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How To Move Your Lightroom Catalog To An External Hard Drive (or vice versa)

I get this question a lot, but before I tell you how to do it, for the best performance from Lightroom Classic, I recommend NOT moving your catalog to an external drive. You’ll get the best performance by leaving it on your computer, and not over on an external drive. I store all my photos on an external hard drive (which I recommend), but NOT my Lightroom catalog. That being said, I still hear from people who want to move their catalog, so here’s how I would do it (it’s actually really easy if you follow these steps below).

NOTE: If instead you want to do the opposite (moving your catalog from your external hard back onto your computer for better performance), you follow the same steps but read my “Important note” at the end of the tutorial which tells you what to do, but it’s essentially the same tutorial, but you reverse the direction.

STEP ONE: First, Quit Lightroom Classic. Then, on your computer go find the folder with your Lightroom Catalog (your catalog has .lrcat at the end of its name) and create a new empty folder inside and name this folder “Old Catalog” (as seen above) top left.

STEP TWO: Now drag your catalog file (and any other support files like your Previews File or Smart Previews file or Helper.lrdata catalog) into that “Old Catalog” folder.

STEP THREE: Take those same files you put in that folder and drag them to your external hard drive.

STEP FOUR: Go to your external hard drive and double-click on the catalog file to launch Lightroom using this catalog on your external drive as your catalog. That’s it – you’re done.

That catalog on your external hard drive will be the catalog that opens from now on (unless, of course, you choose to open a different catalog) when you launch Lightroom. It won’t be able to find your old catalog on your computer because it would be looking for it in its old location, but you moved that catalog inside a different folder named “Old Catalog” so thankfully Lightroom has lost track of it, and now you’re using the catalog on your external hard drive instead.

Now, if it were me, once I’ve got my new catalog on my external hard drive AND I made a backup copy (I would put it in the cloud), then I would go delete the catalog inside the “Old Catalog” folder, so there’s no way I could accidentally mess up and launch with that catalog on my computer (well, I wouldn’t, but I actually know people who have…so…well, there’s no reason to keep the old one now that you’re using the one on your external drive).

IMPORTANT NOTE: if instead your catalog is already on an external hard drive, and you want to move it back to your computer (for better performance), then you’ll do similar steps – but in reverse (you’ll take your catalog on your external hard drive and put it new folder and name it “Old Catalog” then drag the contents to your computer and restart Lightroom from that catalog.

Hope you found that helpful, and here’s wishing you a rockin’ Monday!

-Scott

P.S. I was interviewed a while back with Mubai-based Photoshop wizard Unmesh Dinda (such an awesome guy), and it’s one of the best, most fun, most revealing interviews I’ve been asked to do (the credit goes to Unmesh). Anyway, I’m embedding it below if you want to watch, or give it a listen in the background while you’re backing up your catalog.

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9 comments

  1. Ivan 15 April, 2022 at 11:19 Reply

    Hi Rob,

    I have LrC on my iMac (24-inch, M1, 2021) with 500Gb drive.
    In the catalog I have 124000 photos and I have a problem with preview data
    It take over 210 Gb, which is almost half of drive.
    Is there any solution to reduce this preview or even move to external drive, where my photos are stored.
    But I don’t want to move catalog on external drive (performance reason)

    Thanks for any advice or suggestion.

    Ivan

    P.S.
    Could you please answer me via email.

    • Rob Sylvan 17 April, 2022 at 12:52 Reply

      Hi Ivan, You can delete the preview cache, but know that it will rebuild itself automatically over time. The only way to move the preview cache is to move the entire folder containing the catalog to an external drive. The tradeoff may be performance, but it would free up space on your internal drive.

  2. Chip 18 March, 2022 at 08:22 Reply

    Curious how you avoid the date-time stamp being updated when moving files on a PC? I’ve checked into this and the only way I’ve found to do this is to use the robocopy file replication command in Windows 10.

  3. Mel 16 March, 2022 at 17:37 Reply

    I just came across this article. I was able to follow the directions (in reverse) and move the LR catalog from my external hard drive to my computer. However, once I disconnect my hard drive, LR says every image is missing and needs to be found. If I reconnect my hard drive, LR finds the images and there is no longer a problem. How do I get around this issue? Thanks.

  4. naomi 6 December, 2021 at 12:14 Reply

    Hi Scott, thanks for this tutorial. My setup is that i have two drives, one with the catalog, the other with the photo files. I want to move the catalog and the files unto a new (smaller/faster) SSD drive. I copied them both unto new drive, but as expected, it doesn’t see the files (as location has changed). I am trying to reconnect but it looks like it only does this one folder at a time, I keep having to do with multiple folders. As I have 40000+ images, I am thinking I need to start again, using a better method.
    Any suggestions? Many thanks!!!
    Noemi/ naomi

    • Rob Sylvan 15 December, 2021 at 19:32 Reply

      If all of your photo folders are within a single top-level parent folder, then you just need to update the top folder. However, if your folders are not all in a single parent folder you will need to update each folder one at a time. For this reason, it is really important to keep all photo folders within a single parent folder for each drive, as it makes your life much simpler over time.

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