Combine Catalogs in Adobe Lightroom

One of the most common questions from Lightroom users is how to combine catalogs. Lightroom handles catalog maintenance very well but you need to answer some basic questions first. The most fundamental considerations are;

  • Where are your original files located?  Are they on the same machine as your catalogs or will they need to be move.
  • Do the catalogs that you want to combine contain all unique images or is the same image in multiple catalogs.

For this blog post, I'm only going to consider one scenario. You've just attended one of the fabulous Tony Corbell Photographic Workshops where you filled gigabytes with wonderful images.  During the workshop you imported everything into Lightroom on your laptop and even ran several through the develop module to polish them up.  Now you're home and you want to get these images onto your desktop and into your main Lightroom catalog.  How do you do that without loosing any of the develop settings that you've worked on?

Things to Consider Before We Begin

There are some important things to remember when working with Lightroom catalogs in general;

  • Lightroom is a database catalog of your original images.
  • It does NOT contain your original images but only previews – sometimes referred to as thumbnails – and data about the images, commonly referred to as Metadata.
  • Lightroom can only open one catalog at a time.

Export / Import

To combine the two catalogs we simply export them from one machine and import them on another. In our scenario, the originals are not on the same machine as the primary catalog. And, all images being imported are new and unique.  (we'll talk about how Lightroom handles duplicate images in a later post.)

First, on your Laptop, select all the images that you want moved into the primary catalog on your desktop machine.  Then go to File > Export as Catalog…

On the export dialog box, enter a name for the catalog that you will be creating - in this example I've called it "Workshop Images". Then, look toward the bottom of the dialog box.  Be sure to check Export negative files.  You can also include available previews, although you can always recreate them in the primary catalog. Lightroom will package a new catalog AND the original files all together.  

I have a small external disk drive that I use to move catalogs from my Laptop to my desktop but, depending on the size of the catalog, you can use flash drives or copy them over a network using a tool like Apple's AirDrop.  

Pay close attention to whether or not you need to copy your images to a new location.

Once this new temporary catalog is on your desktop, go to File > Import from Catalog.   Be sure to review the File Handling options.  Since I use an external disk, I need to select the option to Copy new photos to a new location and import.  I then specify the location to where they should be copied.

By following these steps, you ensure that all your original images are copied onto your desktop and all the develop settings and metadata that you entered on your laptop are also migrated into your primary catalog.