TUTORIAL : Merging Catalogs in Lightroom - From Laptop to Desktop

More and more, I encounter photographers who want to work while mobile, before they get a chance to get back to the "main" computer and import the images into Lightroom.  They want to upload to a laptop daily, do some edits, may be even post some work, but not have to duplicate everything when they get back home nor have multiple catalogs and try to remember where everything is and which version is current.

The idea of catalogs in Lightroom is a sound one, but Lightroom does not support multiuser catalogs and while Smart Previews allow you to do edits on a photo when the photo is offline, they don't help address the problem of multiple computers that are not connected together all the time.  In this tutorial, I will show you how to take images from one catalog, including edits and changes and bring them over to another catalog in a way that does not screw up your catalog structure and require a lot of folder movement after the fact.

So this is our sample scenario.  It could be on PCs, but since I use only Macs, that's how the scenario is constructed for the demonstrations.  I will have a "travel computer", a MacBook Pro (my actual travel computer) with an external USB3 hard disk for the sole purpose of holding photos while I travel and that I use as my Lightroom Library while on the road.  I will also have a "main computer" in this case a Mac Pro with lots of storage that houses my primary Lightroom Catalog.  I will go through the process of exporting folders of images from the Travel Computer to an external source that is connected to the Main Computer.  I will then Import the Catalog containing those images from the Travel Computer to the primary catalog on the Main Computer and copy the images at the same time into my master Lightroom Library.  This scenario seems to apply to a great many users so hopefully it fits your bill as well.

Exporting the Folders from the Travel Computer as a Catalog

This is where the problems can start.  You want to be sure that your folder hierarchy is consistent on all computers.  If you are using a standard Lightroom file / folder hierarchy you are in decent shape.  If you have been building your own hierarchy, it's going to be uglier.  Not impossible, but definitely going to take some more work.  So if you are not using a standard folder hierarchy, now is a really good time to start.  My recommendation is the YYYY/YYYY-MM-DD model that Lightroom offers.  If you are an old Bridge user, you probably got in the habit of making your own unique hierarchy.  Fine, but let Lightroom work for you.  A single folder is far less effective than using default structures for physical repository and collection sets, collections, tags and keywords as multi-dimensional ways to sort and find your photos.  Whenever I get a new student who is frustrated and who wants to become better with Lightroom, invariably their library is a bit of a mess.  The first video shows how to leverage Lightroom's Import function in conjunction with some best practices so have a usable hierarchy.

Video Part One : Exporting specific folders as a Catalog for Import on another Computer

In the first part of the video, I show you the steps to select a folder to export as a catalog for the purpose of importing into your master catalog on another computer.  The exported catalog and photos will be stored on a network drive to make the follow on import faster.  You could use an external hard drive, but many of them are only USB2 speed and the process takes a very long time.  If you are using an External drive on your Travel Computer, you may not have sufficient space for the folder set that an Exported Catalog creates so lowered risk is also a good idea.

Video Part Two : Importing the external catalog into your master catalog on the Main Computer

In second part of the video, we go to the Main Computer and import the catalog exported from the Travel Computer.  We will choose to import from the catalog we exported to the network drive and use the Lightroom folder hierarchy to ensure that the images go into the right place, the right way.  Take your time here, because it's easy to make a selection error and send the images to the wrong structure and then you have to move them manually in the Library later on.  Save the trouble.

The Make a Second Copy Challenge

I am always concerned about data loss.  There are only two kinds of photographers, those who have had a fatal hard drive crash and those who have not had a fatal hard drive crash YET.  So when importing, I have been using the Make a Second Copy option.  Beautiful it isn't but quick and easy it is.  The problem is that it only works on a new import, not when importing a catalog.  I'm sure that there's a reason but the web is dark on that one.  So I have an alternate proposal anyway. 

If you are going to be doing this merge thing a LOT, or if you forget to make a second copy often or if you just hate the structure it creates, try an alternate backup method.  I have used SuperDuper in the past and use Carbon Copy Cloner these days.  Every night at 1am it clones my Lightroom Library to another drive.  The nature of this sophisticated tool is that it only copies what is new or changed so the process once the first full backup is done is very fast and very simple.  CCC makes a script that runs when you tell it based on your instructions and then you don't have to worry about it.  It can even email you when it completes if you'd like.

I hope that this tutorial helps make things easier for photographers who work with multiple computers with multiple catalogs.