Over the years I’ve developed and evolved a pretty sound file management workflow for working with Lightroom on multiple computers, both in the office and when I’m traveling. I’ve talked about various aspects of this in previous episodes, but I thought I’d report on my current image management workflow for the mobile photographer.
I’m going to explain how I currently manage my Lightroom catalog, settings and presets, and my photographs and video archives, including how I now move from one computer to another quite seamlessly, but first a little background.
Until now, I’ve kept my Lightroom catalog on the internal hard drive of my desktop and laptop computers, and synched between the two before I made any major changes to the library. This works and if you have a fast enough network, it’s not too much of a pain to sync your catalogs, but because the previews that Lightroom creates can often become quite a hefty chunk of data, I used to leave them out of the synchronisation, which means that I’d have to rebuild previews on the other computer before I could quickly view images. If I synchronised the image previews as well, it took quite a bit longer, and that can really slow you down when you need to move computers, which I sometimes do multiple times each day.
My entire digital workflow revolves around Lightroom, so rather than synching the Lightroom catalog and my most recent work from computer to computer, I figured that it would be easier to just put it all on an external hard drive, and move that around. I’ve been doing this a while now, and never been happier with my workflow, which is why I decided to share this today. Let’s first look at what you need to put on that external hard drive to make this all work smoothly.
Firstly, I recommend that you set up Lightroom so that it saves all its presets with the catalog. This means when you move the Lightroom catalog all of your settings will go with it. If you don’t do this, you’ll still have to synch the settings around separately, which we want to avoid.
To make this change go to Lightroom’s Preferences, then under the Presets tab, turn on the “Store presets with this catalog” checkbox. You’ll now see a “Lightroom Settings” folder in the same location as your Lightroom catalog (right).
If you don’t know where your Lightroom catalog is, go to the Catalog Settings and you’ll see the path to your catalog under the General tab’s Information section. There is a “Show” button there. Click that, and check that your Lightroom settings are now with your catalog. This is also of course where you’ll need to go to copy your catalog to your external hard drive. (Just copy the entire Lightroom directory, including your Lightroom Catalog.lrcat file and your Lightroom Catalog Previews.lrdata file/folder to your external hard drive when you’re ready.)
One Lightroom Catalog
Note that apart from a catalog with one image in that I use in an automated process to keep my printer from running unnecessary head cleaning processes, I have all of my images in a single Lightroom catalog. I currently have almost 300,000 images including some videos in my catalog, and it runs fine, so I like to keep them all in a single catalog.
This makes it easy to search across my entire library for images and build collections from absolutely anything I’ve shot. If you use multiple catalogs, you’ll need to decide which ones to use with this workflow, or just ensure that you move all of them to your external hard drive.
To ensure that Lightroom works as fast as it can with this portable workflow, I recently bought a Drobo Mini with 4 x 1TB 7200 rpm hard drives, and a Crucial 250GB mSATA Internal SSD which I put into the bottom of the Drobo Mini as an accelerator disk. This speeds up Drobos so much that as long as you are using Thunderbolt to connect them to your computer, you really just don’t have to worry about the hard drive speed. It’s not as fast as an internal SSD drive, but it’s fast enough to run Lightroom stress-free directly from the external hard drive.
You can also run Lightroom from slower portable hard drives, but I suggest that you use at least USB3.0 connected drives, such as the WD My Passport Ultra drives that I use in my ultra-light portable workflow when I simply cannot carry the weight of the Drobo Mini in addition to my MacBook Pro. This may be necessary especially when traveling overseas, as the one downside of the Drobo Mini is that it isn’t very, well, mini. It’s quite a hefty piece of kit to carry around in addition to a laptop.
[UPDATE Aug 1, 2015: Note that I’ve pretty much stopped using the Drobo Mini. Having to plug it into the power every time I wanted to use it became quite tiresome after a while. It’s also just too big for any kind of air travel. I have now started to use Western Digital My Passport Pro 4TB drives. These are Thunderbolt only, so won’t work on Windows at this point, but they are powered by the laptop, and they are slightly faster than the Drobo Mini, so I’m now using this as my main catalog hard drive, and they are small enough for air travel as well. I have two, with the second a straight backup of the first.]
Recent Work and Final Selects on External Drive
In addition to my Lightroom catalog and settings, I also keep my main archive of all of my best work to date, which I call my “Finals” or “Final Selects”, on my Drobo Mini, as well as all of the photographs and video that I’ve take during the current year. So basically most of what I need to access regularly is in one place and always available when I travel.
Main Archive on Drobo 5D
My main archive of all images and video that I’ve ever shot and not deleted is almost 7TB of data, so it’s not practical to keep all of this on my portable hard drive, and because I have every image that I thought was good enough to sell or show people in my Finals folder, it’s not even necessary.
I can still get to my raw images and any TIFF or PSD files that I might have also created from them, right there on my portable drive, so what I call my “Photo Originals” folder lives on my Drobo 5D attached to a desktop computer in my office studio. This is literally everything from every shoot I’ve done that didn’t get deleted.
Decide and Stick with Your Strategy
One thing that will cause you to get frustrated with a strategy like this, when you’re synchronising folders around and have photos in multiple places, is if you lose track of which copy is your main copy. As we can see in this screenshot (right) I have my Finals folder on both my Drobo Mini and my Drobo #1 drive (a Drobo 5D). The main reason I do this is so that it gets backed up into the cloud via Backblaze, and we’ll talk about that shortly, but it’s important to try to keep this as a backup copy, and not a working folder of images.
I do sometimes just need to reference images or grab something quickly over the network, and because my iMac stays on all the time, from anywhere in my house I can connect to the Drobo and access my Final Selects. This is also why I keep this linked to Lightroom, but I don’t do any editing or create collections from the Drobo #1 drive, because it not only causes you to lose track of changes and break your Lightroom collections while you’re traveling, but you also have to sync your changes back to your main copy. This is doable quite easily, but I find it much better to not get into that, and my portable hard drive solution that we’re looking at today helps us to avoid this too.
Diagram #1 – Base Computer
OK, so I know that this will be heavy going without some form of graphical representation of what I’m talking about, so I’ve created a few diagrams for us to reference today as I explain this further. Let’s look first at my main computer. We all use at least one computer to work on our images, so this should be useful even if you don’t use a laptop in addition to your “base computer”.
Take a look at the first diagram (above) and see on the left that my workflow starts with transferring images from the camera to my portable hard drive, which is connected to my iMac. This could just as easily be a Windows machine. It’s not important what system you use. What’s important to note here is that my images go into a folder for my current year on my external hard drive, along with the Lightroom catalog and my settings and presets.
Diagram #2 – Local and Cloud Backup
As I mentioned, I keep my main photo and video archive, my “Photo Originals” folder on a Drobo 5D, which is always attached to my base computer. As soon as I’ve finished transferring images from my camera and have them renamed, and if time allows gone through and done my first quick edit of my images, then I copy the folder for that shoot to my Drobo 5D, here called Drobo #1.
As you can also see from the diagram, because I have Backblaze set up on my iMac, as soon as I copy any new images to my Drobo 5D, they start to backup into the cloud. I will continue to synchronise changes to this Drobo 5D as I edit the images from my shoot, but I want to start to get my cloud backup started as quickly as possible. Any later changes will also sync into the cloud, so there’s little reason to wait on this, unless you are paying for data upload.
Diagram #3 – Second Backup for Paranoia’s Sake
There’s one last element of this base computer setup that I’d like to talk about before we move on, and that’s my second Drobo 5D which is purely for local backup purposes. I know this is a little paranoid, but bear with me. The Drobo 5D can have one hard disk fail without losing any data. If a hard disk fails, you simply pull it out and put a new hard disk in, and the Drobo automatically writes the necessary data back to the new hard drive, and you are safe against hard disk failures again.
In my paranoid mind though, that’s not enough to feel safe. I could have a second hard disk fail before my data is fully secured after replacing the first one, and the entire unit could fail too, leaving me with nothing local to fall back on. Assuming my Backblaze backup had already completed, I could of course download or have them send me my cloud backup on hard drives, but that takes time and I’d be panicking for days until my data was restored, so I just prefer to have a second local backup, as we see in this third diagram (below).
ChronoSync for File Synchronisation
For all of my file synchronisation I use ChronoSync from Econ Technologies. This is the only operating system specific part of my workflow that we’ll touch on today. ChronoSync is only for the Mac OS. When I used Windows, I used to use a command line tool called Robocopy, but I haven’t used that for years, so I won’t go into the Windows alternative today. If you have a great tool that you’d like to recommend for Windows, please drop a note in the comments section below.
ChronoSync is an incredibly powerful file synchronisation tool. It’s important that you actually read the help to avoid deleting files unintentionally, but once you have a good understanding of how it works, it can make life a lot easier. One of the reasons for this, is because you can save your synchronisation tasks and open them again later to rerun them. For example, after I’ve transferred my images from my camera to my Drobo Mini, to copy them to my Drobo 5D and start my Backblaze backup, I simply launch a saved Sync task that will look for anything that has been changed or deleted from my 2015 folder on my Drobo Mini (see below) and copy or delete it from my Drobo 5D as necessary.
As I work on my files from a new shoot, or make any changes to my earlier 2015 files on my Drobo Mini, I just run this task again. For the whole of 2015, the current year, I will use my Drobo Mini as my main archive, and the Drobo 5D 2015 folder will be my backup, so I generally just Mirror the changes across. If necessary, you can do a synchronisation and copy any changes that you make to the target drive back to your main copy, simply by changing the Operation that you see in the middle of the screenshot.
A couple of important things to note here are that I usually run the Trial Sync with the button in the toolbar before I actually execute the sync task. This is like a dummy run, and you get a dialog to see what will be copied or deleted, so you can check that you haven’t made any stupid mistakes before you actually make them. The other thing is that you can select wether to delete files immediately, move them to trash, or move them to an archive folder instead of deleting them. I don’t like the Move to Archive option because you end up with archive folders everywhere, but I do like to turn on to just move the files to the trash, rather than delete them immediately. This is just another safety net.
Synchronize Folders in Lightroom
Because I also have a 2015 (current year) folder in my “Photo Originals” directory on my Drobo 5D, once I’ve synched any images, I right click the folder in Lightroom, and select “Synchronize Folder…” This tells Lightroom to check the contents of the folder for anything new or removed, and you can also have it check for metadata changes as well.
Lightroom Export to Copy “Finals”
Once I’ve completed my editing of a shoot, and have my “Finals” or “Final Selects”, I copy these to the appropriate year in my Finals archive folder. Everything from the current year goes into a single folder. If I created a TIFF or PSD copy of my raw file, say to create a black and white version in Silver Efex Pro, or did some work in Photoshop, then I will keep both the raw file and the new format files together. If no copies were made, I just copy the raw files to the Finals folder.
Because I star rate my images to help with filtering, when I’m ready to copy my files, I just filter out anything with two stars or above. In my rating system, 2 stars means an original raw file. 3 stars is anything that I will present to Offset for consideration for inclusion in my stock library. 4 stars are images that I consider good enough to show people or use in a blog post etc. 5 stars are what I consider portfolio quality images.
So, when I’m ready to copy my final selects to my Finals folder, I simply filter anything 2 stars or above from my original shoot folder, and use a Lightroom Export preset to copy these images to my Finals folder on my Drobo Mini and my Drobo 5D.
At this point, I copy to both locations because I can add the images to the Lightroom Catalog at this point, and that saves me from synchronising the Finals folder after copying files across manually or using ChronoSync.
The important thing to note here is that although this is an Export, I’m not creating a JPEG or any other new format. I select “Original” as the format, under both the Video and File Settings sections. This ensures that the files are simply copied to the new locations, whether they are a raw file, or a TIFF or PSD etc.
Once I’ve setup something like what we see in the screenshot here (right) I just save this as a Preset, then when I want to copy my Final selects to my Finals folder, I just have to select them and right click them, then select “Copy Original to Drobo Mini 2015 Finals” which is what I called the Preset, and I have a second preset to copy to my Drobo 5D.
Mirroring Entire Drives with ChronoSync
To close the loop on the last diagram before we move on, I guess I should just mention that to mirror the contents of my first Drobo 5D to my second, I also use a ChronoSync Task, but because we will mirror the root of the drive, I set up a few Rules to prevent ChronoSync from copying and overwriting some important system files, as we can see in this screenshot (below).
OK, so now you’ll see that we have a pretty sound process in place for managing images based on a Lightroom catalog and a few ChronoSync tasks that we can launch and run when changes have been made. It’s a little more complicated than simply transferring images to the hard drive inside your base computer, but remember, there’s one key advantage to having everything that you need to use regularly on that external hard drive.
Diagram #4 – Image Library Portability
With your workflow set up this way, all you have to do to access your images on another computer, is to eject your portable hard drive from the base computer and plug it into another computer. Whether you are in another part of your house or office, or on the other side of the planet, if you plugin your portable hard drive, you have access to everything necessary to start Lightroom and continue working as you would on your base computer.
Because Lightroom remembers the last catalog that you opened, it automatically goes to the external hard drive, even if you open Lightroom with the application icon. Of course, to cause this to happen, when you first move your Lightroom catalog to the external hard drive, you’ll need to double click on the catalog in its new location to force it to open from there, but as long as you have Lightroom set up to open the last catalog, that’s the only time you’ll have to do this. You can also select File > Open Catalog… and navigate to your new catalog location too, but again, you’ll only have to do this once.
Of course, because the main archive of all of your images, what I call my “Photo Originals” lives on a hard drive on your base computer, so that won’t be accessible, but when Lightroom can’t see anything, it just marks the folder with a question mark, to let you know that it’s offline. You can still click on the folders, and if you have previews created, you can even see the images. If you need to be able to edit photos that are essentially offline, you can enable this by going to Library > Previews, and selecting Build Smart Previews, but without that you can’t edit images in the Develop module etc. until you get back to your base computer. The point is though, Lightroom handles this gracefully.
Backups While On The Road
The other items that you’ll notice in Diagram #4 (above) is my mobile backup drives. I use WD My Passport Ultra USB3.0 drives, because I think they provide great cost performance at just $99 for the 2TB drives. These are a little fatter than the 1TB drives, but I like to be able to backup my entire “Final” selects library on to these drives as well as my current year’s “Photo Originals” folder.
Now, as you know, I’m paranoid, so when I’m traveling, I actually make two backups of my images. This means that as I shoot, I backup all of my current year folder to two backup hard drives. Backup #1 and Backup #2 in diagram #4. Again, I use ChronoSync for this, and just save a task for each backup, and run it as necessary. Because I only have two USB ports on my MacBook Pro, I actually have to eject and plugin new drives when I want to run my Time Machine backup, but because my Drobo Mini connect with Thunderbolt, I can have both Backup drives attached at the same time as well.
You can even create Containers in ChronoSync, which can contain multiple sync tasks, so if you want to backup your images to both backup drives without intervention, you can do that quite easily. This is useful if you want to for example start off your double backup before taking a shower etc.
I know that some of you will consider it overkill to have a total of three backups of your images while traveling, but depending on where you’re going, I think it’s necessary, and generally do this whenever I’m on the road. I actually had one of my three external hard drives fail near the start of 7 weeks in Antarctica, and that was scary enough. If that had been my only backup drive, I’d have been climbing the walls.
As I mentioned earlier, the Drobo Mini is a hefty drive to lug around, especially if you’ll be jumping on international flights etc. so here are a few ultra-portable alternatives that work seamlessly with this workflow.
1) The first and most obvious alternative, is to simply synchronise your Lightroom Catalog to the hard drive of your laptop, but of course this requires that you have a large enough internal hard drive or SSD to hold your Lightroom Catalog, your Preview images and also maybe the images you’ll be shooting as you travel. This is great if you have an internal SSD, because they’re lightening fast to work from, but big SSD drives are expensive, and if you’ll be traveling for a long time, it will likely fill up.
2) The second lighter alternative is to use a lighter but still external hard drive, like my WD My Passport Ultra drives as the main archive and for your Lightroom catalog etc. This isn’t as smooth and stress free an experience as working with the Drobo Mini, because these drives are much slower, but it works, and is a nice affordable second choice if you are going to be shooting a lot. Lightroom is pretty good at finding your images etc. on the new drive as well. At least on a Mac system.
If Lightroom can’t find your images when you open the Catalog on a different drive, signified by the folders having a question mark against them, just right click the top level folder and select “Find Missing Folder” in the shortcut menu, then navigate to the folder on your new hard drive. This will remap everything, including your previews, and in my experience will not corrupt your catalog or anything.
Set a Hard Drive Letter for Windows
If you use this method of using a portable hard drive in a Window environment, you’ll probably need to ensure that the drive letter doesn’t change as you move the external hard drive around. I don’t remember exactly where you do this right now, but you can assign a drive letter to your hard drives, so it’s a good idea to assign something well away from the start of the alphabet, like M for mobile. That way other drives that you might attach that will be lettered D, E, F etc. won’t displace your external drive’s letter.
Not Really a Cross Plastform Solution
I should also mention that this solution is not ideal if you switch between Windows and Mac regularly. The catalog can be taken from one operating system to the other and will open, but Windows and the Mac OS reference drives differently, so you’d need to tell the other OS where your files live each time you open the catalog on the other system.
Also the location of your presets and settings is not recognized, so I personally think it’s more trouble than it’s worth if you are switching between operating systems. It makes it easy to move from one system to the other, but not really great if you want to switching back and forth.
OK, so I hope that has been useful for you. Having synched my Lightroom catalog around for the last few years, I’m finding it much easier now to just move my external hard drive around. It might not be for everyone, but I am really enjoying this workflow. As good workflows should, it just works, and that’s important to me.
Drobo Mini + 4 x 1TB 7200 rpm 2.5″ HDDs: https://mbp.ac/drobomini4tb
Crucial 250GB Internal SSD: https://mbp.ac/msata250gb
WD My Passport Ultra portable hard drive: https://mbp.ac/wd2tb
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