More and more I hear from people who want to be able to use a single Lightroom catalog of the same photos on more than one computer (not surprising in 2016). While there isn’t a perfect solution (that I am aware of), there are some techniques worth investigating. Now, before I go further I have a caveat, which is that this is not a solution everyone needs, and Lightroom is still designed to work best for a single user with a single catalog on a single computer. That said, if you want to take a walk on the wild side, then let’s go …
The most common approach for solving this multiple computers one catalog dilemma is to simply keep your catalog and the photos managed by that catalog on an external drive (like a Drobo Mini) and swap that drive between the computers. Each time opening the same catalog and working on the same set of photos. Obviously, you’ll want to have that drive regularly backed up (3-2-1 backup). This has been my approach for a while now, and it works well, and is the easiest to use.
The next most common approach is to use a cloud storage solution like Dropbox (there are others), where you store your Lightroom catalog (and its associated preview caches) within the Dropbox folder structure so that it is then automatically synced to all other computers (and the cloud) using that Dropbox account (with the desktop client installed on multiple machines). If you had sufficient Dropbox storage you could even store photos in that Dropbox folder so that they were also synced across devices and available on all computers, or if you were working in your own local network environment you could leave the photos stored on a network storage device, like the Drobo 5N, and just sync the catalog.
This got me wondering if I could use one of the apps that can be installed on my Drobo 5N to create my own cloud-like solution within my own network, and after a bit of testing I found an approach I think is worth sharing. The ingredients to making this work are:
- Drobo 5N
- An app called Resilio Sync (formerly called BitTorrent Sync) installed on the 5N
- Resilio Sync desktop app installed on all computers you want to use
To get started, you’ll need to open Drobo Dashboard, select your 5N, click on the Drobo Apps, and follow the instructions for installing BitTorrent Sync (I’m not sure when the Drobo App will update to the new name of Resilio Sync, so look for both).
From there I installed the desktop client for Resilio Sync on three different computers in my network for testing purposes (one PC and two Macs). It is easy to link your devices to the same shared folder through Resilio’s desktop client (starting from the first computer you install on).
The result is that I have a single folder (I named mine sylvansync, but use whatever name works for you) on all three computers and on my 5N, the contents of which are kept in-sync via the Resilio Sync app on my Drobo 5N over my local network. There is no outside cloud component of this. All files only exist on my local network.
In that folder I created a Lightroom catalog, named shared-catalog, and in a separate folder alongside the catalog I also placed a folder of photos, which I imported into that catalog. This Lightroom catalog and those photos were then automatically synced across all my devices, and I could open that catalog on any one of my computers (one at a time only).
In addition, I also had a folder of photos stored on the 5N in a separate location, which I also imported into this catalog using the ADD option to leave them on the network storage device. Why both a local folder of photos and network folder of photos? Well, I long ago developed the habit of storing photos on my network drive for the long term, but when I want to edit photos in programs like Photoshop, On1, Nik, etc., I like to have those photos stored on a local drive. It just feels safer to work on the photos when they are stored on a local drive instead of over a network. So, after the edits are done I use Lightroom to transfer the finished photos back to the 5N for archival storage.
To use this setup, I first need to make sure all syncing is complete across all devices. I can verify this in the Resilio Sync web interface, or in the desktop app (similar to how Dropbox let’s you know if there is a sync in progress or not). Then I can launch Lightroom on whichever computer I want to work on (I can be signed into my Adobe CC account on up to two computers at a time, while only using Lightroom on one at a time, so to use a third computer I need to log out of CC on one of them).
As I make changes that affect the files in that folder, such as importing new photos, sending copies to Photoshop, rendering new previews, then those new/updated files are automatically synced across my devices. The progress is shown in the Resilio App. When I am done in Lightroom, I quit the app, and for this project I’ve been saving the backup copies of the catalog into the same synced folder, which then syncs those copies across all my devices as well. I’ve been impressed with how quickly the sync completes so far.
Once the sync is complete, I can open that catalog on a different computer and have access to all of the work I had just done on the other computer. Pretty cool? I think so.
I do the majority of my work on a single computer, so I don’t really need to use this setup, but I can absolutely see the benefits for many other people who have different needs than I do, which is why I like to test these options out. My suggestion for anyone wanting to give this a go is to start with a small test catalog and get a feel for the process, the speed of sync, and develop a workflow. I think a lot could be done using smart previews without needing to access the original source photos, which might speed things up even more, but that might be an article for the future.
A final caveat for people in a mixed operating system environment, Mac and Windows have their own ways of writing network paths, and as such if you have photos stored on a network drive and switch from a PC to a Mac or vice versa you will find that the network drive appears missing/offline. This is a nuisance, but easily fixable. You just need to redirect the catalog to point back to that same folder on the network drive.
For example, I had been working on my shared catalog while on my PC, closed out of Lightroom, let sync happen, and then opened that catalog on my Mac. The network drive appears offline even though it is completely accessible from my Mac. It is just that the path stored in the catalog was made by the PC, and I need to update it for the Mac.
- Right-click the top-level folder with the question mark in the Folders panel and choose Find Missing Folder.
- In the resulting dialog box, manually navigate to that exact folder on the network drive, select it and choose Select Folder.
That tells Lightroom to reference that folder at the new path, and the catalog is updated with the path for the Mac. Now I can continue working with the catalog. I just have to keep in mind that I’ll need to do the Find Missing Folder dance each time I switch back and forth from Mac to PC and back again. Not a big deal, but wanted to give a heads up to any folks in that type of environment.
There may be other strange and unexpected behaviors when using Lightroom outside of the way it was intended to be used, so be careful, back up frequently, and start small until you work out all the kinks. I’d love to hear any other suggestions for how this type of set up could be used, or any other gotchas to be aware of that I may have missed.
Rob writes the “Under the Loupe” column for Photoshop User Magazine, and is the author of many photography related books.