Reader Question: Moving Images From One Computer To Another

November 17, 2008 | | Comments 23

Reader Martin asks, “How can I transfer the photos in Lightroom on my Apple laptop to Lightroom on my Apple tower?

This is a great question, Martin, and one that is deserving of a number of articles. I’ll try to describe the process briefly here, however, so you don’t have to wait for me to get all the other articles written!

Many photographers work with more than one machine, and being able to move images from one to another is a vital skill. There are two basic approaches to this problem:

  1. You can have one Lightroom Catalog file and collection of images that you move back and forth from one machine to another (typically on an external drive). Or…
  2. You can export a group of images out of one catalog and import them into a different catalog.

Using One Lightroom Catalog

Let’s look at this approach first, as it is probably the simplest. A little background information first.

You need to understand what the Lightroom Catalog is (and what it isn’t). The Lightroom Catalog is simply the database file that the Lightroom program uses to store information about your photographs. The catalog contains information such as the image preview, when it was taken, where it was taken, labels, keywords, collections it may be in, develop history, and on, and on, and on… David describes the catalog a bit in a video in his recent post.

The Lightroom Catalog does not contain your original image files, referred to by Lightroom as Negative Files. These are stored wherever you told Lightroom to store them when you imported your images. We typically store them in our computer’s Pictures folder.

So, where is this “Lightroom Catalog?” The Lightroom Catalog is, by default stored in your Pictures or My Pictures folder in a folder called Lightroom. Go look now. You should see that folder there. In the Lightroom folder, there should be a file called Lightroom 2 Catalog.lrcat. That file is your Lightroom Catalog. If you upgraded from Lightroom 1, there may be a file called Lightroom Catalog.lrcat, as well. That is your old Lightroom 1 catalog and can be safely removed. (You might want to keep it somewhere as a last ditch backup, but chances are, you already have more recent backups.)

Typical Location of the Lightroom Catalog

Typical Location of the Lightroom Catalog

There may be a few other files or folders in there. The Lightroom Settings folder contains any custom metadata templates, printing presets, file naming templates, etc. that you may have created, depending on how you have your preferences set. (Check out the Setting Preferences in Lightroom 2 article for more on that.) There may also be a Lightroom Previews file and a temporary file or two. Just leave those there.

If you are going to move back and forth from a laptop to a desktop computer, it may be easiest to just keep one main Lightroom Catalog (I, of course, am referring to a Lightroom 2 Catalog, although the same rules apply if you’re still using Lightroom 1) and its associated image files. (Always keep backups of all of these on a separate drive, just in case, of course.) If you keep the Lightroom Catalog and the images on a portable external hard drive, you can just move that drive from your laptop to your desktop and back, always seeing the same Lightroom Catalog with the same images and settings. (For a few suggested external hard drives, click on the “External Hard Drives” link on the Store page.)

To put this in practice, just move (or copy) the folder containing your images and your Lightroom Folder (with the Lightroom Catalog inside) to your external hard drive. To make sure you’re always working with this catalog in Lightroom, simply locate your Lightroom 2 Catalog.lrcat file on the external hard drive and double-click to open it in Lightroom. The workflow is pictured below. (Click on the image to view it full size.)

Option 1 - Store all your images and your Lightroom Catalog on one portable drive.

Option 1 - Store all your images and your Lightroom Catalog on one portable drive.

Exporting Images From One Catalog To Another

A more common (and possibly more useful) method is to export groups of images from one catalog and import them into another. Adobe has built in a useful method for us to use so that we can maintain as much information as possible with our images while moving them. This is the Export as a Catalog command.

In this scenario, we will assume that you have Lightroom installed on your desktop (tower). Therefore, you have a Lightroom Catalog on your desktop, and since I assume that’s where you’ll probably want to be doing the majority of your image editing, we’ll call that Catalog Catalog A. You also have Lightroom on your laptop with a Lightroom Catalog file. We’ll call this Catalog B.

We’re going to take a group of images out of Catalog B on your laptop and add them (with all of their corresponding metadata) to Catalog A on your desktop. To do this:

  1. On your laptop (Catalog B), select all of the images you’d like to move to your desktop in the Grid View of the Library Module.
  2. Select the images you'd like to export.

    Select the images you'd like to export.

  3. Choose File->Export as Catalog… This is going to create a new catalog (Catalog C) from the selected images which we will soon add to our desktop catalog (Catalog A).
  4. Choose File->Export as Catalog

    Choose File->Export as Catalog

  5. Name your temporary catalog and choose a location in which to save it. Saving it on an external drive is easiest, unless your laptop and desktop are networked. You’ll need some way to move this new catalog.
  6. Name your temporary catalog, choose a location, and click Export Catalog.

    Name your temporary catalog, choose a location, and click Export Catalog.

  7. As you can see from the image below, Lightroom has created a folder with this new catalog (both named whatever you specified) along with a Previews file and a copy of the original files (negative files). Connect the drive with this catalog to your desktop computer and open Lightroom. You should now be in Catalog A.
  8. Contents of Catalog C

    Contents of Catalog C

  9. Choose File->Import from Catalog…
  10. Choose File->Import from Catalog

    Choose File->Import from Catalog

  11. Choose your temporary catalog (Catalog C) and click Choose.
  12. Choose your temporary catalog and click Choose.

    Choose your temporary catalog and click Choose.

  13. An Import dialog will appear. Make sure you change the New Photos: File Handling drop down to “Copy new photos to a new location and import” and choose the location on your desktop where you’re storing your photos. Then click the Import button.
  14. Import from Catalog dialog box

    Import from Catalog dialog box

  15. These photos, and all of their metadata, develop history, etc., have been copied to your new catalog (Catalog A). If you’re satisfied that the transfer took place successfully, you can delete the temporary catalog folder (Catalog C), and you can delete the photos that you no longer want in Catalog B.
Option 2 - Move images from source catalog to destination catalog using an interim temporary catalog.

Option 2 - Move images from source catalog to destination catalog using an interim temporary catalog.

Of course, if you just want all of you images on your laptop (Catalog B) to be moved to your desktop (Catalog A), you can skip the creation of the temporary catalog (Catalog C) and just import Catalog B into Catalog A.

I promise it’s not as complicated as it sounds. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

Anyone else have any other suggestions or comments? Feel free to let us know below, or on the Contact Us page.


Filed Under: (04) Organizing with Lightroom(11) FAQAdobe Photoshop Lightroom Tutorials


About the Author: Scott Rouse is an Adobe Certified Expert (ACE), photographer, teacher, and graphic- and web-designer in Missoula, MT. His photography focuses on wildlife and adventure sports and can be viewed at His design and consulting work can be seen at