Lightroom catalogs, syncing and external drives

OK Lightroom experts. I’ve been rolling an idea around in my head and have done some searches for info, but haven’t found exactly the scenario I’m contemplating so I thought I’d put it here and see what you all think.

I have a big LR catalog right now and use an 8TB external drive for all the media. The catalog itself sits on my local drive. All well and good and I’ve been using a system like this for over a decade. The trouble is the 8TB drive requires an external power supply and I’m basically tethered to it. If I want to get out of direct sunlight in the living room or use the large monitor in the office, it’s more of a pain to do since I have to move the 8TB along with the laptop and a hub. I also can’t easily work on the deck in the summer, etc. I know, I know…first world problems!

What I’d like to do is use another external drive, call it Little Red, as my working drive for day-to-day editing because it doesn’t need a separate power supply. As it’s a smaller drive I will be using a subset of the images on the 8TB. What I want to do is sync the catalog data between the two - there is no need to import media since it already lives on the 8TB.

Example of workflow -

  1. Import RAW files to 8TB drive
  2. Make picks and initial cull
  3. Publish those RAW files to Little Red
  4. Work on them
  5. Periodically sync the work I’ve done with the same files on the 8TB

The question is, do I need to use a single catalog and have missing folders or files on Little Red or can I have a 2nd catalog for the day-to-day editing? If so, how do I update the Master Catalog with the changes on the Mobile Catalog without re-adding media?

Or is this just the wrong method entirely? I’ve never used a local drive for media, but I know that some folks do and periodically purge the drive and offload it to an external drive. I suppose I could work that way as well, but I’d prefer to have a smaller subset media pool on Little Red and basically use the 8TB as a master storage drive.

Did that make any sense at all?

A couple ideas for you…

  1. Get an 8TB SSD! This is what I do, it was pricey but so worth it. I keep my catalog and all my photos on here. This way I can plug the drive into any computer that has Lightroom and start working with no issues. Here’s the drive and you’ll need an enclosure like this
  2. To actually answer your question…:smile: I used to do this where I kept some of my raw files on my internal drive so I didn’t need an external at all. These were just the ones I knew I wanted to work on, or recent images. Once I was done with them I would just move them to the external drive (move inside Lightroom). You don’t want to have two copies of the files, that will lead to a nightmare. Just move over the files you want to Little Red, then move them back when you’re done. There are ways to use separate catalogs and sync them, but this really complicates things, especially since all your presets, settings, etc. will be different in each catalog. Moving the files between the drives is so much easier IMO.

Yeah, a big external SSD would be ideal, but I’m trying to stretch the life of the drives I have in the interest of frugality. Hopefully the price comes down so it’s more feasible in the short term.

Anyway, so if I’m reading you right things would go a couple of ways -

  1. Import to Little Red using separate catalog
  2. Work on photos
  3. Move files to 8TB to Master catalog by importing from another catalog
  4. No file sharing - each RAW file only lives on one drive at a time

So this would leave me with a very abbreviated media pool on Little Red. I suppose I could live with that in the interest of flexible locations when working on recent photos.

Or would it be -

  1. Import to 8TB using Master Catalog
  2. Move to Little Red using a separate catalog
  3. Work on photos
  4. Move back to Master Catalog - but would this be import from another catalog since the file itself would have to be reimported into the Master Catalog?

I wonder if Previews could work instead of using the actual files on Little Red. Hmmm…

I just now found this on Adobe’s website and it seems to be applicable. I just need to dive deeper -

Upon further investigation, that’s going to be the way to do it. I can copy RAW files and do all editing, exporting and using plug ins and then just update metadata and develop settings when syncing to the Master Catalog. Any new photos I add to the Little Red catalog can be imported to the Master as well. Will test it when I have the drives set and see how it goes.

I can set up a Smart Collection to gather all the photos I want to use immediately and export that as a collection. I can also export a whole folder or group of folders if I don’t want to separate any from the herd. Interesting.

I was going to ask if using Smart Previews would help but if you have to export a image to PS that might not work.

Right on that, Dean. You need the full “negative file” as Adobe calls it in order to use plugins or other editing software. That’s ok, I have plenty of space on Little Red.

Funny that drive space has come up because I haven’t been keeping my rejects and lately I have been thinking of keeping them and saving them in sub folders. I do group my raw and edited image so I always have the raw as a CR3. I will need a bigger drive if I start doing that. You got me thinking about this again

I have been trying to delete my rejects right away and that’s worked pretty well. I’ve even purged older files of crap that are just bad photos or things I’ll never work with again. It was hard at first, but then got easier. When the heck am I going to need a photo of a dandelion in the yard from 2011 for? Or 23 views of the same weird rock? Stuff like that has to go as do stacked image sources once the stack is successfully done. Right now I have done up to August 2014 and so obviously need to keep going.

I think you’re making this harder than it needs to be. I’d offer this option:

Plug in Little Red and the 8TB to your Macbook.

If you don’t have any images or folders on Little Red then you won’t see it the Folders Section of the Library module. If it isn’t there, Create a new folder on Little Red. You need to do this inside LR.

Library / New Folder…

Create it on Little Red

Now all you need to do is drag images from your 8TB drive to a folder or folders on Little Red. Doesn’t matter if you’ve already worked on them of not, all the processing information is in the catalog so when you open them on Little Red, all the processing will go along with the image. This will Move the images from the 8TB to Little Red.

Now you can just unplug the 8TB drive, go work on the images anywhere you want with Little Red plugged in. When you’re done, go back and plug in the 8TB drive and drag and drop the images from Little Red to the 8TB.

No need for any extra catalogs, importing / exporting catalogs etc.

Seems simpler to me.


If your master catalog is stored on your internal drive then I really don’t think this is necessary. It adds a whole lot of complexity for no reason. Here’s what I was trying to get at:

  1. Import your photos as you normally would with your 8TB plugged in.
  2. With both drives plugged in select the photos you want to work on and move them inside Lightroom from the 8TB to Little Red.
  3. Unplug the 8TB but leave Little Red in, go work wherever you want. The files on the 8TB will show as missing working this way since the drive isn’t there, but it doesn’t hurt anything and will be back when you plug in the drive again.
  4. When you’re done working on those files on Little Red, move them back to the 8TB drive when you have them both plugged in again

The other way of syncing catalogs is more for when you have two different computers you are working on, such as a laptop and desktop.

Edit: Same thing Keith said! :point_up_2:


Great minds think alike! Excellent ideas guys and I’ll give that method a try because it does seem easier. I do tend to get a bit squiggle eyed when it comes to the catalog and not wrecking stuff so sometimes it gets overly complex with the ifs, ands and buts.

Keith’s idea is straightforward. Messing around with catalogs scares me. The catch-22 is how much complexity you want to have with Little Red – with this system you could edit images but could have added complexity if you want to rearrange folders and the like.

I think I saw somewhere that you got a new MacBook? How big a SSD do you have? I only have 1 TB and it is half full with a lot of software and documents. But the remaining 500 GB is a lot of room to do editing. When I download a card it goes directly on the internal SSD, to a LR Downloads folder, and I do my initial deleting and editing. I can publish to my Smugmug site from there. When I’m running out of room or tired of looking at a recent folder, I just move it to my external RAID drive (18 TB) – in LR. (Catalog and backups are on the internal SSD. Backups get copied to the RAID.)

I never tried moving a folder back to the internal SSD but I could.

But a very important consideration is your backup strategy. Whatever you get (or already have) – have an identical backup. Chronosync is straightforward and robust. Drives and enclosures are guaranteed to fail. If practical, keep one copy offsite and switch it often.

Yes I have a new MacBook Pro with 1TB SSD internally. It seems like that’s the better place to put temporary files as I was thinking this through last night. There’s no reason for me to have a big media pool locally and can shift them off to the 8TB when I’m done. My task today is to try it out and see what works.

My back up has always been another external drive (right now Little Red has this job) with a subset of RAW, PSD and TIF files from the main catalog - picks basically - and that’s what gets saved to the cloud as well. Having worked 22 years in the IT industry, I know the fatality of spinning disks pretty well and have had a scare or two so I feel like I’m in a pretty good place. Eventually the 8TB will most likely get replaced by a RAID system of some stripe (see what I did there? lol) and Little Red with an SSD. I also have a 2TB drive that I’ll use for Time Machine back ups. I have precious little on the internal drive and so I think that will work.

OK so it worked sort of. I could drag whole folders from external to internal drive, but not back again. The tiny folder icon dragged to the new location and the green + sign lit when I placed it over where it should go, but the icon snapped back to its original location. Nothing I did would get it to move using Lr. I had to move the files back to the drive in finder and then synchronize the folder. Not optimal. Have done some searching as to why this behavior, but so far nothing. All advice is to do the work around as I have done. Bah. Will keep experimenting.

Not sure I got all this – except the pun!

Starting over for clarity: I have a folder on the Mac SSD named LR Imports (lives on the desktop, for no special reason) and it is just another folder in the LR catalog, along with a hierarchical set on the RAID. So imports go into it, and after editing those folders get moved to the RAID – by drag and drop using the Folders panel in LR. So the catalog is completely updated.

Not sure I ever had an occasion to move something from the RAID to the MacHD but I just tried it and it works.

So – one catalog, as many folders scattered across as many drives as you want, internal and external, always flexible.

About a RAID drive – I wouldn’t do it again in the age of fast SSDs. It’s expensive, and cumbersome both physically and from a workflow standpoint. Mother Apple keeps trying to access it when she doesn’t need to – yet another example of trying to run my iLife for me. She can take her idea of an iLife and shove it.

Sorry about the pun. I’m evil with them sometimes.

That’s pretty clear and so I basically duplicated the idea - created a folder on the Mac SSD using Lightroom to do it with the + Folder function. Then I dragged a folder from the 8TB into that new one which left the old one empty in its original spot. I worked on a few images and then went to move the folder back to the 8TB and it wouldn’t go. I am trying to figure out why. It might be that I have to remove the old folder from the 8TB and not leave it empty. More experimenting will be necessary unless someone has an obvious answer that I’m not seeing.

Luckily I still have the entire archive of RAW files on Little Red which is a 5TB so can take it.

Good info about the RAID drive - I knew you were having issues with it and so I may decide on single SSDs instead when the time comes. Hopefully the larger capacities have come down in price by then.

Drag the folder icon from the internal drive to the Parent folder on the 8TB drive where you want it to go. Important part there… The Parent folder

If your move left the old one empty in its original spot, you just moved the contents. Move the folder itself. But you can move contents – if that’s what you want. Select a bunch of files and move. But the easy way is simply moving folders, just like you can move them within the structure of your 8TB drive. You can park a folder anywhere you want – at the top of a hierarchy or inside any other folder. Internally inside a drive or between drives works the same way.

I often have reason to move some of the contents of a folder to another one – select files and drag. All from LR so the catalog is updated.

OK folks thanks for all your patience with my bizarre inability to make this work. I think I have it functioning well now. I’ve done some experiments and figured things out and I am confident about things moving forward. Much nicer to really be mobile with my mobile computer and to be able to edit on the big monitor in the office downstairs much more easily. Plus I can elude the sun easier as well (it’s like musical chairs in my living room in the early morning and late afternoon - so many huge windows). Sometimes we get into ruts with processes and methods that might have been necessary at one time, but when they aren’t it can be tough to break out. If that makes sense.

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