Nov 172008

You’re on vacation, at a workshop or shooting on location commercially, loading your images onto your laptop and working them in Lightroom. Will you be able to successfully and easily transfer all your Lightroom work to your desktop Lightroom catalog? Absolutely!  This method will transfer everything you may have done — keywords, flags, stars, color labels, other metadata, as well as Develop settings, collections and virtual copies.

Let’s say your folder of images on your laptop is named “Vacation”. In the Library module in Lightroom, right-click on the folder name, and choose Export This Folder as a Catalog. Choose a location to store this temporary catalog. I recommend the desktop because it will be easy for you to find. Another option is to save it directly to an external hard drive that you can then use to transfer the catalog to your desktop. Choose a name for the catalog, like Vacation Catalog. Checking Export Negative Files will bundle a copy of the originals with the catalog so that you don’t have to move them over separately to your desktop and then have to have LR find them. I recommend that you do choose this option. Checking Include Available Previews will save and transfer the jpeg previews that have already been built. If you don’t, LR on your desktop computer will simply regenerate them — it just takes time that you have already spent for them to be generated on your laptop. Finally, click Save.

This process generates a folder called Vacation Catalog that has all the components in it. Move the folder to an external hard drive and connect it to your desktop computer. (Another option is to save the folder to a DVD and then insert this in your desktop computer.) In the Library module of Lightroom, in the menu bar go to File>Import from Catalog. In the dialog box, navigate to the Vacation Catalog folder on the external drive or DVD, double click on it to open it, and select the Vacation Catalog.lrcat file (it will be the only file that is not in a subfolder). Click Choose.

In the Import Dialog that then opens, under File Handling choose Copy Files to a New Location and Import, click Choose and navigate to the folder you want to store the images in permanently (like 20080701 New Mexico Vacation within the folder 2008). Click Import.

Done! Assuming everything went well with the import and your images and LR enhancements are there:

1.  Delete the Vacation Catalog folder that you transfered over.

2. Back on your laptop, remove the Vacation folder of images from the LR catalog and the hard drive. In the LR Library module, right click on the folder and choose Show in Explorer (Finder on a Mac). In Explorer or Finder, delete the folder. Back in Lightroom, right click again on the folder and select Remove, to remove it from the catalog.

Happy travels!


  47 Responses to “Moving Lightroom Work Between Laptop and Desktop Computers”

  1. […] written about moving your Lightroom work from your laptop to your desktop (or any two computers) here. This involves exporting your work on the laptop as a catalog, then importing it into your desktop […]

    • Thank you for your easy to follow instructions.I understand that the “vacation lrcat”file is a seperate catalogue as opposed to the “main” catalogue on the PC.
      Does it remain seperate when imported into LR on the PC or is it integrated into the “main” catalogue ?

  2. […] if you ocassionally work images on your laptop when you are in the field photographing.  See this post for more […]

  3. Wow! This is really helpful. Clear and to the point. Many thanks.

  4. I am a bit confused. I was wondering if this method would work from what I gather with your method:

    using one external drive, one laptop, one desktop
    import images onto laptop with saving them on ext drive
    flag, reject, label images, edit some on laptop
    back-up that catalog by restarting LR
    … home
    load LR on desktop and load the “above” catalog
    import images you want to work on
    edit the images
    back-up catalog by restarting LR on desktop
    …. back to laptop
    open LR and import above catalog
    do what i need to do with images for web, email, etc
    now can i go and delete all previous catalogs except for the most recent one?

    will this method work as well with keeping all up to date edits, flags, etc in the final catalog????

    Thank you so much for your help. I just didn’t get a good understanding of what to do from your post.

    • I am not able to follow all the details of what you wrote, Michelle. Bottom line, if you are asking if you can import your laptop catalog into your desktop catalog (by launching your desktop catalog, and going to File>Import from Catalog and pointing to your laptop catalog, the answer is yes, that would work. And the purpose of all this is to be able to transfer all your work – edits, flags, etc… Once you import one catalog into your master catalog, you can delete the original.

  5. Oh Great Article Thank For your post

  6. I followed your instructions exactly and transferred 3100+ images from an Italy trip perfectly. Not one lost image! Thank you for making the process simpler than my two books detail.

  7. Say your catalog is from “My Pictures”. Can’t you just put the field folder there in your laptop and then “sync” your desktop catalog?

  8. Lightroom 4 has Preferences > Presets for saving presets with your catalog. I haven’t (yet) been able to get that to work for when I create settings on my “vacation” external hard drive to transfer to my main hard drive at home with my exported “vacation” catalog. Has anyone been able to get that to work? Seemingly any presets, User templates, Camera Calibration profiles (created with X-Rite ColorChecker Passport) I have on my “vacation” catalog do not transfer at all (but I’d like them to).

    • Hi Dennis, despite the fact that they can be stored in the catalog folder, presets are not part of the catalog itself. You would have to physically copy them into the preset subfolders on your main drive.


  10. Hi – followed your instructions, and just had a clarifying question – here’s my scenario:

    I have a couple of cameras that I take on vacations. Normally, I return home and import all the photos from a trip to my home iMac. I organize them, and get them all in order. What I’d like to do is transfer them to my Mac laptop, so I can take the collection to a cafe or somewhere else to sift through and mark some for deletion, etc.

    If I export the catalog, and import on my laptop, do I need to delete all the photos from the main computer before re-importing them? Meaning, when I export the catalog, I can still see the photos on my main computer, if I make changes, edits, deletions on the laptop, what will happen when I try to re-import them on the main computer? Will the changes over-write, or is it best just to delete the whole set from Computer A before re-importing from Computer B?


    • Hi Bill,

      You don’t need to delete the original photos – when you import from catalog, LR will detect the originals and ask you if you want to replace them – no, just the metadata.

      You might be better off having your catalog on photos on an external drive, so that you can plug it into either computer and be up and running with no export/import.

  11. Hi – I’m trying to import from a catalog I worked on while traveling. The photos and .lrcat catalog are on my Dropbox, which is shared on the cloud between my desktop and laptop computers.

    The problem? “Add new photos to catalog without moving” is the only option I’m given in the “Import from Catalog” dialogue box, in LR3. I want it to add the new photos to my main catalog on my desktop computer, AND move the photos from Dropbox to the external hard drive connected to my desktop computer. If I add the new photos without moving, then — then what, I have a bunch of photos in all the wrong places.

    Any help would be much appreciated! Thanks for your helpful articles.

    • Tiffy, I would just Add as it allows you, and then use the Folders panel in the Library module to drag your folders to where you want them.

  12. When I export this folder as a catalogue to my external HD and then view the JPG off the external HD, it does not save my edits. I did a test on a photo where I blew out the exposure and exported the catalogue but my edits weren’t saved in the JPG or when I tried importing that folder back into LR.

    I’m looking for a way to export my edits I’ve made to my external HD, so that years later when I go back to that photo, the work I’ve already done shows up. Thanks.

    • Edits are stored in the Lightroom catalog, LK. For you to see edits on JPEGs outside of Lightroom, export JPEG copies using the Export dialog.

  13. Thanks Laura,

    Shot a friend’s wedding this past weekend. Did some early LR work on the road on my dreadfully slow 8 year old MacBook. Came home and followed your directions to transfer my weekend of images AND THE EDITS I HAD ALREADY COMPLETED to my fast iMac. I’m a happy boy. Thank you so much.

    Robert Hersh
    U.S. Navy Medical Corps

  14. Im using LR6

    So, if I create a Catalog with different Collections on an external drive for all the images, I can go back and forth between my laptop and desktop and it will keep my active edits when I view on either by just Opening a Catalog in LR?

    Next question; Then when I want to move the catalog (and collections) to another drive to back up the files I just import the catalog and my active edits will move too?

    I have been trying to move my active dng. edits around for months as Collections with no luck.

    • Hi Bill,

      On question 1, yes, by just opening the catalog on the external drive, and always working with this one. On question 2, to back up the files to another drive, I would use a backup program. If instead you just want to manually copy them, just do this – no need to import anything. Be sure to back up both your catalog and photos.

  15. I recently moved my LR catalog and photos from my PC to an external hard drive so that I could edit photos easily on either my PC and laptop. The problem I seem to have is that a collection that I created while editing on my PC seems to be only on the PC and not the external drive. I tried creating another collection on my laptop and when I check LR on my PC, I cannot locate the collection I created on my laptop. I know I am missing a step when I create my collections that would allow them to be saved on the external drive and not the device I am using but I cannot figure out where. Can you help?

    • Hi JR,

      You have copied your catalog to your external drive, but you are still using the ones on your internal drives. To use the one on the external drive, double-click on the .lrcat file to launch Lightroom with it. Then in Preferences (Lightroom>Preferences on a mac, Edit>Preferences on PC), on the General tab, under “when starting up always use”, click on the dropdown and choose the catalog on the external drive, so that Lightroom always launches with it.

  16. Hi Laura, first off, great post. I have a quick question (I hope)…I recently switched from pc to mac, and on my old pc laptop/desktop system, I would simply copy my files from my laptop to my pc using a flash drive, then import the individual files/folders into my main catalog on my desktop and all of the edits would automatically show up (stars, flags, crops, etc), without ever having to transfer catalogs or import catalogs or any of this stuff you’re mentioning above. Now that I’ve switched to Mac, none of this seems to work anymore. I shoot files and put them on my laptop in the field, then copy them to a flash drive and transfer them to my desktop exactly as I had done with my pc system, then import to lightroom, but this time none of my edits show up at all. What’s the difference and why am I having issues with Mac vs PC for this? Any idea?

    • Hi John,

      I apologize for missing your question. Your work has been accessible on your PC because you had the preference turned on to automatically write to XMP. This writes much of your Lightroom work to either your DNG or JPEG files or small sidecar files that sit with your raw files. To set this on your Mac, go to Lightroom>Catalog Settings, and check this option on the Metadata tab. You’ll have to manually save to XMP for work you have already done: select your files, then do a Ctl/Cmd-S.

      Note that this does not save pick and reject flags, virtual copies, collections, and step-by-step develop history, so if you want this information carried over, you need to do the export/import catalog process.

      • Thank you Laura, that makes total sense now. I’ve got it turned on and that seems to do the trick. Thank you again!

  17. When I go on a photo safari I use an external hard drive with my laptop when I download my images.. How do I transfer my photos from the external hard drive to my Mac when I get home. If I work on photos when away will the changes also be transferred. I use Lightroom 5 at the moment.

  18. Why would the stars, flags, color coding and edits not move with the catalogue?

    • They do move with the catalog, Missy Janes. Flags do not move if you don’t follow the instructions in this post and instead write to XMP files.

      • I was albe to transfer the raw files from the laptop. I had color coded and begun to edit when on the road for a wedding shoot but when I transferred them over I lost the color coding, stars and edits. What did I do wrong? I used to always use an external hard drive which made things so easy but had a bad crash last Spring and was told not to depend on the external drive and to back everything up to a more reliable duplicitous system attached to my iMac. I am just trying to get the hang of this new system so any helpful comments will be most appreciated. Thanks. Missy

        • Hi Missy,

          It sounds like you just moved the photos over. You need to either follow the instructions in this article to export and then import a catalog (which contains your edits), or select your files on your laptop and then do a Ctl/Cmd-S to save the edits to XMP before transferring them over. Note that this latter approach will not work if you use pick/reject flags, virtual copies, or collections.

  19. Hello, thanks for the help! I’m wondering if this will work from the book module? I make photo books using Creative Cloud and upload them to Blurb to print and sell them. Can I transfer the book I’m working on my iMac with to my MacBook Pro and back again? I’d like to be able to work on it on both as the iMac has a nice big screen but the MacBook is portable. Thanks!

  20. Laura,
    I followed your procedure to move a slideshow from my desk Mac to my Macbook Air but the slide order (a custom sort) was not preserved. I am new to Lightroom but if this is normal Lightroom behaviour then for me it is a serious deficiency as I intend to do all my slideshow editing on my desk Mac & then transfer to my laptop for presentations.

    • Hi Ron,

      I don’t have experience with exporting catalogs where preserving custom order is important. I would suggest posting on for assistance with this. If you can’t get it to work, one option would be to rename your files using a sequence number – but I realize that this has its downsides.

  21. Seven years later your post is still helpful. Thanks!

  22. I followed your instructions however none of my edits seems to have been preserved.
    The images from my laptop are now copied on to my pc, but I had edited 100’s of them and none of these edits are showing up.
    What did I do wrong? I’d like to try again


    • It sounds like you moved your photos, but that you didn’t import your laptop catalog into your main one, Terri, since your edits are contained in the catalog. Perhaps you did the Import from Another Catalog process, and the photos already existed on your PC so you chose to not replace the metadata (in the Import Catalog dialog).

  23. How are Virtual Copies handled when moving files from one folder to another? It seems like I lose my Virtual Copies when moving images from one folder to another. Is there a way to include all the Virtual Image copies in the move also?

    • I’m a bit confused Bob, since moving files from one folder to another doesn’t require the process outlined in this post, but assuming you are just dragging folders in the Folders panel to move them, virtual copies go as well.

  24. I have LR 5 on desktop but Lightroom CC by subscription on laptop. I tried to move catalog to desktop, but message came up saying “file created in newer version of lightroom.” How can I get around this? Thx

    • You can’t use a Lightroom CC/6 catalog in Lightroom 5, Joan. Your CC subscription does allow you to run CC on two computers.

      • Thx, figured as much. If I upgrade my computer to cc/6, will I have to reset all of my settings? Or will everything appear the same, and also will I be able to use my LR5 catalog seamlessly from EHD on both computers?

  25. I’m importing new travel images to my main catalog via your method – however I have some strays images that never made it in over the years (years before LR) – when selecting images to import, some of the “new” are showing next to the selection box as a check, others have a negative symbol. Can you tell me what that means? I’ve searched on line a bit – but it’s kind of an obscure question and I’m not hitting on an answer yet. Thanks for all the help and information your add to our world!!

    • Hi Myra, I’m afraid I can’t picture what you are referring to. I would suggest posting your question on (after creating an account and signing in) – this way you can post a screenshot of what you are seeing.

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