Points in Focus Photography

Lightroom from the Field to the Desktop

Back in May I went on an Alaska cruise, and being a photographer I obviously took the opportunity to shoot as much as I possible could. I also took my laptop, with Lightroom 6 on it, so I could work on my images as I went instead of being overwhelmed by a ton of pictures when I got home.

I can’t say I learned an awful lot new in the process, even though I’ve never worked this way before, but I thought I’d at least talk about it a little and go over some of the trade offs and processes in working on a laptop in the field then bringing that back and getting it on your desktop at home.

Also, while I’m currently using the latest version of Lightroom, everything I’m going to cover applies to previous versions as well.

Importing and Previews

While my laptop is every bit as capable of rendering standard or 1:1 previews as fast as my desktop, doing so uses power and I’m not always plugged in when I’m importing images. Moreover, rendering previews at import time will render the previews for every image that is imported. This has two potential impacts on the mobile user.

First, the obvious point, every image rendered requires the CPU to compute the rendered preview, this uses more power than the alternative of not rendering the previews.

The second consideration is less obvious but can be far more of a problem. Every standard or 1:1 preview that’s rendered consumes disk space that could potentially be used or needed to store copies of images from another card.

Normally on my desktop I render 1:1 previews on every import. This is of course computational expensive, and results in a lot larger preview cache, however, I can afford both the power and disk usage for the benefit of having a more responsive environment when I start editing and developing my images.

On my laptop I elected to eschew rendering standard or 1:1 previews to conserve energy and disk space by default. The down side to doing this was that I had to wait slightly longer to view or edit an image when I imported it. Instead of then higher resolution previews, I set my import preview option to Minimal.

Adobe offer’s four different options for rendering previews, minimal, embedded and sidecar, standard, and 1:1. Of the 4 options; minimal, and embedded and sidecar both avoid rendering a preview image in Lightroom until the preview is needed.

The difference, at least based on my reading of Adobe’s documentation, is that minimal only uses the embedded preview in the raw file while Embedded and Sidecar will use a full resolution JPEG if one exists from shooting in raw+jpeg mode.

Since, I shoot raw only, both the minimal and embedded and sidecar are functionally identical. However, though it may not make any material difference, I chose minimal since it would in theory save a couple of cycles looking for the JPEG sidecar file.

I have to say, my biggest concern with the whole preview rendering situation was more about disk space than it was CPU usage. Since I was on a cruise ship with plenty of power, I anticipated that I would be able to be plugged in most of the time anyway.

Storage, on the other hand was more of a concern. I had no idea going into the trip just how much content I would be producing, and I only have a 500GB drive in my laptop. Moreover, I know from looking at my preview files on my desktop, that with full size previews, I could expect to consume at least 32GB of space for previews if I managed to fill the whole 500GB drive.

All that said, not rendering the large previews up front does mean that you have to wait for them to render when you touch a picture to look at it. My laptop, a top end 15″ MacBook Pro, this was fast enough that it wasn’t an issue at the pace I work. However, if you’re working on an ultrabook or an older laptop with a slower CPU, the rendering time may be more problematic.

All told, in the future, I’d probably do the same thing again unless I had a real good reason to do something else. I’m not sure that it ultimately saved me much, but it also didn’t cost me a lot either.

The Catalog

Lightroom’s catalog is the heart of what makes Lightroom tick, it’s also one of the biggest impediment for those wanting to use Lightroom across multiple computers.

On my desktop, I use a single master catalog for all of my images. In my experience, this is what most people do as well, as this makes it easiest to find or browse any image you’ve ever taken.

On my laptop, however, I prefer to use smaller catalogs for specific tasks, events, or expeditions. The reasoning for this is that it helps make a 1 time transfer from the laptop to the desktop more streamlined. Instead of having to select images and export them as part of my catalog, I merely copy the catalog and the images to my desktop and import that catalog.

There is at least one sticking point in creating new catalogs for every project—key-wording. Lightroom stores the keyword list in the catalog file, and transfers of keywords between catalogs can be problematic if they’re two catalogs don’t have precisely the same list setup.

I addressed this on my Alaska trip by simply not keyboarding anything until I imported my images in to my master catalog. Since the bulk of my work relates to wildlife and landscapes, this works out well enough. I generally have a good record of where I was, at least to the resolution I care about, when I took a landscape. For wildlife, my key-wording borders on OCD. I’m not satisfied to just indicate that a gull is a “seagull” I want to know what species it is. The same can be said about whales, cats, bears, and so on. As a result, I often spend a lot of time researching what I’ve photographed to make as accurate of a keyword as possible. In many cases in my experience, this also means that my ultimate ID of something is different from the visual ID arrived at on spot.

The other option, if you want to keyword your images in the field, is to export your keyword list from your master catalog (Metadata → Export Keywords) copy the resulting text file to your laptop, then import it (Metadata → Import Keywords) into your new catalog. If you opt to us this method, you won’t need to worry about exporting and repeating this procedure going back to your desktop, any keywords you add in the field will be merged with the master catalogs keywords when you import this catalog into it.

I feel I’d be remiss for not including a brief comment on the other settings in Lightroom that aren’t saved as part of the catalog. These include things like plugins, metadata field lists (even though they’re deprecated they still work), develop defaults, import and export presets, and so on.

Moving these is not something that needs to be done for every mobile catalog but it is something you should do, at least if you want to keep your settings, when you install Lightroom on a new computer. The key ones for me are develop presets, and my metadata field list, however, export settings and other templates can be moved the same way.

Develop Defaults

Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw have a mechanism that allows you to set develop sliders to various settings depending on the camera, ISO, and even camera serial number.

Develop defaults are stored as XMP files in either:

  • c:UsersusernameAppDataRoamingAdobeCameraRawDefaults on Windows
  • /Users/username/Library/Application Support/Adobe/CameraRaw/Defaults/ on Mac OS

The files don’t depend on the OS or the specific install of Lightroom/ACR, so you can freely copy them between computers and they’ll work so long as you put them in the right place. One thing I’m not sure about is version specific features, but they’ll definitely work going from older version of Lightroom/ACR to newer versons.


The other thing that’s worth copying over is an presets (or metadata field lists) that you may have or use. These are stored in either:

  • C:UsersusernameAppDataRoamingAdobeLightroom on Windows
  • /Users/username/Library/Application Support/Adobe/Lightroom/ on Mac OS.

Again, these files are not tied to the specific install of Lightroom and can be copied to the respective directory on a new machine.

Merging Catalogs

Merging catalogs is the big step that I’ve been working towards with all of the configuration that i’ve been working on. If I were to comment on the biggest place where Lightroom needs improvement it’s in being able to seamlessly move data around between catalogs. Adobe, or maybe the photographers using Lightroom, don’t seem to see the value in a seamless non-cloud way to sync data between Lightroom running on computers.

Fortunately, while keeping multiple computers in sync is kind of a pain, a one time transfer of information form one catalog to another isn’t painful at all. My goal is to keep this as painless as I possibly can, barring other concerns, and this is the primary reason I don’t do the master catalog routine on a laptop.

If, like me, you use a trip specific master catalog, you can merely copy the catalog and the images that it’s associated with to your other computer. There are of course many ways to go about doing this.

The way I’ve setup my computers and network, it’s easiest for me to copy anything to my server and then down to the second computer instead of trying to copy to the computer directly. This is certainly not the most efficient way to do things, there’s an extra copy step, but I don’t move large amounts of data around often enough that it’s that big of an issue. It also alleviates the problem of making sure I have compatible disk formats and so forth since my laptop runs MacOS and my desktop runs Windows.

Alternatively, you can copy your mobile catalog over to your desktop using an external hard drive. In fact, if you’re forced to use an external disk for your images on the road, you can improve the efficiency of things further by creating and storing you catalog on the disk as well. Then the import process could be as simple as plugging the external drive into your desktop and choosing File → Import from Catalog from the menus and picking you catalog.

One word of caution, when you import from another catalog, you’ll want to insure that you’ve set the import dialog to copy images to your master catalogs image store. By default, Lightroom will simply add those images and their path to your library, which means that when you unplug the external disk they’ll no longer be accessible.

To summarize, I found it most effective to:

  • Create trip/event specific catalogs on your mobile device to ease importing into your master catalog
  • Export your master catalog’s keywords and Import them into your trip specific catalog to insure that anything you keyword in the field is keyword correctly in your normal keyword hierarchy.
  • Alternatively, don’t keyword things while working in your trip specific catalog, save that for after you’ve moved everything back into your master catalog.
  • To save some space and battery life in the field, change your import preview rendering settings to minimal or embedded and sidecar, and change the lifetime for 1:1 previews to something like than forever.


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