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)

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I'm originally from Glasgow, and I’ve been a documentary-style London event photographer since 2007. You'll always be able to get me chatting about time travel movies, Alan Partridge, homemade bread, and craft beer...

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