How to use Lightroom Smart Previews to sync from a desktop to a laptop

In For Photographers

Update: June 16th 2015

Just a quick note to say that although this was originally written when Smart Previews were first added to Lightroom 5, I’ve just checked the instructions with the new Lightroom 6 (aka Lightroom CC – and here’s how to buy just the standalone version) and everything still works just fine. I’ve updated the post to remove references to Lightroom 5, and clarify some steps to make sure it’s still really easy to follow. Enjoy!

Original Post:

Adobe’s Lightroom Smart Previews have solved the biggest problem I had with Lightroom – keeping my main Catalog on my desktop computer but syncing subsets of images to my laptop to work on them there. Now I can export just the Smart Previews out to a temporary Catalog, copy that Catalog to my laptop to work on in Lightroom, then copy the Catalog back to my iMac when I’m done to sync up.

For example, after a shoot I come home and import everything into Lightroom on my iMac in the office. Once they’re there I want to be able to copy them over to my MacBook Pro so I can do the edit and/or processing from the comfort of the sofa or on the road. Previously this meant exporting the image files themselves which could involve gigabytes of data transfer, a slower RAW editing process on my less-powerful MBP, then copying it all back and replacing everything in the original catalog. In the end it was easier to just buy a lovely comfy chair for the office and stick to editing on the iMac only.

With Lightroom and Smart Previews I still have to export out to a temporary Catalog but the Smart Previews reduce the size of that Catalog dramatically, and after editing everything syncs back to the original Catalog seamlessly.

So let’s take an example. I’ve just shot a wedding for the Bloggs family and have imported the images into my iMac Lightroom catalog (my source copy of LR) and I want to start working on them on my laptop. Here’s how I’d do it:

Step one: Export a new, temporary Catalog of the images

In the source copy of LR select the images you want to export, then select File -> Export as Catalog… and check the following boxes:

– Export selected photos only
– Build/Include Smart Previews
and optionally Include available previews (it’s fine to skip this one to save on transfer time and have the target computer render them, but do not skip the Smart Previews or you’ll have nothing to actually edit!)

Uncheck ‘Export negative files’ as if you leave this one checked then the original photos will be transferred (the ‘negatives’) and that’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid doing!

Export the catalog wherever you like – for example, onto your Desktop – and give it a specific name like ‘Bloggs Wedding Transfer’. This way I know it’s the Bloggs Wedding, and it’s the copy of the catalog I created for transferring to my laptop. Once exported it’s ready to be transferred to your destination computer however you’d like.

Step two: Copy ‘Bloggs Wedding Transfer’ to your other computer

I use a USB stick to transfer the catalog if I have one big enough (e.g. a recent transfer catalog of 1500 unedited images from a shoot created a transfer catalog around 8GB in size), or a direct computer-to-computer OTA transfer such as Airdrop. I avoid Dropbox for this particular task as it takes a looong time to upload all the Smart Previews and then download them at the other end.

If you’re using an external drive or USB thumbstick to move it, don’t just plug it in and run the Catalog from the stick or drive – make sure the Catalog is copied to your laptop and then eject the drive or disc you used to copy it. It’s just a good housekeeping step, to make sure you’re always working on the right catalog.

Step three: open the transfer Catalog in your other copy of Lightroom

When opening your temporary transfer Catalog in Lightroom you have a couple of options:

1 – you can ‘Import’ the transfer Catalog to an existing LR Catalog on your second computer


2 – you can force your laptop’s LR to simply switch over to the Bloggs Wedding Transfer catalog at launch, instead of the catalog it normally opens. To force this on a Mac, hold down Alt when launching LR to bring up the Catalog selection screen and select Bloggs Wedding Transfer from the Desktop or wherever you saved it to.

In my experience the second option is the simplest and reduces the potential for good ol’ human error getting the images back to your main LR catalog later!

Once the transfer catalog is loaded in you will notice that top right under the histogram it shows ‘Smart Preview’ in small text. You can make edits to the ‘images’ in LR on your laptop, although actually you are working on the Smart Previews we exported into the temporary transfer catalog. These edits are saved as metadata in the temporary catalog, ready to be applied to the originals when you copy them back in the next step.

By the way, if you see ‘Original Image + Smart Preview’ then check that you didn’t export negatives in Step One above; then check you copied the temporary catalog over properly and disconnected from your laptop any external drives that might contain the source images.

Step five: getting the edits back to the original LR catalog

How you do this depends on how you got the temporary catalog into LR5 on your laptop.

Just before we get to the thrilling conclusion of this tutorial, if you’ve found it useful and want to thank me you can show your appreciation simply by clicking a button below to follow me on Twitter or Like my Facebook page, and all will be revealed! It only takes a moment and I really appreciate every click. If you hate that idea, just click the X and there’s no hard feelings.

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If you used option 1 above and did an ‘Import’ that added the transfer catalog to your existing laptop catalog then first you’ll need to export just this shoot from your laptop. Select just the images you worked on, then use the same Export as Catalog… settings as above to save to a whole new catalog (give it a distinctive name!) and copy this new catalog back to your original computer any way you’d like, before skipping to the Import instructions below. By the way, at this stage you really only need the small .lrcat file that contains the metadata and edits. You don’t need the previews or the Smart Previews unless you want to save re-rendering time on your original LR computer.

If you used option 2 above and made your laptop LR launch from the temporary transfer catalog, all you need to do is quit your laptop LR which will save the edits into the transfer catalog. Then copy the transfer catalog from wherever it is on your laptop back to your original computer any way you’d like. As with the alternative method described above, this time you only really need the small .lrcat file.

Ready to import? Once you have your incoming transfer catalog back on your main computer, open LR there and select File -> Import from Another Catalog… and navigate to the incoming catalog. LR will quickly scan through the catalog to see what’s there, before showing an option screen.

In the option screen LR should have noticed there are no new images being imported. Choose Replace: metadata and develop settings only. You may want to check Preserve old settings as a virtual copy if you’d like to hang on to the original look of any of the images you edited before you exported out to your laptop, but if this was a fresh shoot you probably don’t need to bother with this.

And that’s it – LR will import the metadata and Develop adjustments, and any previews you included in the export, tie them to the originals it already has in its master catalog and make the appropriate changes to its own records for those images. You’ll see your library of the original shoot images update to match the edits you made on your laptop, including Star ratings and Develop adjustments. If you didn’t re-import any previews you might want to set LR to start re-rendering those but otherwise you’re all done!

Hope this helps, feel free to get in touch in the comments if you have any questions or just want to say thanks!

(updated for clarity on June 19th 2014, and June 16th 2015)

31 Comments on “How to use Lightroom Smart Previews to sync from a desktop to a laptop”

  1. Thanks for this – this was exactly what I was looking for in figuring out whether Smart Previews would work for my workflow, which is between an iMac (highly preferred editing platform and main machine) and a MacBook Air (which works in a pinch).


  2. I have been waiting for this forever. Thanks for posting! I followed your instructions but, it did not work… here is what I tried.

    I tried it with changes on MBP to a collection. I generally picked selects in the collection by removing pictures I did not want to use in the project. started with 288 shots, removed a bunch leaving 192. transferred metadata only.

    went to desktop to collection and all 288 shots we back in collection. Thoughts?

  3. Hi Gary,

    Sorry, not sure about what went wrong!

    Did you definitely check and uncheck the correct boxes when exporting your smart previews from your main catalog?

    Also, I don’t know too much about Collections as I currently rarely use them. These instructions pertain to standard folders in your LR Catalog.

    Hope you work it out!

  4. Great! just what I was looking for!!!
    with smart previews I was assuming this would work but all articles around export/import still mentioned the exporting of the source files which i just not wanted.

    finding this saved me some time in testing it out! thanks for this

    now I can finally edit in the sofa and not have my wife complain I’m always at my desk :) ;)

  5. Thank you so much for posting! This is the same process I have been working on all week. This is by far the best tutorial I’ve found on it! One question I have is, If I dropbox a catalog with smart previews over to my other computer, to work on a session offline, can I also make changes on my current lightroom catalog on my main machine to other sessions before I import that catalog back in, or will I need to re-import that catalog before I work on anything else in my main LR catalog?

    1. You could work away on other photos in LR on your main computer sure.

      However, I don’t know how LR would handle it if you worked on the same photo on the main computer AND on your remote computer that has the Smart Previews, then copied back to main computer… Not sure which edits would take preference.

  6. I have a PC-based main catalog, using LR 5.3, and have created smart previews during the import process for all photos. I am getting a MacBook Pro Laptop soon, on which I plan to install LR 5.3 as well. In order move back and forth from the main PC catalog to the MBP catalog, I presume I will first need to create a new (empty) catalog on the MBP. But I am not clear on what I need to do next in relation to putting the MBP LR into service in he field, and more particularly, how to (1) transfer all (or part?) of the main LR catalog to MBP; (2) do I need to copy all smart previews from the PC to the MBP; (3) how do I sync up to the mothership PC main catalog any new photos I have imported onto the mobile laptop LR catalog while on the road; (3) how do I sync edited photos from the mothership to the MBP (and from the MBP to the mothership; and (4) whether the PC mothership and the MBP always need to store an exact mirror image of the full main catalog in order to be able to sync on a regular basis. Sorry for all the questions.

    1. Hiya,

      In all honesty, the quickest way to answer all those questions is, I think, to get a subscription to Creative Cloud. It syncs over the air and looks to be awesomely useful in that respect, but check it out to be sure. The Smart Previews process I describe really only suits occasional specific transfers, not regular large transfers.

      At least that’s what I’d consider if I were you!

  7. Thanks for this. I am doing post production on a catalogue sent to me by my husband (the photographer, currently overseas) using the smart previews he also sent over with the catalogue. Edits are now done and I want to send him the catalogue back so that the edits will be applied to the original files he still has with him. HOWEVER, your instructions just say to put the catalogue back on the computer with the original files. Do I need to send him JUST the catalogue back, or do I send him the smart previews folder again as well? Where are my edit settings stored, in the actual catalogue or in the smart preview (dng) files? Obviously there is a big difference between sending just the catalogue (a few MB) or the smart previews folder as well (800MB), so just wondering.

    1. Actually not sure about this, though I expect you’ll have worked something out by now as it took me a while to get back to you! ;)

      My first thought is that you’d need to send back the smart previews: you needed to export them in the first place onto your machine, so you’d need to export them back to the mothership machine.

      But, then again, maybe you only need to send back the catalog complete with the xml sidecar files containing the edit details, and just apply those to the existing master files. That makes logical sense in my head but I’ve not tried it.

      What did you end up doing? Please do let us know so others that might have the same question will learn from your experience! :)

  8. Thank you for a very useful article. I would welcome you thoughts on a variation that seems to work for me (assuming Photography Creative Cloud subscription, and synching between Desktop/Laptop etc) … ie., (1) Desktop as main device: export LR catalogue (Smart Previews) as per your Step 1, but to Creative Cloud File; (2) Laptop: do not import or save catalogue to laptop, but rather launch LR (Alt – Launch) as per your Step 3, but from catalogue in Creative Cloud File; (3) edits etc; (4) getting the edits back to main device, Desktop: simply launch LR from catalogue in Creative Cloud File (Alt-Launch) … no need to import or save … latest/virtual copies of catalogue(s) will always be available in Creative Cloud File

  9. I’ve been using a portable external hard drive with my photos and catalogs on for so long, thought I’d try this newer method, seems easy enough

    Thanks :)

  10. Hi

    Great tutorial
    I have LR via adobe CC 9photograpjhy subscription). Do I do the same as your tutorial or do I need to do anything different?

    Great stuff

    1. Hi Greg, thanks! In answer to your question the app is essentially the exact same so yes these instructions will do the same things for you. I actually think you probably get some extra syncing goodness using the Cloud subscription, though perhaps manual syncing via USB for the occasional job you want to work on now might be quicker.

  11. Hi,

    I have xmp’s set to sync, that sit alongside my raw files.

    I’ve noticed that if my library is offline, and I make changes to a ‘smart’ file, then the xmp isnt synced back, but the changes are.

    Any ideas on how I can resolve this?

  12. Thank you for this! Exactly what I was looking for.

    In response to Gary Rose, if understand you correctly, in your temp catalog when you reject the images you don’t want DO NOT DELETE THEM FROM YOUR TEMP CATALOG!!! Hit x to reject them and sync that back to your original catalog. That will mark those images for deletion in your original catalog. If you delete them in your temp catalog then there is no information to sync to your original catalog. Hope that helps.


  13. Question, if I edit smart files on lightroom 6 on one computer and then try and transfer those files to another computer that has lightroom 5 it won’t except them. Is there a way to transfer between different Lightrooms- 5 vs. 6 ??

    1. Hiya, I don’t know for sure but my gut feeling would be no. Once you’ve edited a photo in LR6, it will likely only be readable by LR6, as previous versions of LR won’t have the same tools available, and the way common tools work may have changed.

  14. Thanks a bunch, Owen. A perfect solution for my workflow. I appreciate the well worked out explanation. I will be following you on facebook.



  15. Thanks for this! Extremely helpful! My partner may however disagree -as I now will be able to continue catching up on my wedding photos whilst on holiday!

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