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How to Move a Lightroom Catalog to an External Hard Drive

Published: 13/04/2021

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Lightroom Classic CC catalog functions as a database to track and manage your photos. You can store your Lightroom Classic catalog on an external hard drive if you have less space on your internal drive, use more than one laptop, or need access to the catalog while traveling. 

Learning how to move the Lightroom catalog to an external hard drive the right way will help you store your catalog safely and use it wherever you want.  

How to Move Lightroom Catalog to an External Hard Drive

As a photographer, efficient and handy photo management is vital. Lightroom Classic catalog does a pretty good job at helping you with management by storing the information regarding all your photos. You can merge your existing catalog with another Lightroom catalog, or you can move it to an external hard drive.

However; as you might often need to tidy up space on your internal storage or require the catalog for use on other devices, moving the catalog to an external hard drive is your best bet.

What Is a Catalog in Lightroom?

A catalog is a Lightroom database that traces the location of your images and keeps the related history. Every catalog you create stores information about the image adjustments, location, keywords, ratings, and any other detail that your photos might have.

Catalogs are a great way of organizing your photos depending on the real estate property location or the photography job you are working on. Usually, you can create multiple catalogs depending on your project needs.

For instance, you can create a catalog for the exterior photos and another one for interior photos. Regardless of the number of catalogs, you can use the following tips to move them to external hard drives.

Step 1: Locate Your Lightroom Catalog

The first thing you need to do to move your catalog to an external drive is to find where it is stored on your computer.

  1. Launch Adobe Lightroom Classic CC.
  2. If you are using Windows, click on the Edit menu. Click on the Lightroom menu if you are a Mac user.
  3. Open the Catalog Settings option.
Catalog settings option in Lightroom
  1. From the dialog box shown below, click on the General tab.
  2. Click on Show to view the storage destination of your Lightroom catalog.
  3. Exit Lightroom Classic.

At this point, you can click on Backup before quitting if you haven’t backed up in a while. If you already have a backup, click on Skip and quit Lightroom. 

Note: I highly recommend regularly backing up your catalog in the Catalog Settings if you don’t want to miss your work. You can set a regular backup option in Lightroom to save time doing this.

Clicking on Show to view the storage destination of your Lightroom catalog

Step 2: Move the Catalog to the External Hard Drive

  1. Plugin the External Hard Drive on your computer.
  2. Now open the file location of your Catalog that Lightroom just showed you. (if you clicked on Show earlier, it would be open already)
  3. Copy the catalog file (Catalog.lrcat), the previews folder (Previews.lrdata), and the Smart previews folder (Smart Previews.lrdata).
Copying the catalog file in Lightroom before moving to external hard drive
  1. Paste these onto your External Hard Drive.

Note that it may take a long time to copy your catalog if it has a large number of files. If you want to move your photos to the drive as well, do it at this point. 

Step 3: Launch Lightroom Classic With the New Catalog

Your catalog and preview folders are now safely transferred onto the external drive.

  1. Open the External Drive folder.
  2. Double click on the Catalog file.
  3. Adobe Lightroom Classic will be launched with your new catalog. 

Step 4: Reconnect Your Images and Catalog

Lightroom may abnormally behave when you open it through the external drive, as it may not know where to locate your photos. Usually, it places a question mark by the folders in the Library Module.

  1. Right-click on a new folder with a question mark and select Find Missing Folder
  2. This opens Explorer on Windows or Finder on Mac.
  3. Locate the folder with your actual photos and select it. Note that if you transfer all the photos to the external drive, you will need to connect to the folder in your external drive.
  4. Repeat the process with all the folders that have the question marks until all the question marks disappear

Step 5: Delete the Catalog on Your Internal Drive (If Needed)

You may need to delete the old catalog that was stored on your internal drive if you want to empty its contents. As your catalog is now safely copied to the external drive and synced with Lightroom, you can delete the old catalog from the destination folder. 

External Drive Alphabet Problem

Sometimes, if you plug your external drive into your computer, the computer might name it using different alphabet letters, especially if you disconnect and reconnect it. For instance, the computer might name your external drive H:MyPhotos, and if you disconnect it and reconnect back, it might call it D:MyPhotos

In such cases, Lightroom displays question marks and preview exclamation marks. The easiest solution is to right-click your folders in Lightroom and select Update Folder Location. Open the respective folder on the external drive and select it.

Why You Should Move Your Lightroom Catalog 

Keeping in mind that Lightroom is more of a photo organization application, Lightroom catalogs helps to track the locations of photos and store the information related to the photos. Usually, this makes them a key feature in Lightroom’s photo management, and you might need to move them for the following reasons. 

To Free up Hard Drive Space

When a computer runs out of storage space, it becomes less efficient. The slow operating efficiency might affect the Lightroom speed or make it impossible to install other photo-editing applications such as Photoshop. 

Moving a Lightroom catalog to an external drive will help free up some space and improve the computer's overall speed. However, keep in mind that Lightroom catalogs don’t store the actual image files, and you might need to move the image files to free up significant space.

To Create a Backup

Although Lightroom periodically backs up the catalogs, they get backed up in the same location, which is risky if the hard drive breaks down. Although you can have an online backup of your images, the most straightforward way to create a backup of your catalog is to save it on an external hard drive. 

When You Want to Edit From Another Computer

Many real estate photographers will tend to work from their desktop computers in offices and laptops at home or when going around shooting tethered. However, even if you are working on the same catalog, making an adjustment on one computer does not mean that the changes will reflect on the other. 

That means if you are working on your catalogs from a desktop and then switch to a laptop, you will have to start the process all over again. However, instead of restarting the process, you can move the Lightroom catalog to an external drive over to your computer. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is the Function of the Catalog in Lightroom?

The function of the Lightroom catalog is to form a database of information regarding your photos. It is created when you first launch Lightroom Classic and use it to edit your photos. The catalog records the critical information such as location, flagging, metadata, and editing on each photo besides storing keywords added to them.

Remember that catalog is not a collection of your photos. The catalog is meant to save the changes you make on the image and won’t affect the original image as Lightroom is a non-destructive software. Therefore, backing up your catalog won’t mean your photos are also backed up. Make sure you move the photos to the external drive separately. 

What Type of External Drive Will Be Best to Store My Lightroom Catalog?  

A high-efficiency external drive is the best to store your Lightroom catalog for optimum performance. of Lightroom. Look for some of the top-recommended external hard drives so that your photo editing process on Lightroom is seamless and optimized. 

Can I Use More Than One Catalog?

Yes, you can use more than one catalog. It is understood that for some users, their professional process requires them to create more than one. However; I highly recommend using a single catalog as Adobe designed Lightroom’s catalog to handle a large number of images. 

Also, it might be confusing to search for different photos if you are using more than one catalog. On the other hand, organizing everything in a single catalog will make your work a lot easier and quicker. 

What to Do When Lightroom Doesn’t Recognize the Catalog on My External Hard Drive?

If Lightroom doesn’t recognize the catalog on your external hard drive after launching, it means that you need to navigate the catalog. Just click on the Edit tab (Windows) or Lightroom tab (Mac) and click on Preferences. Choose the General tab, and look for the option of default catalog settings. Change the default catalog to the one on your external hard drive, and you are done. 

Default catalog settings under General tab in Lightroom


Having your catalog on an external drive makes your photo management process easier. Just make sure to use a good quality hard drive so that Lightroom’s performance isn’t harmed. I hope that my step-by-step guide on moving Lightroom's catalog safely onto your hard drive will be helpful for you. 


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