged in, so I'd rather not have to move it through to my desktop PC each time, hence my USB stick idea.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Pretty sure that's a duplicate. See answers here: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/1558/… \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 17, 2013 at 0:31
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ The answers in the question I linked to in mine, you mean? I would like a solution that avoids ssh etc \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 17, 2013 at 7:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ I disagree with making your Home Computer the main base these days... I have questioned this for several years now, only to find that now, with LH 5, that I can take My LH 5 with me on a portable HD... therefore carrying my main catalogue & LH5 App with me wherever I go & keeping the backup at home. The reason for this, is I'm always editing on the road & coming up with New presents, so rather than having to deal with the ongoing nightmare of transfering & copying everything over in sections, presets et al... I just have everything with me, all stored on a WD Elements HD, the size of a Cigaret \$\endgroup\$
    – user24741
    Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 17:03

3 Answers 3


The catalog contains the catalog and any previews. You also, of course have the image files themselves.

The best way I see to use LR with a desktop/laptop combo is to make the desktop the 'home base' computer with the main, singular catalog and all the files.

When you go out on trips/shoots, you can copy the image files to your laptop or your external hard drive, then import those photos by Adding to your laptop's catalog. Make your rating/passes/edits.

When you're finished with a shoot, export the whole folder (or just your 'picks' if you like) by Exporting as Catalog. You can choose to have it export the image source files if needed (not needed if you have them on a transferrable hard drive). It's also a good idea to save metadata to file after making edits.

When you return to your desktop, you can Import as Catalog, where it will take your exported catalog, and merge it to your main catalog on your desktop. It will ask you where you want to place the image files.

If you are working on the same files but on two machines, you can keep a copy of the image source files on both computers, and simply transfer or sync the Exported catalog file. Do note that 1:1 previews on a lot of pictures may take up a decent amount of space.


If you are storing the images on the External hard drive, you can also store the LR catalog there. Then you can open the LR Catalog on either machine when the drive is connected. Keep in mind that drives all die, it is only a matter of when. So backup your images to more than 1 drive.

Just read your 'PITA' on the drive. You can move the LR catalog on a USB stick, but the catalog references the location of the images, so they need to be in the same spot on both machines. So somehow you need to copy the images or mount the same drive letter.


This is what works for me: I have a very large catalogue and associated photo storage on a desktop Windows PC at home. When I am on trips I export as a catalogue anything I'm likely to work on whilst away (often not much.)

Whilst I am away I import onto the laptop (a Mac Air), do a bit of light editing if I have time and maybe work on some of the photos I've exported from home.

When I get home I export from the laptop whatever I've changed - or the whole lot if I haven't kept track of it - and then re-import the catalogue on the desktop PC. Lightroom copes very well with this setup. I then normally remove everything from the laptop's LR catalogue, ready for the next trip.

The advantage of this method is that you are letting LR do most of the work and don't have to mess about with catalogue locations, lugging around removable drives etc. The disadvantages are that the initial exports can take a while.


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