NOTE: This post was originally a guest contribution over with the great folks at Mountains To Sea Photography Workshops. You my find it helpful to visit the post there as well for additional community discussions.
How to optimize your Lightroom Workflow when you are on the road
Jump to the good stuff!
If you’re a an experienced Lightroom user or you just want to get to the heart of the solution feel free to jump to the “Lightroom Catalog Import” section. If you’d like a little more background into why I chose this solution read on!
If you are like most then the last thing on your mind is your photography workflow. For many photographers there is nothing better then a good road trip! Early mornings and little sleep are all forgotten with the glorious anticipation of great light. In the end, if you’re lucky, you’ll end the day with a lot of very full memory cards. So what happens when you have some down time in the field and you want to process some of your latest shots, but your Lightroom catalog is back safe and sound at home? In this two part article, I’ll provide some solutions I have found that utilizes Lightroom catalog export and import functionality to effectively manage my photography workflow while on the road.
Before we go into the details, it’s first important to understand how Adobe Lightroom stores your photographs. Lightroom’s storage is centered on the concept of catalogs. A Lightroom catalog is essentially a database full of image references\links, metadata such as keywords, cached copies, and edits. It’s important to know that your photographs themselves are not typically stored alongside your catalog. As a best practice most catalogs and photos are on separate drives either locally or on attached storage and if you play it smart you also have redundant storage. Others find the performance and flexibility of a dedicated NAS (Network Area Storage) as an acceptable solution. Both solutions are great for the home office but are size and weight prohibitive for travel.
To save on space many photographers take one or more portable hard drives while traveling and typically a travel laptop. This means that your precious photos could potentially be scattered around various hard drives and systems and if you’re not careful some might never see the light of day!
Lightroom 5 & Smart Preview
Lightroom 5 introduced a feature called Smart Previews that allows you to edit files that are offline. This is typically for scenarios where your primary drive is not attached to your computer. A slightly smaller version of the file is cached as a “smart preview” can be modified in the development module of Lightroom and can be integrated later when the storage is attached. Although a good alternative when you know you need to edit certain files it’s not a practical solution for your entire Lightroom catalog.
So what are the options to avoid this potential lightroom workflow catastrophe? One possibly simple answer is nothing. As long as you have access to your Lightroom catalog Lightroom will hop along nicely even when you’re primary storage is not attached. You won’t have any access to your offline photos (unless you use Smart Previews) but any photos imported into the field will be added to the catalog which gets you part way there.
The devil, however is always in the details. I used this approach for my first mobile lightroom workflow and although it was straightforward I found fairly quickly that it wasn’t going to work for me. At the time I had a separate laptop for my travels and I did not enjoy copying around my large catalog from my primary workstation to my laptop (and then back again on my return). Also remember how I mentioned your photos will be imported into the catalog? Not so fast! They are imported in but odds are the photos are still living on that travel friendly external drive so not only are they not in the correct location but you're also not getting any protection that your redundant home storage is likely providing. To avoid this scenario you have to be very diligent to remember to move your files back to your primary storage when returning home and also update the links to them in Lightroom. Not the end of the world but as we add more "fixing" steps to the process we're bound to miss something eventually. Not liking that solution I thought it would be a great idea to completely go mobile by always using external drives . Unfortunately I quickly realized I missed out on the performance, size, and redundancy benefits of large attached storage. With all these solutions I always felt like I was putting my catalog and photos at risk and there were too many opportunities for things to go wrong along the way.
This all leads to the natural question. If I edit those files in the field how can I easily get them back to my primary storage, retain all my edits and versions, and do this with minimal headache or possibility of lost work? I discovered the solution was in having two separate catalogs one to act as my master and one to take on the road with me and use the Import\Export functionality of Lightroom to bridge the gap.
Lightroom Catalog Import
The Lightroom catalog import functionality may be your new best friend for scenarios where your laptop is your primary device and you store your photos from the road on your laptop or portable external hard drives. The catalog import functionality not only allows the import of photographs themselves but it also includes all the corresponding metadata, tags, developer module edits, copies, Photoshop imports, etc. Essentially all of the activities that are typically left until you get back to your office can be done and retained in the field. This is a powerful tool to get a leg up on the constant organizational overhead that inevitably occurs when returning from the field. This can be especially useful in cases where you are collaborating with other photographers or possibly attending a workshop and you want to immediately get started while the irons hot.
To achieve all of this you simply need to be comfortable with the concept of having multiple catalogs. One for your travels and one for the office. Import your photographs in the field and process them as you would normally within your travel catalog. When you come home import your work back into your primary catalog. Additionally you have the side benefit of having a copy of your photographs not only on your memory cards but now also on your laptop and external drives (and if you’re really paranoid a copy of your external drive!)
How It Works - Optimize Your Lightroom Workflow
Create a Lightroom travel catalog
To start with in addition to my master catalog I created a new catalog that is dedicated just for my travels. This catalog should reside in a location that makes sense for your travel setup. It can be right next to your existing catalog on your laptop, on your travel laptop, or setup on a portable drive. The key factor is that it’s a separate catalog. While in the field you import from our memory cards or camera and go through your normal processing workflow on your travel catalog. This may include tagging, minor edits, flagging, rating, etc. I find these tasks especially useful to do in the field to save time for more involved editing when you get back home.
Word of CautionIf you travel with laptop and that is also your primary workstation ALWAYS remember to back up your Master Lightroom Catalog. Although your photos are safe and sound at home if you loose your Lightroom catalog you will be in for a world of hurt rebuilding it!
Tip: Working with KeywordsAppropriately tagging and categorizing your photography with Keywords in Lightroom should be part of every photographer's workflow. Like many photographers I've spent time fine tuning my keywords and creating a smart hierarchy. There is no need to enter all of those keywords again for your travel catalog. You can save all of that effort by importing in your existing keywords directly into your travel catalog. In the library module of your master catalog choose Metadata -> Export Keywords, select a location for the keywords file, and then click Save. In your travel catalog in the library module again choose Metadata -> Import Keywords, navigate to and select the file that contains the keywords you saved in the previous step.
Importing to Catalog
Once you’re ready to transfer your work to your master collection simply open up your master catalog and choose “Import from Another Catalog” from the file menu.
Select the location of your travel catalog:
Select the specific photos that you would like to import. IMPORTANT: Make the appropriate file handling selection. You will want to move your photos to a new location that is not your travel drive.
Tip: Keeping your Folder StructureEnsure that your destination folder structure is in place prior to the import process. For example my folder structure is typically Year -> Country -> State -> Location Name. If you for example had several different locations during your trip and your folder structure is spread over several folders you may need to run the import several different times to ensure the files are copied over and retain your desired folder structure. I've made a feature request to Adobe to retain the same folder structure but default so we can hope this might be in a future version of Lightroom.
Select Import and go get a cup of coffee. If you had a long week this may take a few minutes!
Summary and a few Tips
It’s that easy! Optimize your lightroom workflow by pocessing and organizing your shots in the field with a travel catalog. Import them into your master catalog when you get back from the field.
A few final thoughts and suggestions:
Tidy Up Your Travel Catalog
Delete out or flag photos that you’ve imported for cleanup later. I prefer the latter as I’m often too rushed when getting back from the field and I don’t want to mess up and lose anything! But in the end there is no need for your travel catalog to be as big as your master catalog!
Flag Photos Processed In The Field
When flagging and tagging photos in the field I use a special tag to indicate that I processed them in the field. This is often helpful when I’m reviewing my catalog in the future as sometimes photos that you let stew for a while are often viewed in a different light when looking at them weeks and sometimes months later.
Keep Copies Of Your Photos
If you have an extra drive and time at the end of your trip it is often advantageous to copy your Lightroom catalog and library to another drive. I’ll typically keep these drives in different locations during travel. If my laptop gets stolen or I lose a camera bag I’ve still got my shots!
Buy Rugged Drives
Needless to say electronics don’t like getting dropped, wet, or dirty. Buy yourself a rugged hard drive or at least a rugged hard drive case or enclosure for the field. Personally I like the Lacie Rugged Raid. Rugged and redundancy in the field – perfect combination! You will need something that can handle abuse if you join us on the Appalachian Trail.
I hope that you enjoyed Part I of this discussion on Your Lightroom Workflow On the Road! Let us know what you do differently, comments are welcome and encouraged.
In the upcoming Part II in this series I will be covering some more guidance on traveling and optimizing your Lightroom workflow especially for those photographers who keep their workstation at home and hit the road with more travel friendly laptops. We’ll be covering how to make use of the export & import functions to make your life just as easy.