Over the years my photography editing, image storage workflow and requirements have had to evolve with the amount of travel I do. Adobe Lightroom is software that I rely on for my asset management and RAW processing but having multiple catalogues and image libraries on a laptop and a desktop, and across multiple portable hard drives can sometimes get confusing. When I get home I would still like access to the the same edits I have done while I am traveling and to be able to import those into my main Lightroom CC Classic catalogue. Or vice versa – to be able to access my main catalogue when I am on the road. There are multiple ways to achieve this, and one of those is to use Dropbox to store and sync Adobe Lightroom catalogues and files.
There are quite a few things to consider when doing this. To be able to upload the required files to Dropbox you will need access to a reasonable amount of internet data bandwidth (or use LAN Sync effectively) to be able to upload and download files across different computers. Only one computer can have any individual Lightroom catalogue open at any one time otherwise you risk corrupting the catalogue file. Attempting to have a catalogue file open in multiple places at once can also lead to losses in the edits you have done from any computer. You will also need to wait for image files and the main catalogue file to synchronise across multiple computers as well, and this is where I believe Dropbox has an advantage over other cloud platforms, including Adobe Creative Cloud, thanks to its Smart Sync and LAN Sync features. More on those below.
The number of files in your catalogue, your local storage capacity and the size of your Dropbox cloud storage plan is important too. Lightroom CC Classic catalogues can become extremely large very quickly. Each time I import a full memory card worth of images that’s another 64GB I am importing. Add to that a few edits shifted from Lightroom into Photoshop and back, and those PSD or TIFF files can sometimes get up to 1GB to 4GB in size per file. It doesn’t take long to start consuming file storage capacity.
Here is my usage case – I have a MacBook Pro and iPad Pro that I travel with, and more often as not carry around 2TB of external storage on portable hard drives. My main editing machine is a 27” Retina iMac with access to multiple NAS and directly connected Western Digital hard drives. I am shooting mostly with Canon DSLRs or the new EOS-R. RAW files vary in size from around 40MB – 80MB depending on the camera I am using. I typically start with a new laptop Lightroom catalogue before each major trip I take. I have access to a lot of mobile data (basically unlimited) on my iPhone XS and iPad Pro. Depending on where I am staying I may or may not have access to a good internet connection through a wi-fi connection other than from my mobile devices. I have access to gigabit speed fibre internet service at home (thank you Launtel 😘).
I understand not everyone is going to have access to the data speeds, bandwidth and plans I have. But even with a modest home data connection and mobile data plans, this process of using Dropbox to sync Lightroom CC Classic catalogues can work for a lot of photographers. It all depends on the number of images you produce and the amount of data that needs to be transferred. It may not be the best solution for those professional photographers out there producing terrabytes of data every trip they take. Using external SSD drives would be a far better option in that case. But for a lot of people, it will work.
Installing / configuring Lightroom CC Classic to work with Dropbox sync
I am going to assume that you already have Dropbox installed on your laptop or desktop computer which will be running the Lightroom CC Classic installation you wish to sync files from. For these next steps I am importing images onto my Macbook Pro which is the main computer I use when traveling (other than the iPad Pro). When you install Dropbox onto your computer you will find a link to the main folder within Finder on a Mac or File Explorer on a windows based machine. In the screenshots below you will see I have created a folder on my Dropbox account called “Lightroom Catalogue May 2019”. The catalogue name I am creating for this post is “May2019”. To create the new catalogue in Lightroom CC Classic select “File -> New Catalogue”. When the prompts appear to select the correct place to store your catalogue go to “Dropbox -> Lightroom Catalogue” and name your catalogue whatever you like. Within the “Lightroom Catalogue” folder on Dropbox you will then see a new directory created that will contain your main Lightroom catalogue file.
The reason this process of using Lightroom CC Classic with Dropbox works is the files you are creating during this process are stored locally on the machine you create it on, with options within the Dropbox setting allowing you to decide which files actually sync up into the cloud, and then which of them are available as as “local files” or “online-only”. Making those files available to your other computers will be a matter of configuring a few settings. We will look at the settings on other computers you want these files to sync to further on in this article. For now you should have the required directory structure and the catalogue file created.
Importing images into Lightroom CC Classic using the Dropbox directory structure
The next step in this process is ensuring all of the images you import into Lightroom CC Classic will be stored within the Dropbox folder, remembering that they are first stored locally on the machine you import to, and then synchronised into Dropbox. To make this process work in a streamlined way I find it best to use the exact same type of file structure across multiple catalogues. I use the options “Organise -> By date” and then “Date format -> yyyy/mm/dd” when importing into Lightroom CC Classic. This then stores all of your files in directory with the correct year, and then child directories in the format of the month and then date. This is the structure I use on my main desktop iMac and consistently using these settings will make future importing and synchronising of different catalogues streamlined. Another really important setting to ensure you have turned on is “Copy” which you will find in the top middle of the import panel in Lightroom CC Classic. I want the files to be copied from the source (in this case an external SD card) onto the hard drive of my laptop. These will then be syncing back to Dropbox from there.
After you have completed the import you will see new folders and files that have been created within the “May2019” folder (or whatever folder you have created) and icons relevant to whether individual files and folders have been synced to Dropbox or not. For this to work it is really important for the syncing process to complete. As mentioned above this is the part where your bandwidth and internet speeds are really important. The more data you have access to, and the faster your upload speeds, the faster these files will be backed up onto Dropbox.
So there you have a working Lightroom CC Classic catalogue being synced to Dropbox with images that have been imported ready for editing. You can go ahead and make any edit changes you like. Perhaps you want to send some images over into Photoshop from Lightroom and then save them back into Lightroom again. Having Dropbox working in the background is just a matter of having an internet connection and ensuring Dropbox is syncing. Remember that any files that are created will need to sync back to Dropbox. If you are sending edits between Lightroom CC Classic and Photoshop CC, some of those files could be quite large.
One of the biggest benefits I have found with using Dropbox over any other cloud storage service is the “LAN Sync” function. Any computers that are using the same Dropbox account and are on the same Local Area Network will benefit from faster file transfer across the local network rather than needing to upload and download everything to and from the cloud. In my usage case so far, I have the Macbook Pro that I am using while traveling. At home I am using the iMac to do all of my long term asset management and as my main editing machine. Once I am at home and both computers are connected to my home network, files can be transferred between them directly over the LAN. This is a very quick and easy way of making the files available across multiple computers within Dropbox.
Closing your Lightroom CC Classic window and ensuring the catalogue syncs to Dropbox
Lightroom CC Classic is not designed to have multiple users or installations using its main catalogue file at any one time. Only one computer can have that catalogue file open. If you attempt to have it open in multiple places, you risk losing any of the changes and data that have been created by a single Lightroom installation. At worst you could corrupt your entire Lightroom catalogue file, losing any work you have done along the way. Once you close Lightroom, there may be a minute or two before the new changes you have made within the catalogue updates on Dropbox. If for some reason you either don’t have an internet connection, or have chosen to turn of Dropbox sync before now, those changes in the catalogue file will not be updated and reflected correctly.
It is very important to ensure you close the Lightroom application on the computer you have been using to create this shared catalogue. In my case it is my Macbook Pro laptop I have been using and will now be opening this catalogue on the desktop iMac. I will now switch over to my desktop iMac to either use the new catalogue, or to import those files into my main catalogue.
Opening the new Lightroom CC Classic Catalogue and configuring Dropbox to sync the image files
So in my usage case, I am back at home after a trip. I have been using the process above to ensure all of my valuable image files and Lightroom CC Classic catalogue have been backed up into the cloud on Dropbox. I want to firstly be able to open the new catalogue created from my Macbook Pro independently of my main catalogue in use on the iMac desktop. But I would also like to be able to directly import those images into my main catalogue as well for long term asset management.
Let’s take a look at the settings I have configured on the iMac firstly. Within the Dropbox app I have the option for Smart Sync to make new files created remotely as “online-only”. I will be able to see the files as bookmarks until i choose to download them.
In the screenshot below you can see the Dropbox folder that I have on the iMac desktop. There is a folder called “Lightroom Catalogue Main Working 2019” which is the current working catalogue I am using for my main file storage. There is also the folder we have created above called “Lightroom Catalogue May 2019” which up to this point has not been downloaded onto the iMac. The files are “online-only” and are not using any storage space on my main iMac yet.
To download the files, right click on the new folder (in my case “Lightroom Catalogue May 2019”), select “Smart Sync -> Local”. This will then start the process of making the files in Dropbox available locally on the second computer (in my case the iMac desktop).
With a bit of forethought and planning, it is possible to speed this process up and make these files automatically download to the second computer rather than manually needing to do it. In my usage case I would create the new Lightroom catalogue before I started traveling, and then set the iMac desktop up to use Dropbox selective sync and turning the appropriate folder sync options on. For this to work efficiently the iMac would be left on for the duration of my trip, and the Dropbox sync would just continuously happen while I was away and using my Macbook Pro with this catalogue. This may or may not suit your own usage case. Occasionally is does for me depending on how long any given trip is and how many images I would be shooting and importing.
Once you are sure that all of your files have been downloaded and synced correctly, it is time to open up that new Lightroom CC Classic catalogue (in my case, on my desktop iMac now). This is very straightforward. Open up Lightroom, select to “File-> Open Catalogue” and then navigate to the correct Dropbox folder and choose your new catalogue (in my case “Lightroom Catalogue May 2019 -> May2019 -> May2019.lrcat”). By this stage you will be opening a catalogue file that is stored locally on the hard drive of the machine you are using because you have downloaded both the catalogue and any image files. Remember that it is extremely important that you only have this catalogue file in use on one computer at any given time.
And that is it for opening the Lightroom CC Classic catalogue that you have created on Dropbox. Every change that you make from now on within Lightroom will reflect within the catalogue file that is stored on Dropbox if you continually allow the required files to sync. You can close Lightroom and open it up on any computer using these files, and as long as the sync process has happened you will always be opening the current catalogue with any changes that have been made. If you have multiple Lightroom Classic CC catalogues stored on Dropbox, switching between them is just a matter of ensuring the correct files are available on any given computer, and opening the correct catalogue within Lightroom.
Merging Lightroom CC Classic catalogues that are stored on Dropbox
I have already mentioned that I am using the two different computers, the Macbook Pro mostly when I am mobile, and the iMac for my main editing and asset management needs. I like to keep my Lightroom Classic CC catalogue files organised in a streamlined way. Generally I will have a single catalogue file that I am using on the iMac that is specific to a single year of images. At the end of each year I then create a new catalogue, and within my home network have multiple NAS and other cloud backup procedures for the previous years images.
To merge the catalogues, rather than the process of opening them as listed above, in Lightroom select “File -> Import from another catalogue -> navigate to the appropriate Dropbox folder -> select the catalogue file”. I have mentioned above that I generally always use the “Organise -> By date” and then “Date format -> yyyy/mm/dd” options when importing new images into Lightroom CC Classic. If this is consistent across any catalogues you want to merge, then the file paths and structures should match up between the different catalogues and they will import into the correct paths if you choose the option “Copy new photos to a new location and import” under File Handling in the import process.
Once the import is complete, you would have successfully merged the two different catalogues together. At this stage it is now possible to manage your own local files by using Selective Sync and turning off the folder that was being used for the process above. In my case, on the iMac I can either switch the “Lightroom Catalogue May 2019” folder into “online-only” by right clicking on the folder and selecting “Smart Sync -> Online-only”. You could also remove the reference to that folder by doing so within the Dropbox app.
What I like about using Lightroom CC Classic with a Dropbox synced catalogue
– Making a single Lightroom CC Classic catalogue available across multiple computers.
– This can create automated process of backing up your valuable image files across a local device, as well as into the cloud meaning less chance of losing your image files.
– Dropbox is the only cloud storage solution that offers the “LAN Sync” feature or anything similar. This can help speed this entire process up for computers connected to the same local area network.
– You can selectively choose which folders within a Lightroom CC Classic catalogue to sync. If you have a large image catalogue you may only need access to the most recent files, and it is possible to switch certain directories within your image library on and off. This can help save storage space on any individual computer.
What I don’t like about using Lightroom CC Classic with a Dropbox synced catalogue
– There is a chance of data corruption if you have multiple Lightroom CC Classic installations opening the same catalogue file at the same time.
– Unless you are using LAN Sync effectively, the process of uploading and downloading data between different computers can consume A LOT of bandwidth and data usage.
Options other than Dropbox to achieve a similar result
There are a lot of different cloud backup services other than Dropbox that you could replicate the majority of the above process. But in my experience Dropbox is the fastest platform offering the best features (eg. LAN Sync) for every day cloud storage needs. If you wanted to, you could use Google Drive or Box in a similar way, but something to remember is that these services do not offer block-level file copying, which means every time a file gets modified the entire file needs to be uploaded to the cloud again. Dropbox do offer block-level file copying and this can not only speed the entire system of file sharing up, but also limit the amount of data you are downloading and uploading.
Adobe offer storage as part of your Creative Cloud subscription, and could achieve a similar cloud based setup by using Lightroom CC rather than Lightroom Classic CC. I believe Adobe are heading in the right direction with the cloud centric features they are offering. But Lightroom CC Classic was not designed from the ground up with the cloud in mind. Some things like syncing specific collections work well, but when doing so only make a smart preview available rather than the full RAW file. This limits export options as you are technically not accessing the original file. Rather than using Dropbox to store the files and catalogue, you could do so in Creative Cloud in much the same way. But the downside is still the methods in which file transfers happen. And Dropbox just simply offers better features overall than Creative Cloud in this regard.
Rather than using Dropbox, you could also use an external hard drive or storage device to store the Lightroom catalogue created in the first stages of this article. By taking that hard drive from one computer to the other you can open and merge catalogues by selecting the correct files and directory paths. I personally use both methods – external hard drive and Dropbox – and switch between then depending on whether I have a reliable internet connection or not, and also depending on how many images I am producing when I am traveling.
As always, your own usage case, the availability of good internet connections and your entire photography workflow requirements will determine if the above process of using Dropbox to sync Lightroom CC Classic catalogues will work for you.