Tips For Syncing A Lightroom Editing Laptop With A Work Station

When I bought a laptop a few weeks ago, it was for a specific purpose: being able to work on my photos while traveling. But my primary concern was to keep in sync my Lightroom catalogs between my laptop and my desktop computer at home. I’ve read about solutions that would require you to merge catalogues by importing and exporting catalogs from one computer to the other. I wasn’t quite happy with that process, so here’s the solution I came up with.

Tips For Syncing A Lightroom Editing Laptop With A Work Station

Before we start

A few things to note:

  • This is aimed at Windows users, but it should be simple enough to extrapolate to Mac OS users
  • I’m using Dropbox, but any other service/software which automatically synchronizes folders between several computers will work just as well.

Also, I made a few workflow decisions that had an impact on the solution I chose:

  • On the laptop, I am only interested in editing the photos taken while I’m away. I do not need to work on “old” photos, therefore I have no need to keep them in sync on the laptop.
  • I consider my laptop to be a temporary workstation. Once I’m back home, I want to transfer all the work to my desktop PC so I can carry on working on a big screen. And I want to do that as seamlessly as possible.

Syncing the catalog

This is the easy part. My initial idea was to use Dropbox to sync the catalog between the two computers. However, I didn’t want to sync all the RAW files as well, as they represent about 10 times the storage allowance I have on Dropbox. So I simply moved my .lrcat file (and this file only) to my Dropbox folder, and had Lightroom open it from there.

Job done. Provided your photos live in the same place on both computers (e.g. C:\Photos), Lightroom will find them and everything will just work. Every time you import photos into Lightroom on the laptop, Dropbox will sync the catalog for you (and provide an off-site backup in the process).

At the end of my trip, when I come back to my PC, Dropbox will fetch the latest version of the catalog, and all the edit work I’ve done on the laptop will magically appear on the PC. The new photos will be listed as offline until I move them from the laptop to the desktop in the appropriate location, but I won’t need to re-import them in Lightroom.

Tips For Syncing A Lightroom Editing Laptop With A Work Station

What if my photos live in different locations on the two computers?

That’s where the trick comes in. We’re going to make Lightroom believe the laptop photos live in the same location as on the desktop.

Consider the following example: on my desktop PC, my photos are stored in F:\Photography\Lightroom\Raws, so for the magic sync to work, I need to have an F:\Photography\Lightroom\Raws folder structure on my laptop. But I don’t have an F: drive on my laptop. Am I stuck? Not really.

There’s a neat and very easy to use tool called Visual Subst that will assign a drive letter to any folder you want. (If you are an old schooler, you can, of course, use subst from the cmd console : )

Tips For Syncing A Lightroom Editing Laptop With A Work Station

On the laptop, I’ve created the following folder structure: C:\work\photography\Lightroom\Raws. Then, I used Visual Subst to assign the letter F: to the folder C:\work. (Make sure to tick “Apply virtual drives on Windows startup” or you’ll have to do this every time you start the laptop). Now, when I look in Explorer, I have the proper folder structure.

Tips For Syncing A Lightroom Editing Laptop With A Work Station

As I’m using the exact same catalog as on PC, Lightroom on the laptop will be already set to import new photos to F:\Photography\Lightroom\Raws.

From that point on, the workflow is quite simple:

  1. Go on a trip
  2. Take photos and import them in Lightroom, edit them if you want to.
  3. Return home
  4. Move (or copy) your photos from your laptop to your desktop.
  5. Carry on working on your desktop PC.

I’m assuming you have internet access on the go. If you don’t, simply make sure Dropbox on the laptop has synced before you go and after you come back.

Word of caution: In Windows, when you delete something from a virtual drive, it doesn’t go in the recycle bin, it’s deleted forever, so be careful.

About the author

Cédric Hauteville is an England-based photographer and video game designer. You can follow him on Twitter, Flickr and check out his website.

  • Mitch

    Thank you for your article and that’s a very interesting approach but it doesn’t work for me because I have a separate volume for my photos on my desktop and a different directory structure on my MacBook.

    I have explained this to several people over the years so I decided to write up my entire procedure.

    Maybe you would be interested to see this:

    • Cédric Hauteville

      I believe there’s a way to get past that using clever file links in OS X, but yes, this technique may not be suitable for everyone.

    • German Martin Aguado

      Indeed, data can be on different folders if relative paths from catalog file is the same.

  • Vlad Didenko

    With all facilities for sharing files I found that the biggest danger with them is metadata corruption. Both the one I use (Synology NAS) and the one suggested in the article (Dropbox) add user value by processing and presenting images through their own tools. While doing that, they do touch metadata files, sometimes in bulk, and thus confuse Lightroom.

    In Synology make sure you do not store images managed by lightroom in the “photos” share. In Dropbox make sure you do not accidentally enable any photo features on the directories with photos managed by Lightroom.

    On the other note, Lightroom provides rudimentary locking mechanism to have only one of it’s instances modify a catalog at a time. When a catalog being shared via a networking facility, it is a higher possibility that connection will be lost at an unfortunate moment and the operator will not notice that. In the best scenario, the other instance will see the catalog as locked and refuse to use it. In the worst scenario, the synced copy will be inconsistent – effectively broken.

    In needs to be emphasised in this setup, that:

    1. Catalog backups before switching computers are a MUST.

    2. If an instance of Lightroom refuses to start of complains about a broken catalog, DO NOT FORCE repair. Immediately disable syncing on both computers. Go to the other computer, and make the catalog backup there. Make sure the catalog is good and current there. Then double-check the sync chain. Make sure (force) the good catalog synced up to the shared space. Then make a force sync into the damaged catalog. If your sync facility allows it, override the catalog folder.

    There is a good reason Adobe chose to recommend to deal with catalog exports on multiple computers. “Sharing” solutions do look simpler on the surface – until one runs into a corrupted catalog scenario.

    • Cédric Hauteville

      The whole idea behind this setup is that the original image files are nowhere near the Dropbox folder. So there’s no risk for the metadata to be altered by Dropbox.

      You’re making a very good point regarding the risks of corruption, though. In my case, as I’m the only one who has access to both computers, it’s just a matter of discipline to do things in the correct order to avoid risks of corruption.

      Thanks for your input.

      • Vlad Didenko

        I am totally with you about the originals.

        From what I understand, for off-line editing, you still need to generate and share smart previews between the computers. From what I understand, Lightroom at least looks into those files’ metadata, including create/modify times. That WILL be confused by the image processing facilities of shared services if they choose to alter the files (DNG). It pretty much is an undefined behaviour situation.

        It may or may not matter for your specific setup. I personally do consider that as an issue, as I do not know how much a software vendor will rely on intact undocumented metadata in future versions.

        • Cédric Hauteville

          Hmm, as far as I can see, you can’t develop offline images (which in my workflow is perfectly acceptable). On my computer(s), the previews files are not .dng but .lrprev files. I’m not sure why it’s different (maybe because I don’t convert my files to DNG), but as it happens, it saves me from the issue you’re mentioning.

          Good spot again for people who might be affected by this.

          • Vlad Didenko

            Your workflow is beneficial for two computers, if needed. But sure you can post-process offline. That is the whole point of smart previews feature (vs. regular previews). Helps many people to avoid syncing you are talking about. See the video for a tutorial.

  • aaronbrethorst

    I just do catalog subset exports. It’s not nearly as slick as the method described here, but, given even a small risk of corruption, it just feels safer. I wish Adobe would come up with a better solution for this. It’s my greatest pet peeve about Lightroom by a wide margin.

  • David O’Sullivan

    I just use an external HDD. I started doing it that way when my MBP ran out of space and kept it that way. The LR catalogue lives on the HDD in a separate folder from the images and even over usb it is fast enough.

  • Hudi Greenberger

    There a MUCH simpler way of doing this. Cubby is a Dropbox like service but if u pay for a pro account (which is half the price of Dropbox btw – $100/yr gets you 200gb) then they also throw in a feature called Direct Sync. Basically this feature does what Dropbox does, i.e. Keeping all your computers in sync, but when you choose to sync them with direct sync, it DOES NOT upload to the cloud!! meaning your 200gb is still totally free for real file storage!
    I have my studio PC and my home PC in constant sync with each other. As soon as anything happens on my studio, it automatically gets sync’d to my home and visa versa – and costs me nothing of my online storage limits!

    The only thing you need to make sure of is that Lightroom is NOT open on your 2nd PC until everything is done syncing. Otherwise you’ll end up with conflicts…

    And after writing this I realized it actually might not work well for your situation lol. Because it can only sync if both PC’s are online at the same time and laptops of course are not always on…

    Hope this helps!

    • Hudi Greenberger

      Oh – and you can choose any folder pair to have sync together, so they don’t havta be in the same locations on each computer! You can have C:Photos on PC #1 syncing with X:LrRAWs on the PC #2. you just setup the folder pair and your done. (works on Mac of course too)

  • eomo

    May I suggest a more elegant (and free!) solution? I have been using BitTorrent Sync ( to do exactly this. It cuts out the online storage limit of Dropbox and similar offerings, instead using a p2p offering. The reason I think it is more elegant is that you can specify the folders to sync up (source and destination), so my LR folder lives in the same spot as before.

    Added benefit: I’ve been using this as a way to transfer large amounts of photos to friends and family as well, I used to use Dropbox for that.

    Seems like BTSync is not as well known in public, so I thought I’d share it. Maybe the BitTorrent name puts people off? I don’t know.

    • Tor Ivan Boine

      I tried this. But Lightroom on main machine wont read the updated xmp-files that I have edited on my laptop. I have to force LR to read the updated xmp-file. suggestions?

  • Ilker Sen

    Or skip dropbox entirely and use unison (free) to sync 2 folders securely over ssh with back ups and all… I use the command line version on win via cygwin, but I hear there’s a nice gui for the command line challenged for win and mac.

  • dorn

    What about the lightroom settings themselves. Things like Actions and presets… ? How would that work?

    • Cédric Hauteville

      You can have Lightroom save them with the catalogue, so in this setup, Dropbox would sync them.

      • dorn

        thanks! That is what I thought but was not completely sure.

  • Anton Rehrl


    I figured out how to have a single catalog on multiple machines with the photos shared on a NAS on my network. Its similar to your method however it uses Bit Torrent Sync so there is no size limit to the catalog or catalogs

    Ive been using it for a couple of months without problems and it syncs up really quickly. It can even keep the different machines in sync if they are in different locations just over the internet.

  • Reid J. Thaler

    How well does it work to have the Lightroom catalog on dropbox? My catalog is 1.8 GB so syncing the file would be really slow. Just curious how you’ve dealt with that. Also, I would assume that you are also including the Smart and Preview folders, which would add to the total.

    One of my back ups is to an external drive, but when I plug it into my laptop, I have to remap the folders in Lightroom, which takes time. Perhaps either using Visual Subst or making sure all my photographs folders are in the same child folder of my data drive so I only have to re-map one folder in Lightroom would work.

  • Laura Rubio

    I have a similar issue that I still don´t know how to resolve. I use Lightroom on my Macbook Air exclusively, and thus I am very limited by my 120GB internal hard drive.
    What I’ve been doing is keeping all my files on an external hard drive while keeping the catalog (with a few smart previews) in the internal hard drive.
    I’m thinking about purchasing a Dropbox plan so I don’t have to worry about my external hard drive getting damaged while I travel and losing my only copy of all my photos. However, I can’t think of a way to export to Dropbox from Lightroom the way I do it with my External Hard drive. Bare in mind that I can’t simply sync my Dropbox folder into my Computer because it wouldn’t fit.

    Could you maybe look into this? I would appreciate it a lot.

    Thank you very much,