There was a time when my entire photo library lived on one laptop. As it grew I upgraded the internal storage and continued to add new photos. Wherever I was I had my entire library at my fingertips. Life was good.
But, times change and I knew at some point that the amount of photos I was taking, coupled with higher resolution sensor, meant that the days of the entire library in one place were numbered. This day came faster than I expected when back in 2012, I bought a MacBook Pro Retina with a 500 GB SSD. In a flash (no pun intended), my photo storage was drastically diminished.At this point I had a couple of options. First, I could start using a tiny external USB drive to store my entire library. This actually isn’t a bad option, but I didn’t feel like carrying around an external drive and have to connect it each time I fired up Lightroom. Second, I could pick up a Mac mini as my home desktop computer, let the entire Lightroom library live on there, just keep a subset of the past year or so of photos on my laptop, and periodically sync the new photos from the laptop back to the desktop. In order to do this I needed to keep the two libraries in sync somehow, essentially using the home Mac mini as the “master” copy and having the laptop hold just a subset of the larger library. Luckily Lightroom has a great feature that can be used to accomplish this called “Import from Catalog”. Here’s how we can use this feature to keep two Lightroom libraries in sync.
1. Establish a Master Library
Most of us keep all of our photos in one large master library (or catalog, as Lightroom calls it), so you probably already have this step done. For me, when I decided I wanted to go this route, I did a full system backup on my laptop using SuperDuper! (you could also manually copy your entire Lightroom folder and photos to a drive) and then just connected that backup drive to my desktop and copied over my entire Lightroom folder. Where you keep your Lightroom library and pictures may vary, mine are in Users -> jturic -> Pictures – > Lightroom. (Keep in mind this is platform agnostic — this entire procedure works the same way on Lightroom on Windows)
NOTE: You don’t have to have two computers to play this game. Many photographers who just use one computer keep a master catalog and when they do an event like a wedding, establish a new catalog for it. Then you can just work on that event’s photos without the distraction of your larger library and when you’re done, import those photos into the “master catalog”. This isn’t how I work, but everyone operates Lightroom a little differently.
2. Take Some New Photos and Import into Lightroom
At this point, the laptop library and the desktop library are the same. Go take a walk outside and grab a few pictures so you can test out your ability to sync back from your laptop to your desktop. When you come back, import them into Lightroom. The laptop library should now contain a few more photos than the desktop library.
3. Run a Backup
It’s a manual process, but every day or so I plug in my laptop backup drive and run a Super Duper! backup. If I’m feeling particularly paranoid, I might do it right after a shoot. Like I said before, this gives me a snapshot of my system, which includes the Lightroom folder, with its updated photos and Lightroom catalog.
NOTE: When you run this backup, make sure that you CLOSE Lightroom. Lightroom keeps a lock file in its main directory to avoid multiple people editing the same Lightroom catalog. When you exit Lightroom, this lock file disappears. But if you do the backup with this lock file present, you will get an error when you try to sync back to your desktop catalog.
4. Import new Photos to Desktop Library
Plug your backup drive into your desktop computer, open up Lightroom and go to File -> Import from another Catalog… From here, navigate to the Lightroom folder on your backup drive, and select the main Lightroom catalog you just backed up (.lrcat file). Lightroom will now go through a couple of dialogs looking for new photos.
Once Lightroom has found all new and changed photos, you can hit “Import” and all of the new photos will be imported, and changed photos will have their settings updated. Depending on the amount of photos that you’re syncing back, this process can take a little time. After this finishes, your desktop library should look the same as your laptop library.
NOTE: If you’ve previously done a sync back, and then DELETE photos from your laptop library, those photos will not get deleted when you update your desktop copy. For me, if I delete photos, I want them to be completely deleted. To get around this problem I no longer delete, but just REJECT photos in Lightroom. The REJECT flag does get synced back when you import from a catalog. This way, you can just select all rejects on your laptop and all rejects on your desktop and do one large deletion.
5. Free up space on your laptop
After some time has passed or I can see the storage on my laptop getting low, I will start deleting the oldest photos. Since these have been synced back previously to Lightroom on the desktop, I know I can delete without any worries. If I ever want to work on these photos on my laptop again, I can “Export as a Catalog” from Lightroom on the desktop, and using the procedure above, reimport them to my laptop.
Do you have questions about this tutorial? Have you tried to keep two Lightroom libraries in sync? Let me know in the comments!