ExportFeaturedImportLightroom Classic

Exporting and Importing a Classic Catalog

There have been many times over the years where I’ve needed to export a subset of my main catalog for a specific reason, such as to travel or to share a selection of work, and then later needed to import any changes (and new photos) from that catalog back into my main catalog.

Exporting a Catalog

Let’s walk through the steps for how this can be done.

Step One:
There are a couple of ways to export a catalog, but my favorite way is to put all the photos I want in the new catalog into a collection first. This way it doesn’t matter if the photos are stored across multiple different folders, as you can just drag and drop them all into a single collection to pull them together.

Once you have them all in the collection, Ctrl-click (PC: Right-click) the collection name and choose Export this Collection as a Catalog from the contextual menu that appears. This will open the Export as Catalog dialog box.

Step Two:
On the Export as Catalog dialog box, choose where you want the exported catalog to go and give it a name. Since I am planning to take this catalog on a trip I selected a folder on the external drive I am taking with me and gave it a name that made sense to me.

Step Three:
At the bottom of the Export as Catalog dialog box are three checkboxes. For this purpose I am checking Export negative files to include copies of the original photos along with the exported catalog file so that I can work on them in Develop and even send to third-party plug-ins. Checking Include available previews may cause the catalog export process to take a tiny bit longer, but it will save you the time later by not having to re-render them again.

Note, if you don’t need copies of the source photos you can choose Build / Include Smart Previews and use those instead. This takes up much less disk space than including negative files, but still allows for editing in Develop (albeit with smaller versions of the photos).

Step Four:
Click Export Catalog (PC: Save) to start the process of exporting the catalog, negative files (photos), and previews to the external drive.

Nothing about this process will change anything in my original catalog. All I am doing is duplicating the data about the photos in that collection in a new catalog file. If I go to File > Open Catalog, and select the new .LRCAT file, I can open that catalog file into Lightroom and verify all the work I’ve done—from keywording to virtual copies to Develop edits—on those photos is contained in this new catalog. By including the negative files it even replicates the same folder structure on the destination drive so I know these photos are where they should be for the trip.

From there it is just a matter of safely disconnecting that drive (close the catalog file first) from the first computer, connecting it to the second computer, and opening that catalog into Lightroom when I want to use it. To open that catalog file directly into Lightroom, just use your file browser to open the folder on the external drive and double-click the .LRCAT file. Now you are ready to head out on your trip, continue working on those photos in any way you wish, and import new photos you take along the way knowing that you can bring all of this work back to your original catalog.

That said, there is one mistaken assumption out there that I’ve seen quite a few people make. If you delete some of the original photos you exported with that catalog you cannot expect Lightroom to mirror those same deletions back in the original catalog when you import from that catalog. It just doesn’t work that way. You can only transfer data about your photos between catalogs, and once a photo is deleted the data about it is gone, so there is nothing to transfer. Long story short, don’t bring photos that you plan to delete, or better yet, instead of deleting just apply reject flags to them because that is data that will be imported back and you can delete all rejects from your main catalog.

Importing Back to Original Catalog

OK, now I have returned from my trip. I worked on each of the original photos I exported with the catalog and I have imported new photos taken while away. Here’s how to bring that all back into the original catalog.

Step One:
Connect the external drive to the original computer, open your original catalog into Lightroom, and go to File > Import from Another Catalog, then select the .LRCAT file on the external drive and click Open to launch the Import from Catalog dialog box.

Step Two:
First deal with the decisions in the New Photos section. Click the File Handling drop-down menu and choose between Add new photos to catalog without moving (i.e., add to catalog and leave on external drive), Copy new photos to a new location and import, or Don’t import new photos. I want to copy the new photos to my master storage drive, so I chose Copy new photos to a new location and import. Once you make that choice you need to tell Lightroom where to save the copies, so next to Copy to, click the Choose button and select the destination folder.

Step Three:
Decide how to handle the changes made to existing photos. Click the Replace drop-down menu and choose from Nothing, Metadata and develop settings only, or Metadata, develop settings, and negative files. I do want to replace metadata and develop settings in the original catalog with the work I did on the road, and I did not make any changes to the pixels in any of the negative files, so I chose Metadata and develop settings only. Under the Replace drop-down menu I have the option to Preserve old settings as a virtual copy. This is useful if you want to either compare the new work with the old work, or if you just want multiple versions of the work you did, but I am going to leave that unchecked so that the original files are simply updated.

Step Four:
Confirm all of the settings are configured the way you want them and click Import.

Lightroom then goes through the process of updating the changed original photos with the new work, copying the new photos to my main storage drive and importing them into the original catalog. This catalog export and import function is the only way to transfer all of the data stored in the Lightroom catalog between two catalogs, and the process is pretty straightforward when you understand the role of the catalog file throughout each stage.

Once the catalog import process is complete you have one more decision to make, which is, what will you do with the small catalog and the associated photos on the external drive that are now safely migrated to your primary system? The simplest choice is to just delete that catalog file, its preview cache, and the copies of the photos from the external drive. Consider it a temporary catalog that acted as a sort of transfer station while you were traveling and has outlived its usefulness. This will avoid clutter and confusion down the road.

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16 comments

  1. Rick Broer 18 June, 2020 at 17:19 Reply

    Sorry to be late reading this post. What happens if I reorganize the file structure in the second–temporary catalog. Say, I rename a folder or rename a file. Will this create chaos when I reimport? Thanks for a great article.

  2. Lenore Horowitz 17 April, 2020 at 18:20 Reply

    Excellent, clearly written article. I needed guidance because my hard drive is choked with photos from 5 catalogs (as an early adopter, I have ended up creating a new catalog about every 2 years) –not to mention the data files and previews and cataog files lightroom generated each time the software updated. I have deleted the outdated data files and catalog files. Now I want to purge images. I followed your instructions to export my best collections into my newest created catalog. I have left the negative files in their original folders. I gave all the exported collection images a blue attribute so I could distinguish them from the remaining images in the folders. I thought I could then return to an older catalog, look into the folders it manages, and delete images that are not blue. That way, I thought, I would not delete a photo inadvertantly. Do you think this is the best way to shrink the photo mass that clogs my machine? My goal is to make a trimmed down, disciplined photo presence that could more easily be transferred to a new computer (it’s time for that too !).

  3. carmody baker 12 October, 2019 at 10:33 Reply

    This works great. BUT when I import my photos that I edited on the road to my original catalog it is not picking up my virtual copies. How to I make sure that the virtual copies (with edits) are also imported back to my original catalog?
    Thank you.

  4. Gunnar 22 July, 2019 at 11:57 Reply

    I have a corrupted catalog and would like to move all existing information from the old to a new catalog. Should I export the old before import it to a new empty catalog?
    The problem is that I have some folders that are dormant. i.e they are dimmed, the photo count is 0 and the view is empty. Would this dormant folders disappearwhen I start a new catalog using:
    1.) export + import,
    2.)or just import from an otters catalog?

    • Rob Sylvan 23 July, 2019 at 09:30 Reply

      If the catalog is corrupted, then worrying about what will happen to an empty folder is the least of your concern. I would try exporting a catalog from the corrupted catalog to see if that will even work (the corruption may cause that to fail). Don’t check the boxes to include negative files or previews. Just export the entire catalog as a catalog, which will hopefully create a new functioning catalog file (and nothing else).

      If that works, then try using this new exported catalog in place of the corrupted catalog and see if it is free of whatever problem you were having with the original catalog. If it is, then there’s no reason to take the extra step of importing that new catalog into another catalog. Good luck!

  5. Byron Arnao 15 November, 2018 at 15:54 Reply

    I’ve got a catalog with about 420k images thats probably about 10 years old (from the first photos)… I’ve been struggling with stability, speed and other issues for a while… I was thinking of doing this (export/import) with the idea that it might improve performance and stablity (by way of rebuilding catalog from scratch) … have you had this issue (large catalog performance issues?) I have noticed that if I use lightroom on machines with small/new catalogs it responds just like it did when I first fell in love with it… not the disaster it has become… thoughts?

    • Rob Sylvan 15 November, 2018 at 19:27 Reply

      It could help. You could skip the export part though. Just create a new catalog (File > New Catalog), and from within the new (empty) catalog go to File > Import from another catalog and select your big catalog file. Make sure you choose the option to add the photos to the catalog without moving. You just want to ADD the photos to the new catalog so that you aren’t moving or duplicating the photos. All you want to do is import the data about the photos into the new catalog. Doing this won’t change your original catalog, so you can always go back if no change. Make sure you have a good backup in place before you try (just in case).

  6. Ken Kemp 30 October, 2018 at 12:22 Reply

    I’ve read numerous help items on this matter and I am still confused. I have exported a collection from LR Classic on my iMac as a catalog, imported that new catalog into LR Classic on my MBP, edited a few images on MBP. Now I want to merge the two catalogs, but I want to be sure that importing the catalog from the MBP does not replace the edits on images on the iMac, that were not touched on the MBP. None of the help items seems to explicitly address this. I know that I can select the “Preserve old settings as a backup”, but is this necessary to preserve develop settings for those images that were not changed in the MBP?

    • Rob Sylvan 30 October, 2018 at 14:10 Reply

      If I understand your workflow … Lightroom will only import the settings of photos that have been changed (based on what option you choose on the import from catalog dialog), so if you didn’t make any changes then nothing will happen to those photos.

  7. Hal 12 June, 2018 at 16:02 Reply

    How can I set up a new catalog (which is an identical copy) on a different external drive without losing all my headings. When I try, it loads the new catalog in date order and I loose all my headings. Thanks—Hal

  8. Pierre Lafond 3 May, 2018 at 07:41 Reply

    It demistify the process of creating a catalog for editing and sync the modifications back to the original one.

    Good article. Well written.

  9. Rudi 28 March, 2018 at 04:47 Reply

    That’s how I exchange my filed images between my MacBook and my iMac for years. Sometimes I even make some edits on the Macbook and export them as a catalog without the images itself, only Metadata and edits. Works like a charm.

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