How does one coordinate Lightroom used on a laptop when traveling, with a master Lightroom catalog back in the office?  I’ve written about this before (see my blog for October 2, 2012) but the topic keeps coming up at workshops and on tours, so….

I have one main master Lightroom catalog for all my images, which resides on my desktop computer in my office.  That master catalog is on an internal drive (a different drive than the internal SSD drive I use for all my programs).  A backup copy of this master catalog is made to another internal drive (automatically done by Lightroom when I exit the program), and a third copy of the catalog is on a small external USB drive.  Yes, I’m a bit paranoid about loosing all that data.

I have another Lightroom catalog named Travel on my laptop.  When I’m on the road, I download images using Lightroom, in the exact same format structure I use for the image files back in my office.  As the files are downloaded, Lightroom automatically renames the files and adds my copyright information, using templates I’ve created in Lightroom.  My naming template is a YYMMDD_camera-generated-file-name-and-number format, so individual files appear along the lines of 150624_D4S_4752.  Nikon lets you set camera names in the menu system to a three character code, so my cameras are named D4S and D8T.  Yeah, real original thinking there.  Image files are always downloaded into a  _Photos folder (the underscore makes it the topmost folder in my laptop’s directory), into a subfolder named by month and location of shoot.  06 Namibia would by a June trip to Namibia while 09 Denali would be a September shoot in Denali.  Each day’s images are automatically sorted as Lightroom reads the file metadata, makes YYYY-MM-DD folders as needed inside the month-shoot folder (the 06 Namibia or 09 Denali folders), and puts the correct images into the correct folders (I always have my cameras set to the local time, which in turn means all images will be correctly sorted by date).  Once all these parameters are checked in Lightroom they remain as set, so the only thing I ever have to change is the name of the month-shoot folder.  I flag any images I work on in Lightroom, highlight those images, and save all metadata to file by doing Ctrl/Command + S.

While on the road I copy every day’s take to two small external USB powered hard drives, so that by the end of the trip I have three duplicate copies of all my images.  Since the files are already in the organization I use in my office, all I have to do once I get home is to copy the image files to their correct location on my master hard drives, and to add the trip catalog to my master catalog.  I open the Travel catalog on my laptop, select the folder with the trip images, and do File > Export as Catalog, saving the exported catalog on one of the small USB drives.  I make sure to include the image previews.  Since the image files on the USB drive are all current with the correct metadata saved to them, there is no reason for me to do what Lightroom calls Export negative files (“negative files” is Adobe-speak for the actual images).

Back in the office I plug this drive into a USB port on my desktop computer, and use my operating system to copy the image shoot folder, which has all the photos, over to the correct date location on my main hard drive array.  Then I open my master Lightroom catalog, and do File > Import from Another Catalog, and select the catalog on the USB drive.  When this is finished working, I disconnect the small USB drive, at which time Lightroom want to know where the files are located since the imported catalog still thinks they are back on my laptop.  I point Lightroom to the correct image folder I’ve copied over, the 06 Namibia folder or whatever it is, and I’m done.  The backup software on my desktop computer automatically kicks in, and backs up my new images.

When I’m positive that all is well with my desktop system, I remove all the photos from the Travel catalog on my laptop, so that I can reuse the catalog shell again with all my preferences still set.  I reformat the USB drives, reset the time in my cameras, and I’m good-to-go on my next adventure.


  1. Dennis Kowalewski June 25, 2015 at 1:44 pm #

    I don’t take a laptop with me when I travel. Just my personal style at this point in time. I follow all you said but was more curious on where you keep the master photos. I’m getting to the point where my 1 terabyte HD is getting filled quickly since the D810 files are large. Do you use a raid system or several larger external drives to keep your masters and only the catalog on your main computers? I was curious about processing performance with LR and catalog on the computer and masters on an external.

    • John June 26, 2015 at 10:18 pm #

      My images are stored on a 5-drive JBOD array (Just a Bunch of Drives), each drive being 2 TB. This is duplicated on a multi-TB Synology NAS (Network Attached Storage) so I can access images from any computer on the network. My Lightroom catalog, and all the image previews, are on my desktop’s internal drives while all the actual images are on the external drives. As to processing performance, that depends on the speed of your computer, and the speed of the external drives, and the speed of the connections between these drives and the main computer (USB3, eSata, etc.) With my setup, there is no performance loss to speak of.

  2. Jay Gosdin June 29, 2015 at 9:09 pm #

    No matter how many times I read this process of transferring from laptop to desktop, I just don’t get it. I even bought your eBook on the subject. I’m pretty savvy with Lightroom and computers. If I don’t get it, many others will not too. There has got to be a better way for you to explain this process!

    • John July 1, 2015 at 8:08 pm #

      OK, here is a simple version.
      1. Using the operating system, copy images from your laptop to wherever you want to store them on your desktop system.
      2. Open Lightroom on your laptop, and do Export as Catalog (with previews).
      3. Open Lightroom on your desktop computer, do Import from another Catalog.
      4. Point Lightroon on desktop computer to the location where you put the images on the desktop system.

      • Jay Gosdin July 7, 2015 at 8:52 pm #

        John- this sounds simple now. I will give it a try.

  3. ANTONIO BIGGIO July 8, 2015 at 10:49 am #

    Sorry mr. Shaw but I’ve a question about the folder structure that you mention hear and in your new ebook: you make a year folder, than a month+shoot and than a YYYY-MM-DD.
    What is the real advantage of doing this structure? If I create a folder by Year and then rename the automatic folder create by lightroom YYYY-MM-DD +shoot, this create a problem in hierarchical structure or for the future upload or when I researching the photos? Thank you.