Master Your Image Library

To merge, or not to merge. That is the question. Imagine a time in the not-so-distant future when you truly have just one window into your entire digital photo library. This means, no matter where you are, and no matter what sort of device you’re using, you’ll be able to easily access any photograph you’ve taken since the dawn of digital (admittedly, not that long ago, relative to geologic time).

Today, having a good cataloging or asset-management system and maintaining one master catalog for all of the photographs in your digital library is a solid step in that direction. And this article assumes that you’re already on that track. But what do you do when you go on location? Many of us already have libraries far larger than our laptop hard drives will hold comfortably. And even if we could carry our entire library on location on a portable hard drive, would you take the risk of that drive being stolen or lost?

When we shoot on location, we typically want to download and possibly edit and organize our photos every chance we get. Assuming that you maintain one large master catalog of your digital photographs (and I think most people do), and that you want to edit in the field while shooting, when using Adobe Lightroom you essentially have two options when you get back home: to merge, or not to merge.

The first option—to merge—is actually a bit trickier than the second, but once you get a feel for the ins and outs of how Lightroom handles catalog merging, you’ll become comfortable with it. And it’s worth learning how to do.

Figure 1

If you plan to create a temporary location catalog and then merge it with your master catalog when you get home, here’s how I would proceed. For the location part of the setup, all you need to have is a laptop with a copy of Lightroom installed on it and enough hard-drive space to accommodate the photo files you’ll be shooting. Next, create a folder for the photo files. Because Lightroom always first looks to a relative path when searching for your photo files, I find that it sometimes helps to put them in close proximity to the catalog. I recommend creating the folder for your photo files (I’ll name this shoot folder “Location Photo Library”) in the same parent folder as your Lightroom catalog folder. This could be in your Desktop folder, or in your Pictures folder, or wherever. The exact location really doesn’t matter—as long as they’re in the same parent folder. Then as you shoot, download your photos into that library folder on a daily basis, arranging them into subfolders named with the when, who, what and where objective metadata scheme that I outlined in my previous DPP articles (December 2009 and March/April 2010). If you’ll be using Lightroom’s default installation location for the catalog on the laptop, that scheme will look something like Figure 1.

“Library” Or “Catalog”?

Throughout this article I use the terms library and catalog, but not interchangeably. When I talk about your library, I’m talking about your photographs—meaning, the actual digital photo files. When I use the word catalog, I’m talking about the database that you use to manage those photos, and with which you view and organize them. Lightroom calls this database the catalog. Due to the fact that the Lightroom user interface has a Library module, there’s much confusion surrounding this distinction. Your catalog is not your library!

Figure 2

Option 1 (Merge)

When you get home, follow these steps to merge your location photos into your master library:

1) Copy the entire Lightroom catalog folder and your location library folder from your laptop to an external hard drive for transfer, or copy it directly to your master home or studio machine over a network. (Let’s keep the name of the location shoot folder “Location Photo Library” to distinguish it from your existing “Master” Photo Library.)

2) If you’re using an external hard drive, disconnect it from your laptop and connect it to the machine containing your master library and catalog. (Or, your external hard drive could be your master library drive, which is okay, too. This is the configuration I use for my photo library, rather than the computer’s internal drive.)

3) Back up your master Lightroom catalog! You can simply copy the .lrcat file to another backup location, or force Lightroom to do it for you. In Catalog Settings, set Lightroom to Backup Catalog when Lightroom next exits. Quit the application, and click the Backup button when the Backup Catalog dialog appears.

4) Open the master Lightroom catalog again. Lightroom should open the last catalog you were working with on that machine by default. If that isn’t your master catalog, hold down the Option key (Mac) or the Alt key (Windows) during launch, and Lightroom will allow you to navigate to a different catalog. Or simply choose File > Open Catalog and navigate to it.

Figure 3

5) Choose File > Import from Catalog, and navigate to the catalog (the .lrcat file) that you created on location and copied to your external hard drive. Click the Choose button.

6) When the Import dialog box opens, for File Handling, choose “Copy new photos to a new location and import” (Figure 2).

(If you don’t see the “Copy new photos” option for File Handling and only see the “Add new photos to catalog without moving” option, Lightroom can’t find the photo files, probably because you’ve changed their position relative to the catalog during the transfer to the external hard drive. This is one of the reasons why I suggest keeping these two folders together in one parent folder from the beginning.)

7) Click the Choose button to specify a location for the “Copy to” path. Navigate to your Master Photo Library folder and select it. Click the Choose button.

8) Click the Import button. If you’ve set up everything properly, Lightroom will import all the photos that are in your location catalog and put all the shoot folders where they belong in the master catalog’s Folders panel (Figure 3).

Option 2 (Use XMP)

Your second option (not to merge) is to use XMP sidecars to bring your location shoot’s info into your master catalog. This option is a bit easier than the merging one and can be very effective for the task at hand, but it does have its limitations. The benefit of using the XMP option is that you don’t have to be nearly as careful about library folder positioning, naming or any of that. Just follow these step

1) Make sure your laptop is set up with a copy of Lightroom and plenty of hard-drive space for the number of photos you think you might shoot on location. Alternately, plan to take a portable, external hard drive for your photos.

2) While shooting on location, copy your photos to your laptop (or external hard drive) and arrange them into folders named with when, who, what and where in the folder name, or whatever folder naming scheme you use in your master library back home.

3) Create a temporary Lightroom catalog on the desktop of your laptop, or just use the default one in your pictures folder, and import your daily shoots as you have time. When planning to use XMP, you can add keywords, your copyright or other metadata, star ratings or color labels in the Library. You also can make any color correction or other adjustments you wish in the Develop module. There are just one or two limitations when using XMP that I’ll outline below.

4) At the end of each edit session, or at the end of the entire location shoot, write your accumulated catalog settings out to XMP sidecar files. This is easily done by going to the Library grid mode, choosing Edit > Select All, and then choosing Metadata > Save metadata to files. This will write the XMP sidecar files in your shoot folders, right next to each source RAW file. (If you’re shooting JPEG or DNG files, or if you convert your photos to DNG on import, the “Save metadata to files” command won’t write sidecar files, but will instead write the metadata directly into each file. This workflow will have exactly the same outcome as working with RAW files plus sidecar files.)

5) When you return home, copy your shoot folders from your laptop directly into your Master Library folder. (At this point, the Lightroom location catalog on your laptop is redundant. You never need to copy it to your home machine or archive it if you don’t want to. I recommend keeping it at least until you complete Step 6, but at some point you’ll possibly want to delete it.)

6) Launch Lightroom on your home machine, open your master catalog, and import the new shoot folders. During import, Lightroom will see the XMP sidecar files (or, the XMP metadata it’s written into JPEG or DNG files) and will duplicate all that metadata, develop settings, etc., into your master catalog.

You’re done! You’ve successfully integrated your entire location shoot into your master Lightroom catalog. What are the drawbacks of this second method? Well, unfortunately, not all catalog metadata is written into XMP. The most important items (that I know of) that can’t be communicated from catalog to catalog using XMP are virtual copies, Collection information, pick flag status, develop history, and if you’re renaming files on location, a significant little bit of metadata that the Lightroom catalog thoughtfully stores, the original file name. So if your location workflow is heavily dependent upon the use of virtual copies or Collections, then this method may not work for you.

Using keywords can be a perfectly viable workaround to using Collections on location. And using Snapshots in Develop can be an easy alternative to relying on Develop history or virtual copies for alternate interpretations of a photo’s processing instructions. As for pick flag status, this limitation is also easy to work around using keywords or star ratings.

I find that one of these two methods always works well for me when I can’t take my entire master library with me on location. Learning how to work with multiple catalogs does take a bit of experimentation, bit it’s well worth the effort. Just be sure to perform your experiments on a backup copy of your libraries.


The reason there’s very little consensus among photographers on the subject of using RAID drive configurations is because there are so many variables. RAID drives come in lots of different flavors, and they have evolved considerably over the years, so there are no easy answers. Just like any other hardware purchase, it’s always best to arm yourself with enough information before you commit a RAID to your backup or archive workflow.

RAID drives can be configured to enhance system performance, or to provide data redundancy, or both. And in each case there are trade-offs. A pair of hard drives that are mirrored for redundancy (RAID Level 1) can provide one basic form of backup protection, but with the drawback that any mistakes you make will be instantly mirrored to the backup, too. Another type of RAID (Level 0) splits up, or “stripes,” your data across multiple hard drives for faster performance, with the obvious drawback that if one drive fails, the entire RAID will be lost. Finally, solutions such as NETGEAR’s X-RAID2 and Drobo’s BeyondRAID combine several RAID levels with proprietary technology that provides both increased performance and data redundancy. But increasing the complexity of any system also can come with its own cost.

Having said all that, and given how far hard drive and general RAID technology have come in the last decade, I feel that a RAID setup can be effectively used as either your daily “working” drive or as a “backup” drive. But I probably wouldn’t recommend RAID configurations for something that you call your “archive.” (See my previous DPP articles in the December 2009 and March/April 2010 issues.) In my definition of a true archive, you want your data to be in the most plain, vanilla format as possible, in other words, just files and folders that easily will be readable by someone, perhaps years after you leave the business as a photographer, or even after you pass away. This definition also requires that your archive drive be in the most ubiquitous format possible to help ensure the greatest chance of compatibility with future hardware and operating systems.

So go ahead and take advantage of the benefits that using RAID drives can bring to your daily workflow. But do your research first, and never let your guard down against potentially putting your photos at risk!

George Jardine began his career as a professional photographer, and his work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Better Homes and Gardens, Interior Design and many other publications. He joined Adobe Systems in 1993, and in 2002 he began work on the Lightroom project. Jardine teaches workshops and consults for digital photographers, and is a freelance video producer. You can find his tutorials by visiting his blog at

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