Workflow: Traveling with Adobe Lightroom 2. Upload In-the-Field and Import from Laptop to Desktop at Home.

by Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen on June 15, 2009

UPDATE: Although this article refers to an older version of Lightroom, the concepts mentioned are still valid.
To see the latest version of Lightroom, click here.

When I travel, I photograph every day. At night in my hotel room, I copy the images off of my CF cards and onto my laptop computer. I use Lightroom 2 for this just as I do on my main desktop computer at home.

In the Field

At the end of each day, I import that day’s images from my CF card into Lightroom. Using Lightroom’s Import dialogue, I automatically rename them and add a few common keywords as they are imported. In order to speed things up, I’ll tell Lightroom to create minimal previews. If I’m planning to let the computer run all night while I sleep – a common procedure for me – I’ll use standard previews.

Once all the images have been imported and annotated, I back up the catalog and all of the images to two separate portable hard drives so that I have three copies: one on the laptop and one on each of the two external hard drives. Because it’s faster than exporting a Lightroom catalog, I do this outside of Lightroom.

I use Western Digital My Passport Essential External USB Hard Drives. They are available in sizes up to 500GB, but I don’t need that much space. I bought a red one and a blue one so I can easily tell them apart. They weigh only ounces and are powered by the USB port on your laptop. There is no AC power supply to lug around.

I plug both hard drives into the laptop, then I use Windows to drag each folder of images, the Lightroom catalog file – ending in .lrcat – and the Lightroom previews (.lrdata) onto one of the hard drives and then repeat for the second external drive. Windows will allow you to copy the files simultaneously to two separate drives. Lightroom will not. By manually dragging the appropriate files I’ve accomplished everything that a Lightroom catalog-export would except for one. I’ll explain this later.

When I’m ready to return home, I don’t want to travel with all three copies together. I usually ship one drive home via USPS Priority Mail (read my article about using USPS Flat Rate Boxes), pack the other drive in my checked luggage, and carry my laptop onto the plane. By separating them this way, I minimize the risk of losing all of my work. Maybe this is a bit paranoid. So far, all three copies have always arrived home safely. But why take a chance?

Back at Home

Once I return home, it’s time to move all of my images and data to my desktop computer and wipe the laptop clean so it’s ready for the next trip.

Lightroom can't find the images when I open the Lightroom catalog on my portable hard drive

Lightroom can't find the images when I open the Lightroom catalog on my portable hard drive

First, I need to fix that little problem I mentioned earlier when I made my copies using Windows instead of Lightroom. When I use my desktop computer to open the Lightroom catalog from the backup hard drive, it can’t find any of the images. Each thumbnail will have the little “bug” icon on it and the folders will all have question marks on them indicating that Lightroom has lost track of the original images.

That’s because it is expecting to find them on the laptop’s hard drive to which the backup drive is no longer connected. But, since the images are also on the backup drive, there is a simple fix. Open Lightroom and navigate to the catalog on the external hard drive (or simply double-click on that catalog’s .lrcat file and Lightroom will open it).

Right-click on each Lightroom folder and choose "Find missing folder."

Right-click on each Lightroom folder and choose "Find missing folder."

Then, right-click on each Lightroom folder and choose “find missing folder.” You’ll have to do this for each folder, but since you’re not moving any images, it only takes a second for each one. If you have a lot of folders, this can be a bit tedious, but I find it better than wasting precious time while I’m traveling. There never seems to be enough time on the road.

Import the Lightroom Catalog

Here’s how to transfer all the photos onto your desktop computer and incorporate the catalog into your main catalog on your desktop. If you like to keep a separate catalog for each journey, you can simply drag the files to your desktop – the same way you did when making backups in the field. But I like to keep everything in one catalog.

1)     With one of the external hard drives plugged into your desktop computer, open your main Lightroom catalog on your desktop computer. My main catalog is called “New Photos.”

2)      When asked by Lightroom, back up your main catalog just in case something goes wrong.

3)      12-import-from-catalogGo to the File menu and choose “Import from Catalog …” Do not click the Import button in the lower part of the left panel. That is for importing new photos only. Import from Catalog will import the photos as well as all the keywords, captions and other metadata you added during your travels.

4)      Navigate to the Lightroom catalog (.lrcat) on your external drive. Select it and click “Choose.”

5)      Two small progress windows will open and close relatively quickly. The first one says “Creating temporary working copy of catalog, “and the second one says “checking photo locations.” These are both tasks that Lightroom performs in preparation for importing the catalog and should take no more than a few seconds apiece.


6)      Next, the Import from Catalog window will pop up. Here, you can make changes to the way Lightroom imports your photos. Once you set this up, the settings in this window will stay the same unless you deliberately change them. Next time you import a catalog you can quickly verify the settings and click the Import button.

7)      You can un-check some of the folders if there are old photos that you don’t want to import. Since I want to import everything, I don’t make any changes and leave them all with a check mark. Make sure that for File Handling you choose, “Copy photos to a new location and import,” so that the photos are copied off the external drive onto your desktop’s hard drive. If the drop-down menu does not give you the option to “Copy photos to a new location and import,” it’s because you’ve missed a step. Be sure to open the catalog you created on your laptop before you open you main desktop catalog and find all the missing folders as mentioned in the paragraph above that begins, “First, I need to fix that little problem.”

8)      Choose the folder where you want to move the photos. I put all my photos into a folder called “New Photos” on my F: drive. Lightroom will automatically add subfolders under the New Photos folder with the same names as you see in the Catalog Contents pane.

9)      Click the “Import” button.

Naming Template Bug in Adobe Lightroom 2.3


Naming template error.

Here’s where a small bug in Lightroom 2.3 raises its ugly head. Once I click Import, a window pops up that says “A naming template has been chosen which uses custom text, but the custom text field is blank. Are you sure you want to continue?” There are two buttons: OK and Cancel.

This is related to the naming template I have set up when I import photos from a CF card using the Import button I previously told you not to use. When I import files from a CF card, I automatically rename them upon import using a prefix that I manually type in along with part of the original file name. So, “_DSC 1984.nef” becomes something like “K0609A1984.nef”.

Naming template showing custom text field

Naming template showing custom text field

For some reason, Lightroom is checking this template and telling me I forgot to fill in the field where I would normally put “K0609A.” This is completely unnecessary when importing a catalog since I want to keep the names I gave the images when I imported them in the field. They already have the correct naming format for my purposes. If you see this message, you’ll have to cancel the import and make some changes to the naming template. Otherwise, all of your images will be imported with incorrect names.

10)   Click Cancel to close the warning box and then Cancel the catalog import.

11)   Click on the Import button in the left panel and navigate to one of the images on your external hard drive.

12)   The Import Photos window pops up. In the File Naming section, choose Filename from the dropdown. This tells Lightroom that you don’t want to rename the image upon import and causes the Custom Text field – the source of this bug – to disappear. Also make sure any keywords appearing in the keyword field are deleted.

13)   Click Import to import the single image. You must import an image for the file naming settings to stick. If you instead press Cancel, they revert back to the old settings and you’ve accomplished nothing.

14)   Once the thumbnail appears, you need to delete it so you don’t end up with a duplicate image in your main database.  Select the thumbnail for the imported image and click the Delete (DEL) key on your keyboard. Then choose Delete from disk.

15)   Once you’ve fixed the file naming problem, start the Catalog Import process over again. This time, when you click the Import button, the photos will be properly imported.

If you have any questions about this procedure, or if you have a better way to do it, please leave a comment on this article so we can all learn from it. I check comments often and look forward to your input.

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1 Ernesto Corte June 17, 2009 at 11:01 am

As usual you do a great job in explaining things. I read your article on Lightroom with particular interest- i am in he process of deciding Lightroom/Aperture


2 Alan Haynes June 19, 2009 at 12:58 pm


Being a Windows user, I don’t have that dilemma. I hear that Aperture is a very good program. But with Adobe’s muscle behind it, I think that Lightroom will become the industry-standard image management program.

They’ve already done it in the image-editing arena with Photoshop. Expect a repeat performance with Lightroom.


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