My next Lightroom workshop begins Monday, October 27. Register now so you don’t miss it!

A student who is learning Lightroom with me right now just asked about the best way to use Lightroom on all her devices. It was such a good question that I thought it was worthy of a tutorial on this blog!

As with anything, it helps to have some background info first. Lightroom is a database. We call this database a catalog. It holds data about your photos. It doesn’t hold the actual photos themselves, however. What it does hold is a list of all of the edits you’ve made to your photos, plus your photos’ keywords, rankings, and much more. Read this tutorial for more info on how Lightroom’s catalog works.

Desktop + Laptop + External Hardrive

What does this catalog mean for using Lightroom on multiple machines? It means that not only do you need to be able to access your photos from both machines, but you also need to have access to the catalog.

The simplest way to do this would be to keep all your photos plus your Lightroom catalog on an external hard drive. Whichever computer that external hard drive is connected to would have access to all your photos and edits. And no, your Lightroom catalog unfortunately can’t live on a shared network, if that’s your next question.

This method doesn’t work for me, however. While all of my photos do live on an external hard drive, it’s too risky for me to tote them around. One drop or one moment of forgetfulness and I’ve lost all of my photos plus all of my Lightroom edits. And unless you buy the “super tough” external hard drives, those things are delicate. I’ve broken one just by knocking it over as I try to plug it into a different computer.

Desktop + Laptop + Smart Previews

Beginning with Lightroom 5, you can use Smart Previews to edit on the go.

Before I tell you how to use Smart Previews, let’s talk about what a preview is in Lightroom. Remember how I said that your photos don’t live in Lightroom’s catalog? When you import photos, Lightroom stores a tiny thumbnail version of each image in its catalog. This preview isn’t large enough to print, export or edit, but it is large enough to show you what the photo should look like.

These previews have caused many a false hope in those who have accidentally deleted photos from their hard drive. You can read more about why you can’t do anything with those previews here.

Lightroom 5 introduced a Smart Preview. This new type of preview is stored in Lightroom’s catalog and you can actually edit it without the accompanying image files.

Here’s how it works. First off, you have to tell Lightroom that you want to store Smart Previews for photos as you import them, or you have to create smart previews for given photos after the fact.

When importing, simply check this box in the Import Window:

smart preview

If you’d like Smart Previews for photos that you’ve already imported into Lightroom, go to the Library and select (highlight) the photos that you’d like Smart Previews for. Go to the Library Menu, select Previews and Build Smart Previews.

render smart previews in lightroom

These editable previews are now stored next to your catalog on your hard drive. After you back up your catalog and close Lightroom, you can copy both the Catalog and the Smart Previews file to a thumb drive.

catalog location1

When you insert the thumb drive into the laptop, you can open a new catalog from within Lightroom. Select Open Catalog from the File menu and navigate to the copied Catalog on your thumb drive.

open new catalog1

You’ll see lots of the “dreaded grey question mark” indicating that Lightroom can’t find the photo files. But you will see your Smart Preview files as well. Each smart preview will be identified by an icon just under the histogram.
smart preview indicator

If you don’t see those Smart Previews right away, you can use the Filter Bar in the Library Grid to find them. Simply click on All Photographs in the Catalog panel on the right side of the Library module. Then, access the Metadata Filter and filter for Smart Preview Status.

find smart previews

Once you’ve finished your laptop work, you’ll need to make sure that the latest version of the catalog and smart preview files are on that thumb drive. If you never moved them from the thumb, then you won’t need to do anything.

Take this thumb drive back to your desktop. Back up Lightroom and close it. Copy the catalog and smart preview files from the thumb and replace the original files on your hard drive with these updated files. Your edits will automatically sync with the proper photos.

Do you like tutorials like this?


Visit this page to download part of my Lightroom workshop at no cost!

How about a  Lightroom class with over 200 pages of tutorials, 7 hours of video, cheat sheets and answers from me about any questions you have on course material? Throw in detailed homework assignments that I critique and my guidance on how to edit your photos. If that sounds like the best way for you to learn Lightroom, check out this workshop that starts on October 27, 2014. We’ll cover these topics and much more:

  • Lightroom’s Catalog
  • Backup your photos
  • Reorganize your photos
  • Quickly identify your best images
  • Improve exposure, contrast and white balance
  • Enhance photos with creative touches
  • Correct shooting issues
  • Retouch portraits
  • Sharpen images
  • Format photos for Facebook, blogs, printing, etc.

Register or learn more about the workshop here.