Before you mark this as a duplicate hear me out. I didn't get my answer from some of the other questions out there.

I only have one laptop however I don't want to keep all my photos on it (limited space). So I got an external hard drive and moved all my photos to it. It seemed like the perfect thing to do. I only had one catalog and could potentially open it with any computer I wanted to and take it anywhere. However in practice this did not work out.

This is because of the following:

  1. When importing/editing I had to sit at my desk with the bulky hard drive to get any work done. This defeats the purpose of having a laptop, I prefer to do my edits during random free time I have. Not while sitting at a desk.

  2. All my images are on the hard drive and I cannot access them when I want to show someone something (not necessarily the finished product) while on the go.

Here is the ideal workflow/setup that I can imagine but I'm not sure how to go about doing it in Lightroom.

  1. Keep all the archives of my images on the external hard drive. This way it still is the one vault where all my pictures go. (I haven't worked out how to make backups of this, but that is a different question for another time.)

  2. Do my imports from the camera on my laptop so that I can do my edits on it without being tied to the external drive. Once I am done with the edits I want to copy these over to the master catalog in the external hard drive. Maybe even keep an years worth of images on the laptop so that I have access to my most recent images.

  3. I would also like a copy of my "best" pictures so to speak neatly organized somewhere that I can readily show? I was thinking of going through all my photos (wish I had categorized/rated them in someway as they accumulated) and select some. Maybe just export them to a folder maybe even Dropbox. Not sure if this needs to be a separate Lightroom catalog or not, I'd like to hear your opinions.

From what I have read so far, we are discouraged from using multiple catalogs with Lightroom, but this is more like a temporary catalog - a staging area of sorts before things get moved to the master catalog.

Not sure if this matters but I have Lightroom 5.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Not only should you be sitting at a desk to do edits because of your external hard-drive, you should be there because of your external monitor :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Itai
    Dec 2, 2013 at 2:03

4 Answers 4


Lightroom 5 has completely changed how you actually work in this disconnected mode, so I will explain how to do this in LR5, then how to do it in LR4 and earlier, for those that do not have LR5 and later.

Lightroom 5

Lightroom 5 has added a function called 'Smart Preview' that transforms the needed workflow in earlier versions of the software. Due to this, you can afford to leverage ONE catalog. In this case, you will store all the images on the external hard drive, but the LR catalog on your laptop. Smart Previews allow you full editing capability, even when the original image is not available.

Existing images:

  • For all photos you wish to be able to edit, you simply ask LR to render Smart Previews.
    This way, you can edit when disconnected from the external hard drive, and when you reconnect it, LR sync's the edits. This is available as a shortcut from the histogram within the Develop Module, and within the Catalog dialogs.

Adding new images:

  • When you add new images when disconnected from the external hard drive, LR will have you copy those images to the laptop hard drive. Edit as normal.

  • When you reconnect to the external hard drive, you need to DRAG those new images from your laptop to the external drive from the Library Module.

  • If you create Smart Previews when importing, you can edit when disconnected later.

That is it: LR5 has made this dead simple. There are some videos on the Adobe site that explain Smart Previews in great detail.

Lightroom 4 or older

One downside to LR 4 is that there is no equivalent of Smart Previews. Unless you duplicate images to the laptop, you will not be able to edit them when disconnected from the hard drive. However, keeping your catalog on the laptop will let you easily import new images when disconnected, and edit them on the road.

Keep your catalog on the laptop.

  • When you add new images when disconnected from the external hard
    drive, LR will have you copy those images to the laptop hard drive.
    Edit as normal.

  • When you reconnect to the external hard drive, you need to DRAG those new images from your laptop to the external drive from the LIBRARY MODULE. Don't do this from Explorer (Finder).

Catalog on external drive (or two computers sharing images)

If you want to have a selection of images available for editing when disconnected, then you should take advantage of LR's 'Export as Catalog' function.

Essentially, you will be using two catalogs: one on the laptop, and another on the external hard drive. Lets call the one on the hard drive your 'primary' catalog, as it will be the catalog that contains all your images. We will call the catalog on your laptop your 'traveling' catalog. Personally, I prefer to keep the catalog on my laptop hard drive, while the external hard drive contains all the images. If you do not have room for this, you can safely store your catalog on the external hard drive. To avoid confusion, I won't refer to the location of the catalog, only the defined name.

Primary catalog

First, import all your images into the primary catalog. This is when you will store all your photos and will become the 'canonical' catalog.

Traveling Catalog

When you are on the road, away from your external hard drive, you no longer have access to the images in the Primary Catalog. You may also not have access to the actual Primary catalog (esp true if you use TWO computers). In this case, you, or LR will create a second catalog, we are referring to as Traveling catalog.

When on the road, you will need to use the Traveling catalog. Open LR, and choose File > Open Catalog, then choose Traveling Catalog. This way, when you take new images, LR will import them into the Traveling Catalog. Since the images are local, you can edit as normal.

When you reconnect to the external hard drive, open the Primary Catalog, Next, File > Import from catalog, then choose your Traveling Catalog. This will import all the images and edits into the Primary Catalog.

If you wish to be able to edit a selection of images from your Primary Catalog when disconnected from the external hard drive, then you need to import those images to the Traveling Catalog. From the Primary Catalog, select the images that you want to transfer to the Traveling Catalog, select File > Export as Catalog, be sure to check the box called "export negative files", as this will also copy the RAW files. Name the catalog some other name, as this is a temporary file. Then open Traveling Catalog, File > Import from catalog you just created. When done, delete that temporary catalog. This action copies the RAW files and all edits to the Traveling catalog. If you make edits, you can sync them later by Importing within the Primary catalog.


Hopefully one or more of these ideas help:

1) Have you checked out smart previews? This is a new feature for Lightroom 5. It is designed for when you want to be "on the go". You make smart previews of the image, and then you can archive the images to save room, but still have access to those images to make edits, and show the images to clients. You can then unarchive that catalog (or images) to sync the settings back for printing, etc.

2) Need to print on the go? You can export images to its own catalog for work, if you want to take a smaller number of images with you that you need to print. Don't need to print? Smart previews (#1) basically negates this.

3) There's also Creative Cloud drive - you could throw the catalog on there and it will handle the sync back to the other machine. It doesn't solve the problem of hard drive space, but at least you then have to apply the sync from the smart previews once.

side note: I too like multiple catalogs - you can separate client from personal, or break it down by year. This allows more easily archiving the whole catalog instead of by folder...etc.


That is possible with Lightroom 5.

You could use something like the following Workflow:

First of all: Create a Lightroom Catalog Template, with the following layout:


Be sure to have the "lrcat"-File and your actual Pictures in the same folder. Now make a backup copy of that Catalog.

Now, import any pictures you shoot into that Catalog. Once you are done with Shooting & Editing, you can import these Pictures into your "Archive" Catalog on the external drive.

There is a special "Import from other Catalog" (I'm not sure how it's named in english, my Lightroom is in german), where you can select Images (including virtual copies and adjustments), and copy them into your archive Catalog.

Now you can safely delete your LrTemplate-Catalog and create a new copy from your backup.

For the displaying of your best images, just export them as a new Catalog using the "TreeMirrorExport" Plugin or something similar. As you don't want to edit these Picures anymore, you can use JPG Copies which take up much less space.

A very similar approach is also explained in detail in this video on youtube.


Lightroom will use relative paths if your LRCAT file is in a path near your images. I leave backup copies of all my images on my external and simply copy them to my SSDs when I want to work on them. At the end, rather than copy the images and the lrcat files back, I just remove the lrcat files and cache folders on the external and copy my latest working copy over to the external. It can then still pull the source files from the external rather than my SSDs for the archival copy.

  • \$\begingroup\$ this is what I do. A small working set on the laptop disk that can carry with me. the larger set of images not in active projects on the disk (in my case a NAS). With smart previews, works like a charm. Use a single catalog, carry what you need while mobile, store the rest on the external drives. \$\endgroup\$
    – chuqui
    Feb 25, 2014 at 2:13

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.