photo management

Photo Management for the Road Warrior: A Lightroom Travel Workflow

A question I am frequently asked is how I manage all of my photographs while traveling. I travel a lot. I’m on the road about half of the year. During this time I create tons of photographs, all of which I download and edit on my laptop. How, then, do I sync these photos with those in my primary Lightroom catalog back home? Easy. Let me show you how.

A Great Workflow for Small Lightroom Catalogs

When teaching Lightroom, I typically recommend having only one catalog. This alleviates much confusion and complexity for the new Lightroom user, and it complies with the philosophy of the way the software was designed.

I also suggest creating the Lightroom catalog on an external drive and storing all of the images on that same drive. (Click here for a simple explanation of how the Lightroom Catalog works.)

This strategy keeps all of your images, settings and catalog in one place. Then you can take that drive on the road with you, and work on the road just as you would work when home. When you return from your trip, you can plug that drive into your desktop computer and launch the same Lightroom catalog you had been working with while traveling. Finally, when it comes time to back up, you simply purchase two other drives of the same capacity and clone your master drive to the two backup drives.

This system works incredibly well … until you have too many images to carry around with you. (More on that later.)

Creating a Catalog on an External Drive

So how do we go about doing this?

1. Plug the external drive into your computer and open a Finder/Explorer window.

2. Navigate to the external drive.

3. Create a new folder on the drive called “Primary Lightroom Photographs” (or whatever else makes sense to you). This is where you will store all of your actual photo files.

4. Double-click on the Lightroom application while holding down the Alt/Option key (Apple) or the Alt key (PC). This will force Lightroom to open the Select Catalog dialog box (Figure 1).         

Figure 1.

5. Click the Create a New Catalog button (circled in red in Figure 1).

6. Navigate to your external hard drive and create a folder there with a name such as “Primary Lightroom Catalog.” This folder will house your Lightroom catalog (in the LRCAT file format). You will also see your Primary Lightroom Photographs (or whatever you named it) folder (Figure 2).This is where you will store your actual images.

Figure 2.

7. When you want to launch this catalog, navigate to the external drive, click on the Primary Lightroom Catalog Folder and double-click the LRCAT file (Figure 3).

Figure 3.

Larger Lightroom Catalogs, Larger Hard Drives

OK, back to that pesky problem of having too many photos for the aforementioned approach to work. Once you create enough imagery, it will be impractical to keep all of your images with you on a portable external drive. In this case you’ll want to have a large hard drive at home. I use a LaCie 16TB RAID Array (Figure 4).

For those of you who are afraid to delete any of your images, or for those who perhaps shoot a lot of video, you’ll want even more space than I have. You’re in luck, as even bigger versions are available. LaCie, for instance, offers their series of RAID arrays in sizes rangings from 8 TB to 168 TB! Purchasing a large hard drive allows room to expand, and it serves as a single location to keep all of your images.

To create a Lightroom catalog on one of these workhorses, follow the directions above, but instead of using a portable external drive, use your RAID (or equivalent).

Taking it with You

That solves your storage needs at home, but what about on the road? Well, once you have all of your images on your home-based hard drive, you use a smaller hard drive to take with you when traveling. That smaller drive won’t contain every image you have, but it will give you the capability to add to your home-based catalog quite easily once the trip is over.

There are countless sizes and brands from which to choose, but again I go with LaCie for their consistent quality. If you feel you’ll need a ton of storage on the road (4 to 8 TB), I recommend the Rugged series of hard drives. Tough, reliable and with ample storage, these drives will serve even the most prolific photographer. I use a superfast 2 TB SSD drive. These drives have no moving parts to knock around and are lightning fast. They range in capacity from 500 GB to 2 TB.

Once again, create a new catalog on your “travel drive,” this time in a folder called something like “Travel Catalog.”

When you are on the road, simply plug in this smaller drive and use it as you would use your larger home-based drive. This means that when you want to launch Lightroom, you navigate to this travel drive, go into to the folder that contains your catalog, and double-click on the LRCAT file. This will launch this specific catalog and alleviate any confusion if you have multiple catalogs on your computer.

When downloading your images on the road, be sure to import them into the Travel Photographs folder on this drive. This strategy keeps both your catalog and your images in one place: on your external travel drive.

Syncing Your Lightroom Catalogs

When you return home from your trip, it’s time to sync your catalogs.

1. Plug your travel drive into the same computer that your home-based drive is plugged into.

2. Launch your Primary Catalog from your home-based hard drive.

3. From the File menu, choose Import from Another Catalog (Figure 6).

Figure 6.

4. Navigate to your travel drive, click on your LRCAT file (Figure 7) and then click Choose.

Figure 7.

5. You’ll be shown the dialog in Figure 8. Check all of the boxes at the upper left to import all of your images from your travel drive to your home-based drive. By default all the images in the right-hand window will be checked. If they’re not, click the Check All button.

Figure 8.

6. Under file handling, choose “Copy new photos to a new location and import.”

7. Click the Choose button (circled in Figure 9) to select the folder on your primary drive that you would like to put the images in. In this example, I’ve navigated to the Primary Lightroom Photos folder on my Primary drive. Once again, click Choose.

Figure 9.

That’s it! Sit back and let Lightroom copy all of the images from your travel drive onto your primary drive. The beautiful thing about this method is that it not only copies your images but it also includes their adjustments, keywords and any other changes you’ve made while on the road.

When the process is complete, back up your entire primary drive—both the catalog and the RAW files. Only then should you erase the images from your travel drive. (I never want to delete that travel drive until I have at least two other copies of those files.)

In Short …

The key is to keep it simple. Your primary drive should contain only two folders: Primary Photos and Primary Lightroom Catalog (Figure 10). Always launch your Primary Drive Catalog while at home and keep this catalog organized.

Figure 10.

When you create your travel drive folder hierarchy, it should look the same. One folder for Photographs and one for the Catalog (Figure 11).

Figure 11.

Now you can use your lightweight travel drive on the road, and easily marry those images with your main catalog at journey’s end. Using this simple system will save you tons of time both at home and on the road.

Moreover, there’s a bonus! You can use this same Import from Another Catalog command to consolidate any extra Lightroom catalogs you may have lying around. Launch your Primary Catalog and choose Import from Another Catalog. Then simply point to whichever stray catalog you would like to import into your Primary. Repeat this process for each of the extra catalogs you may have. Once all of your images are in your Primary Catalog, you can delete all those older catalogs. And then back it up!

Note: If you’d like assistance setting up Lightroom to work this way, the National Parks at Night crew is happy to help! See our Tutoring page to learn how to connect with us one-one-one.

Tim Cooper is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. Learn more techniques from his book The Magic of Light Painting, available from Peachpit.