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Migrating Your Lightroom Catalog and Photos to a New Computer

This is a reprint of my Jan/Feb 2011 feature article in Photoshop User magazine. A subscription to Photoshop User magazine is benefit of becoming a member of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals. You can join NAPP and get Scott Kelby’s Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 Book for Digital Photographers and a Lightroom Killer Tips Preset CD as a signup bonus. 

There comes giddy a time in every Lightroom user’s life when you will purchase a new computer. I’ve broken out the components you need to consider to get from old to new with a minimum amount of angst and a maximum amount of control.

Within the context of migrating Lightroom to a new computer, there are essentially three components that you want to transfer:

1. Your photos.

2. All custom presets, templates, and third-party plugins.

3. The Lightroom catalog (and possibly the preview cache).

There are a few ways to successfully migrate this stuff to a new computer, but I wil highlight one method that will get your data safely copied to a new computer, keep you in the driver’s seat every step of the way, and ensure that you know where all your files are when the job is done. I know there are other ways to do it, and depending on your setup they may even be simpler. That said, I’m trying to cover all the bases for people at all different levels of Lightroom experience.

Note: I am writing this with a focus on Lightroom 3, but the basic steps apply to earlier versions of Lightroom as well.


Before You Start

While you can transfer files over a network connection, having a large capacity external drive (or multiple external drives if needed depending on the amount of photos you have) is going to make this process much simpler and faster, and that is the method I recommend. The standard caveat of always having a solid backup of all files before you begin such an endeavor applies.

Tip: If you are migrating between Mac and Windows you will want to use an external drive that is formatted as FAT32 because both Windows and Mac can read and write to/from a FAT32 formatted drive. An alternative is to use third-party software that let’s a Windows computer read/write Mac OS Extended, or that allows a Mac to read/write to an NTFS formatted drive (this is what I do).


Preparing the New Computer

The main thing to do on the new computer is to install the latest version of Lightroom. You can skip the original installation disc and simply download the installer for latest version you own by going to:



Lightroom’s End User License Agreement allows you to install a second copy of the software for your own exclusive use on another computer (provided that Lightroom is not used on both computers at the same time). It is OK to install Lightroom on your new computer before uninstalling it from the old. Lightroom is truly cross-platform, so even if you are changing operating systems (Win to Mac or Mac to Win) you can use your same serial number with both installations, and there is no activation software involved. Don’t bother launching Lightroom yet on the new computer, just install the software and go back to the old computer so we can gather up all the pieces to bring over.


Migrating Your Photos

Stored within your Lightroom catalog is the complete path to each imported photo, from the volume name (PC: drive letter) to the file name, and every folder in between. If something in that path changes outside of Lightroom, then the path stored within the catalog becomes out of sync with your photos’ actual location. In the process of migrating from one computer to another it is very likely that something in that path will change. This is not a big deal, and the process to update the catalog at the folder level is very straightforward (we’ll go over that when we get to the new computer). The moral of the story is that if all your photos are stored within a single parent folder (no matter how many subfolders are within it) then once you get to the new computer you only need to update a single folder to get every subfolder and photo up to date. I realize that there is no single right way to store photos and your photographic situation may be slightly more complicated for good reason, in which case you may need to update more than one folder.

Tip: If you are at all unclear about the relationship between the Lightroom catalog and your photos then go no further until you have watched this video by George Jardine (it’s an oldie but a goodie, check out my Learn Lightroom page for links to his newer stuff):

For example, on every drive I use to store photos, I maintain a structure that starts with a single parent folder that contains multiple levels of subfolders for all the actual photos. This keeps things very simple for portability and backup. This parent folder is at the top of the tree in the Folders panel.


Tip: What if you keep all your photos in a single folder but the top-level folder is not showing in the Folders panel? I’ll direct you to the Lightroom Queen, who will show you how to change that.

If your photos are already on an external drive that you are moving to the new computer then there is no need to copy your photos to yet another drive. Just be prepared to connect that drive to the new computer, and skip ahead to the next section on presets and plugins.

With Lightroom closed, copy the folder containing your photos (and its contents as-is) to the external drive you are using to transfer the data. Remember, don’t change the existing structure, just copy it to the external drive.


Presets and Plugins

Time to gather up all your custom presets, plugins and templates! If you’ve never created custom presets or templates, and you’ve never installed a third-party plugin or web gallery, then you can skip this part of the process and we’ll see you in the section on the catalog. When you install Lightroom on your new computer you will get all the default presets and templates, so we are just concerned with all the custom bits you added.

In my experience, most people leave their presets and templates in the default central location. The simplest way to access this location is to go to Lightroom > Preferences > Presets (PC: Edit > Preferences > Presets), and click the Show Lightroom Presets Folder button. This will open the folder, named Lightroom, containing all of your presets into Finder (PC: Windows Explorer), which is located here:

Mac: Users/[username]/Library/Application Support/Adobe/Lightroom

Vista/Win 7: Users/[username]/AppData/Roaming/Adobe/Lightroom

Win XP: Documents and Settings/[username]/Application Data/Adobe/Lightroom

Note: Windows can hide the AppData and Application Data folders. In Windows Explorer, go to Tools > Folder Options > View, and check Show hidden files, folders, and drives.

On the Preferences > Presets tab, if you already had Store presets with catalog checked then I will assume you know where all your presets are, and you can skip ahead to the catalog section. If you don’t have Store presets with catalog checked then don’t check it now, as it will simply create a new folder (named Lightroom Settings) alongside your catalog with only the default presets, which won’t help us with your custom presets.

Within this Lightroom folder are all your presets, templates, third-party web galleries (if installed), and the most common location for third-party plugins (the Modules folder), within their respective subfolders. Your task is to place a copy of all your custom files on the external drive destined for the new computer, and the easiest way to do that is to copy the entire Lightroom folder to the external drive. That said, on Windows, the Lightroom preference file is also stored within the Lightroom folder in a folder named Preferences. I don’t recommend bringing a copy of this file to the new computer, as I think it’s wiser to start with a fresh preference file on the new computer. In addition, if you are migrating from Windows to Mac the preferences are stored in a different location on Mac anyway. So, leave the Preferences folder behind.

In regards to third-party plugins (everything from LRMogrify to jf Flickr), I’ve always found it simplest to place a copy of the .lrplugin file within the Modules folder so that the Plugin Manager will automatically add and enable the plugin.

However, you may have chosen to store your plugins in a different location, and manually add them via the Plug-in Manager. There’s no wrong answer, but I’ll leave it to you to know where your plugins are stored if not in the Modules folder. Lightroom plugins with an .lrplugin file extension are typically cross-platform, but some may have special requirements for each operating system, so be sure to check the web site of the plugin author for all compatibility concerns. If you have installed plugins that are more like external editors, such as the ones from Nik Software that you access via the Photo > Edit In menu, then you will want to go to the developer’s web site and download the installers for those plugins to the new computer and install them like new software at the end of the transfer process.

Tip: While you have Lightroom open take note of your preference settings so that you can re-configure them on the new computer. Now that you have all your photos, presets, and plugins copied to your external drive let’s turn our attention to the Lightroom catalog.


Copying the Catalog

When it comes to migrating the actual Lightroom catalog I advocate creating a copy of your working catalog to transfer to the new computer because in Lightroom 3 there is no other way to transfer the Publish Service connections you previously set up, as they are not included in a catalog export. In addition, a catalog export only includes keywords that are applied to exported photos, which may leave out parts of your entire keyword hierarchy that have not yet been applied to photos (though it is possible to export a keyword list and import it into a new catalog).

To find your catalog, go to Lightroom > Catalog Settings > General (PC: Edit > Catalog Settings > General), and click the Show button to reveal its location. The default location of the catalog is in the Pictures (PC: My Pictures) folder, but the Lightroom catalog can exist anywhere on your drive. For example, I keep my main catalog in a folder off the root of my C drive so that I never get it confused with any of the temporary catalogs I create for various reasons.

Within the folder containing the catalog are two important files, the catalog itself with the. lrcat file extension and the associated preview cache with the .lrdata file extension. If you see a .lock or .journal file then close Lightroom and they will go away, as they are temporary files that assist the catalog. If you’ve never changed the default location of the catalog backups then you might see a Backups folder as well, but we can leave that folder behind (here’s my tutorial on backing up your catalog). With Lightroom closed, copy (not move) the .lrcat and .lrdata files to a folder on the external drive. If you can fit them on the same drive holding your photos then go for it. If you need to use a separate drive that’s fine too.

Note: It is not critical for the preview cache (.lrdata) to be transferred to the new computer since Lightroom will automatically regenerate a new preview cache when the catalog opens if no .lrdata file is found. The benefit of bringing it along is that it will speed up the process of seeing your photos on the new machine. However, the preview cache can be quite large, so if space on the external drive is an issue you can leave it behind. Just be prepared to see gray boxes in place of thumbnails until Lightroom is able to regenerate them all.

You should now have a copy of your photos, your presets, and your catalog on the external drive.

Safely disconnect the external drive from the old computer and connect it to the new computer.


Transferring to the new computer

Launch your file browser on the new computer and view the contents of the external drive. First, copy the folder containing the Lightroom catalog (and preview cache if you included it) to a location of your choosing on the new computer. Then, copy your photo’s folder structure to a new location of your choosing (or leave them on the external drive if that is your plan). Once those copy operations are complete, navigate to the catalog in its new home and double-click the .lrcat file to open it into Lightroom.

Don’t panic if you see question marks on your folders and photos, you just need to update the catalog to point to the their new location. This is when having a single parent folder showing in the Folders panel comes in handy.

STEP ONE: Ctrl-click (PC: right-click) the top-level parent folder and choose Find Missing Folder.

STEP TWO: Navigate to and select that exact folder in its new location and click Choose (PC: OK).

Lightroom will then go through the process of updating the catalog to reference that folder (and everything inside of it) at this new location. Repeat the process for any folders not contained within that parent folder (if you have any).

Next, go to Lightroom > Preferences (PC: Edit > Preferences) and re-configure your settings. I suggest that you configure the Default Catalog on the General tab to reference this catalog specifically instead of loading the most recent catalog. Once configured, go to the Presets tab and click the Show Lightroom Presets Folder button to open it in your file browser. Copy all your custom presets, templates, plugins and web galleries from the external drive to their respective folders on the new computer. Restart Lightroom when the copy operation is complete to see your custom bits inside of Lightroom.

Go to File > Plug-in Manager and make sure all your plugins are installed and running. If you haven’t already, this is a good time to make sure you are running the latest version of each one. You will need to re-register any third-party plugins you had running on the old computer.


A Word about Publish Services Connections

Connections that were setup on the old computer to online sources such as SmugMug or Flickr should still work, but give them a test drive to make sure. However, existing hard drive connections will display any photos they contain, but may no longer function due to the change in drives. The export location of an existing connection cannot be changed after the connection is created, and it will have to be rebuilt by making a new hard drive connection on the new computer. Once you create the new hard drive connection you can re-populate its contents to match the old connection and you’ll be back in business.

Give your catalog a thorough walk through to make sure there are no lingering question marks on any files, that all your presets are accounted for, and everything is functioning as it should. If you are satisfied that all is well you can close Lightroom and install any additional third-party plugins (such as the kind from Nik Software or OnOne) if you have them. Congratulations on the successful migration!

Posted in LR3, LR4, Resources, Tutorials | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Tutorial: Back Up Your Lightroom Catalog

Everything you do inside Lightroom, from adding keywords to making tonal adjustments, is recorded into Lightroom’s catalog file. Therefore, it’s crucial that you take good care of the catalog file and keep it backed up to protect yourself from data loss.

Highlighting the importance of the catalog, Lightroom contains a built-in function inside the Catalog Settings dialog box that allows you to schedule how often to run backups. When the backup process runs, it saves a working copy of your current catalog to a location of your choosing. It’s important to understand that the only thing backed up in this process is the catalog file. Lightroom doesn’t provide a function to back up your photos, which means that you need to back those up using a different application outside of Lightroom. Adobe assumes that you already have a full system-backup process in place that takes care of all your important data.

Let’s go through the steps for configuring the backup schedule:

Go to Lightroom > Catalog Settings on Mac or Edit > Catalog Settings on Win to open the Catalog Settings dialog box (see Figure 1). While we’re here, take a look at the Information section of the General tab. Some key information about your catalog is displayed here, including the catalog’s location, filename, and size. If you ever need to open the folder containing the catalog file, just back come here and click the Show button.

Catalog Settings

In the Backup section on the General tab, click the arrow button to open the “Back up catalog” drop-down menu, and choose the frequency with which you want the backup to run (see Figure 2). This is where you need to make a decision. Should you ever need to use a backup copy to replace a lost or corrupt catalog, you’ll want it to be as fresh as possible. Your choices here range from “Never” (not advised) to “Every time Lightroom starts.” The frequency you choose should reflect how often you use Lightroom. If you’re working in Lightroom every day, backing up daily might be best. If you’re not using Lightroom that often, a weekly schedule probably would be a safe choice. Click OK.

Backup Menu

Lightroom 2 Tip

The backup process runs only when Lightroom 2 starts. If you’ve just put in a long day of work and want the security of backing up your catalog immediately, choose File > Catalog Settings, select “Every time Lightroom starts” from the list, click OK, and then close and restart Lightroom. Granted, that’s not an elegant solution, but until Lightroom has a “backup during shutdown” option, it’s the best you can do.

Lightroom 3 and up

There is a change in functionality in Lightroom 3 in regards to catalog backup. The backup function now runs on exit from Lightroom instead of on startup. This means that you can rest knowing that all the work you just did is backed up at the end of the session.

Lightroom 3 Beta Backup Schedule

When you launch Lightroom 2 or exit Lightroom 3+ and the timing corresponds to the backup schedule you selected, you’ll be prompted to back up, as shown.

Backup Dialog

One difference in Lightroom 3+ is that the relaunch and optimize function was added to the backup dialog box and removed from the Catalog Settings dialog. I suggest leaving this checked.

Lightroom 3 beta catalog backup

Follow these steps to make your backup:

If desired, click the Choose button to change the location where you want the backup copy to be saved. Navigate to the desired folder and select it. This is where you can tell Lightroom to save the catalog to a different drive.

Select the “Test integrity of this catalog” option. This feature is really the best reason to use Lightroom’s catalog backup function, as it can provide an early warning if there’s a problem in the catalog. Integrity testing adds a bit of extra time to the backup process, but I think it’s worth doing. I’ve seen cases where a catalog can become corrupted, but still be operational. The corruption isn’t detected until the backup process is run. If you have iterative backup copies to fall back on, you should be able to go back to an earlier, uncorrupted state.

Note: Every time the backup process runs, it creates a new copy of the catalog and ignores any existing backup copies. The upside of this approach is that in time you’ll have multiple iterations of catalogs that reflect different points in the catalog history. The downside is that, left unchecked, your catalog backups eventually will fill up that drive. With that issue in mind, choose a different drive then the one your working catalog is on and that has ample free space, and remember to delete outdated backup copies periodically. I typically delete all but the last two backups.

Click the Backup button to start the backup process. Lightroom warns you that the backup process can take several minutes. When the process is complete, Lightroom opens, or in the case of Lightroom 3+ shuts down.

If you’re pressed for time or want to just get to work rather than waiting for the backup, click the Skip Now button to bypass the backup process until the next time. Don’t skip too often, but it’s good to have the option.

Once you’ve set up your backups, you just need to remember to manage the backup copies as they grow.

Restoring from a backup catalog

Here’s hoping you never have to, but the process is very simple if you do:

  1. Close Lightroom
  2. Open the Lightroom folder containing your working catalog file in Finder/Windows Explorer.
  3. Move the “bad” catalog file out of that folder to another location for safe keeping.
  4. Move the “good” backup catalog copy into the Lightroom folder to replace the bad one.
  5. Double-click the catalog file to open it into Lightroom and take it for a test drive.
Posted in Before You Start, LR1, LR2, LR3, Tips, Tutorials | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Test Driving the Lightroom 4 Public Beta

OK, I’m sure you are curious about jumping into the driver’s seat and giving this new version of Lightroom a few laps around the block. There’s a lot of cool stuff in here, and if you have been using Lightroom for awhile you should feel very much at home, but there are a few things I want to mention before you go too far. I want to help you get started with testing this on the right foot. Yes, this is beta software, which means there are bugs and it is limited in some ways to help protect your existing data, so please proceed with caution and keep this in mind:

The public beta versions of Lightroom will not upgrade your existing catalog from an earlier version of Lightroom, so don’t even try to open your working Lightroom catalog into the beta. You will get rejected.

No Catalog Upgrade

Similarly the public beta version can not import from a catalog from an earlier version of Lightroom.

No Catalog Import

Also, Adobe makes no promises that all the work you do in the beta will transfer over in exactly the same way to the final release version (whenever that should come). In fact, head over to Lightroom Journal and read everything they tell you.

So, this means it is time to start fresh! I found it best to:

1. Select photos in my Lightroom 3 catalog that I wanted to play with in the beta (put them in a collection if it is easier to wrangle).

2. Export these photos as Originals to a folder I named Beta Test (call yours whatever you want).

3. Then quit Lightroom 3 and launch Lightroom 4 Beta.

4. Click the Import button and import that folder of test subjects into Lightroom 4 Beta.

Now you have a safe batch of copies that you can play with and not worry about doing any damage to your real photos and videos (yes, be sure to bring some video over!). If you’ve never used a previous version of Lightroom before then that’s fine too! The public beta is open to all. Just make a copy of some photos and import them into the beta to play with.


Welcome Change
One small change that I am very excited about is the fact that Lightroom 4 is much more helpful when you first launch the program in telling you that you need to “create a catalog to store information about your photos” then goes on to show you exactly where this catalog file will be stored, and even gives you the option to change the destination. Oh so simple, but I think this will help decrease confusion for a lot of people.

Choose Catalog Location

From there the program launches and it is Go time!

Go to Adobe Labs to download the Lightroom 4 Public Beta. Join the fun in the Beta forum to give your feedback.

I’ll have an article on with my top 10 new features appearing soon, a few deeper dive Beta tutorials here on my blog, and a big feature article in the Feburary issue of Photoshop User magazine. Also, stop by Kelby Training at 10am (Eastern Time) 1/10/12 for a live webcast that’s sure to be a lot of fun. In the meantime, here are a bunch of resources to get you started. Enjoy!


Posted in Before You Start, LR4 Beta, Tutorials | Tagged | 4 Comments

Tutorial: Boosting Lightroom Performance

New: Updated for Lightroom 3

Some regular maintenance and a little TLC from you will go a long way toward improving your Lightroom experience and boosting its performance. Here are five things to get you moving faster right now.

1. Free up space on your startup drive. You want to keep at least 15-20% (or more) of your startup drive free and clear of data at all times. Your operating system and some applications need the elbowroom to operate. Running out of space can seriously impact performance. Simple things like emptying your recycle bin/trash, moving data to another internal or external drive or uninstalling unused applications can recover an amazing amount of disk space. Keep in mind that if you are going to move photos to another drive that you should do it from inside of Lightroom.

2. Run your system’s disk maintenance functions. Windows has two utilities that can help you keep your system running in optimal condition—Error-checking and Defragmentation. Double-click My Computer and then right-click the C drive and choose Properties. Go to the Tools tab to launch these utilities. Run the Error-checking first, reboot and then come back and defrag. These can take some time to complete, so you might consider running them overnight.

On a Mac you have the Disk Utility. Open Finder and go to Applications > Utilities > Disk Utility, select your disk and click the First Aid tab. Click the Repair Disk Permissions button. This is good to do before and after you install any application as a regular part of your workflow.

3. Relaunch and optimize your Lightroom catalog. Lightroom has a built-in catalog maintenance function that you can run any time you feel performance is getting sluggish. You probably won’t notice a significant difference on a small catalog, but there is no harm in running this operation. This just performs some basic housekeeping on your catalog and can result in both a smaller catalog file size and a performance boost.

In Lightroom 2, go to Edit > Catalog Settings (On Mac, go to Lightroom > Catalog Settings) and click the General tab. Click the Relaunch and Optimize button. Lightroom will close and relaunch. During startup you will see the Optimizing Catalog progress window, which lets you know it is working. Click the OK button when the operation is complete and Lightroom will open.


In Lightroom 3 this process works a little differently. The big change in Lightroom 3 is that there is no relaunch and optimize button on the Catalog Settings dialog. Instead, just go to the File menu and choose Optimize Catalog. Click the Optimize button when prompted to complete the process.

4. Increase the size of your Camera Raw Cache. The purpose of this cache is to store recently rendered versions of photos you’ve brought into the Develop module to prevent Lightroom from having to re-render them each time, which can greatly boost performance. Go to Edit > Preferences (On Mac, go to Lightroom > Preferences) and click the File Handling tab. Increase the size of the Camera Raw Cache to 20-40 GB based on the amount of free space you have (see Step 1). If you have another internal drive with more free space you can click the Choose button and relocate it to that disk. Click OK to put the settings into effect.


5. Render 1:1 previews after import. This is one of those times where you can pay up front and enjoy faster performance down the road, meaning you will notice a slight performance drag right after the import is complete, but once all the 1:1 previews are rendered you will enjoy a performance boost while you are working later. On the Import dialog there is a setting at the bottom for Initial Previews. This allows you to tell Lightroom what to do about rendering previews immediately after the import process is finished. If you click the drop-down menu and choose 1:1, you can have Lightroom jump right into the process of rendering 1:1 previews right after the import is finished. You will see the progress meter above the Identity Plate increment as it works. You may notice a bit of sluggishness while that is happening, but once it is complete it should be much smoother sailing from there.

Location of Initial Previews setting in Lightroom 2:


Location of Initial Previews setting in Lightroom 3 (top right corner of expanded Import dialog):


The one downside to this is that 1:1 previews are stored in the preview cache (alongside the catalog file) and can take up a fair bit of space over time. To keep from undoing the work you did in Step 1 you can configure Lightroom to discard those large 1:1 previews after a certain period of time. Go to Edit > Catalog Settings (On Mac, Lightroom > Catalog Settings) and click the File Handling tab and choose the interval that makes sense for your needs. There isn’t any reason to set it to Never as Lightroom will always re-render the 1:1 previews if needed at a later date.

Posted in Before You Start, LR2, LR3, Tips, Tutorials | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments