Many photographers today are working between multiple computers, for example, a laptop and a desktop. Lightroom can be activated on two computers at a time, but accessing your catalog from both machines isn’t quite so simple as Lightroom isn’t designed for multi-user or network use. I’ve broken it down into six main options, each with their own variations.
The first, and simplest option, gives you partial access to your catalog if you’re a CC subscriber:
- Lightroom Web—sync your photos from your ‘main’ computer to the cloud, then access them using a web browser on other computers (or mobile devices).
The next three options give you access to your entire catalog on each machine, with or without the image files:
- Self-Contained—place your catalog and photos on an external hard drive, and plug it into whichever machine you’re going to use at the time.
- Semi-Portable—place your catalog and previews on an external drive and plug it into whichever machine you’re going to use at the time, but some/all of the photos remain on the main computer or on network accessible storage.
- Copy/Sync (e.g. Dropbox)—copy your catalog back and forth, using synchronization software such as Dropbox to keep both copies updated (but be careful to let them fully sync before switching).
The final two options involve splitting and merging catalogs, so they can be a little more complicated:
- Import from a Temporary Catalog—create a new catalog for the photos on the secondary computer and merge them back into the primary machine when you return.
- Split and Merge—use one computer as a base (usually the desktop) and export chunks of work out as a smaller catalog for use on the secondary computer (usually the laptop), then merge it back into the primary catalog on your return.
What not to do:
- Don’t just copy the photos to the other computer and import them again, as you’ll be missed all of the work you’ve done. Even writing metadata to the files (XMP) misses some important data.
- There are some “solutions” posted on the web for putting your catalog on a network drive using a subst command on Windows or mounting a disc image stored on a network drive on a Mac. These can easily corrupt your catalog beyond repair, simply by the connection dropping at the wrong moment, so I’d strongly recommend avoiding these workarounds. (Putting the photos on a network drive is fine though).
In this post, we’ll consider the two simplest options – Lightroom Web and Self-Contained Catalog – but the other options are described in detail on pages 492-507 of my main FAQ book. Next week, we’ll also look at using Store Presets with This Catalog to access your presets on both computers. I’ll use the same layout I’ve used in the book, in case you want to carry on reading about the other options.
Summary: Using a web browser on your secondary machine, you can view your photos, flag & star them, add titles and captions, manage collections, search for photos using image-analysis, do a wide range of Develop edits, as well as uploading photos. (Details are correct at the time of writing but change frequently!)
For whom: You usually work on a single machine, but occasionally you need to access your photos or add new photos from another machine. You must be a CC subscriber.
Difficulty Rating: 1/4
- Very easy to set up – just select the collections to sync.
- Your photos can be accessed from any web browser, even if Lightroom’s not installed.
- There’s nothing to worry about when you get back to your main computer as the changes automatically sync.
- Works well if multiple people need access to the photos, even at the same time.
- Requires a CC subscription.
- Requires a good internet connection, both for the initial upload and while viewing the photos, as there’s no way to cache them for offline use.
- Edits are more limited than the full Lightroom program, for example, you can’t add keywords, apply your own custom Develop presets or use the Adjustment Brush, to name a few.
Storage—Catalog: Stays on your main computer, synced to the cloud.
Storage—Photos: Stays on your main computer, synced to the cloud.
Storage—Presets: Stays on your main computer. Custom presets are not available on the web.
- Think about what you’ll actually need to do on the other computer, and whether the web interface will fill all of your needs. If it doesn’t fill your needs, check back again later, as they’re constantly adding new features.
- If you’re allowing someone else access to your photos using this method (by giving them your login details), consider how much of a mess they could make of your existing ratings! To give them limited access, share the collection and give them a link to allow them to browse, comment and ‘like’ photos.
- In Lightroom on the primary machine, decide which photos you wish to make available from the cloud and add them to Collections (not Smart Collections). You could drop them all into a single collection, but they’re more easily managed when broken down into smaller groups.
- Enable Sync for your chosen collections by checking the box on the left of the Collections panel.
- Wait for the photos to upload. You can check the status in the Activity Center.
- On the secondary computer, open a web browser and navigate to http://lightroom.adobe.com
- Sign in with your Adobe ID.
- The Welcome screen gives you easy access to frequently used tools, or if you click Photos at the top, you’ll see the main Lightroom Web interface. From here, you can view and edit your photos, as well as upload new photos.
- When you return to your primary machine, open Lightroom and simply wait for Lightroom to sync the changes. Again, you can watch the progress in the Activity Center.
Summary: If you need access to the full Lightroom program on your other computer, the simplest solution is to place the entire catalog and all of your photos on a portable external hard drive. You can then plug it into whichever computer you want to use at the time.
For whom: You regularly work on different computers and your entire collection of photos is small enough to fit on a portable hard drive.
Difficulty Rating: 1/4
- Your entire catalog is available.
- As the original photos are on the same drive, Lightroom’s functionality is not limited.
- Works for all Lightroom versions, not just CC.
- There’s no sync to worry about.
- External hard drive speeds are usually slower than internal drives, so you’d want to choose a fast connection such as a Thunderbolt, eSATA or USB 3.0 connection if possible.
- There’s a slightly greater risk of catalog corruption when the catalog is stored on an external drive, as they’re more likely to become disconnected while you’re working.
- Small external drives are at a higher risk of being lost, stolen, or dropped.
Storage—Catalog: Portable drive.
Storage—Photos: Portable drive.
Storage—Presets: Store Presets with Catalog or Dropbox Sync.
- Think about your backup strategy, as your portable drive may be excluded from your normal backups, and external drives are more easily lost or damaged. The easiest option is to use backup software to clone the drive onto one or more backup drives, as well as allowing Lightroom to create its versioned catalog backups.
- If you ever open Lightroom and it’s empty, don’t reimport the photos. It just means Lightroom can’t find the catalog, so plug in the external drive and double-click on the catalog to open it again.
- You may occasionally need to relink missing files when you switch computers if Windows changes the drive letter or you’re working cross-platform.
- Turn back to and follow the instructions for moving the photos to another drive. I’d recommend option 1 in that post, as you’ll be moving a large number of files.
- Turn back to and follow the instructions for moving the catalog to another drive.
- Once the move is complete, open the catalog at the new location and check that the photos are linked to the external drive and everything looks correct. (If you’ve followed the instructions above, they will be linked up correctly.
- Next week, we’ll cover how to share your presets with both computers.
- Quit Lightroom on Computer A.
- Safely disconnect the portable hard drive.
- Plug portable the hard drive into Computer B.
- Open Lightroom on Computer B. If the photos are marked as missing, perhaps because the drive letter has changed or you’re moving cross-platform, turn to to fix the broken links.