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This is a reprint of my Jan/Feb 2011 feature article in Photoshop User magazine. A subscription to  is benefit of becoming a member of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals. You can  and get Scott Kelby’s Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 Book for Digital Photographers and a Lightroom Killer Tips Preset CD as a signup bonus. 

There comes giddy a time in every Lightroom user’s life when you will purchase a new computer. I’ve broken out the components you need to consider to get from old to new with a minimum amount of angst and a maximum amount of control.

Within the context of migrating Lightroom to a new computer, there are essentially three components that you want to transfer:

1. Your photos.

2. All custom presets, templates, and third-party plugins.

3. The Lightroom catalog (and possibly the preview cache).

There are a few ways to successfully migrate this stuff to a new computer, but I wil highlight one method that will get your data safely copied to a new computer, keep you in the driver’s seat every step of the way, and ensure that you know where all your files are when the job is done. I know there are other ways to do it, and depending on your setup they may even be simpler. That said, I’m trying to cover all the bases for people at all different levels of Lightroom experience.

Note: I am writing this with a focus on Lightroom 3, but the basic steps apply to earlier versions of Lightroom as well.


Before You Start

While you can transfer files over a network connection, having a large capacity external drive (or multiple external drives if needed depending on the amount of photos you have) is going to make this process much simpler and faster, and that is the method I recommend. The standard caveat of always having a solid backup of all files before you begin such an endeavor applies.

Tip: If you are migrating between Mac and Windows you will want to use an external drive that is formatted as FAT32 because both Windows and Mac can read and write to/from a FAT32 formatted drive. An alternative is to use third-party software that let’s a Windows computer read/write Mac OS Extended, or that allows a Mac to read/write to an NTFS formatted drive (this is what I do).


Preparing the New Computer

The main thing to do on the new computer is to install the latest version of Lightroom. You can skip the original installation disc and simply download the installer for latest version you own by going to:

Lightroom’s End User License Agreement allows you to install a second copy of the software for your own exclusive use on another computer (provided that Lightroom is not used on both computers at the same time). It is OK to install Lightroom on your new computer before uninstalling it from the old. Lightroom is truly cross-platform, so even if you are changing operating systems (Win to Mac or Mac to Win) you can use your same serial number with both installations, and there is no activation software involved. Don’t bother launching Lightroom yet on the new computer, just install the software and go back to the old computer so we can gather up all the pieces to bring over.


Migrating Your Photos

Stored within your Lightroom catalog is the complete path to each imported photo, from the volume name (PC: drive letter) to the file name, and every folder in between. If something in that path changes outside of Lightroom, then the path stored within the catalog becomes out of sync with your photos’ actual location. In the process of migrating from one computer to another it is very likely that something in that path will change. This is not a big deal, and the process to update the catalog at the folder level is very straightforward (we’ll go over that when we get to the new computer). The moral of the story is that if all your photos are stored within a single parent folder (no matter how many subfolders are within it) then once you get to the new computer you only need to update a single folder to get every subfolder and photo up to date. I realize that there is no single right way to store photos and your photographic situation may be slightly more complicated for good reason, in which case you may need to update more than one folder.

Tip: If you are at all unclear about the relationship between the Lightroom catalog and your photos then go no further until you have (it’s an oldie but a goodie, check out my page for links to his newer stuff):

For example, on every drive I use to store photos, I maintain a structure that starts with a single parent folder that contains multiple levels of subfolders for all the actual photos. This keeps things very simple for portability and backup. This parent folder is at the top of the tree in the Folders panel.


Tip: What if you keep all your photos in a single folder but the top-level folder is not showing in the Folders panel? I’ll direct you to the Lightroom Queen, who will show you how to change that.

If your photos are already on an external drive that you are moving to the new computer then there is no need to copy your photos to yet another drive. Just be prepared to connect that drive to the new computer, and skip ahead to the next section on presets and plugins.

With Lightroom closed, copy the folder containing your photos (and its contents as-is) to the external drive you are using to transfer the data. Remember, don’t change the existing structure, just copy it to the external drive.


Presets and Plugins

Time to gather up all your custom presets, plugins and templates! If you’ve never created custom presets or templates, and you’ve never installed a third-party plugin or web gallery, then you can skip this part of the process and we’ll see you in the section on the catalog. When you install Lightroom on your new computer you will get all the default presets and templates, so we are just concerned with all the custom bits you added.

In my experience, most people leave their presets and templates in the default central location. The simplest way to access this location is to go to Lightroom > Preferences > Presets (PC: Edit > Preferences > Presets), and click the Show Lightroom Presets Folder button. This will open the folder, named Lightroom, containing all of your presets into Finder (PC: Windows Explorer), which is located here:

Mac: Users/[username]/Library/Application Support/Adobe/Lightroom

Vista/Win 7: Users/[username]/AppData/Roaming/Adobe/Lightroom

Win XP: Documents and Settings/[username]/Application Data/Adobe/Lightroom

Note: Windows can hide the AppData and Application Data folders. In Windows Explorer, go to Tools > Folder Options > View, and check Show hidden files, folders, and drives.

On the Preferences > Presets tab, if you already had Store presets with catalog checked then I will assume you know where all your presets are, and you can skip ahead to the catalog section. If you don’t have Store presets with catalog checked then don’t check it now, as it will simply create a new folder (named Lightroom Settings) alongside your catalog with only the default presets, which won’t help us with your custom presets.

Within this Lightroom folder are all your presets, templates, third-party web galleries (if installed), and the most common location for third-party plugins (the Modules folder), within their respective subfolders. Your task is to place a copy of all your custom files on the external drive destined for the new computer, and the easiest way to do that is to copy the entire Lightroom folder to the external drive. That said, on Windows, the Lightroom preference file is also stored within the Lightroom folder in a folder named Preferences. I don’t recommend bringing a copy of this file to the new computer, as I think it’s wiser to start with a fresh preference file on the new computer. In addition, if you are migrating from Windows to Mac the preferences are stored in a different location on Mac anyway. So, leave the Preferences folder behind.

In regards to third-party plugins (everything from LRMogrify to jf Flickr), I’ve always found it simplest to place a copy of the .lrplugin file within the Modules folder so that the Plugin Manager will automatically add and enable the plugin.

However, you may have chosen to store your plugins in a different location, and manually add them via the Plug-in Manager. There’s no wrong answer, but I’ll leave it to you to know where your plugins are stored if not in the Modules folder. Lightroom plugins with an .lrplugin file extension are typically cross-platform, but some may have special requirements for each operating system, so be sure to check the web site of the plugin author for all compatibility concerns. If you have installed plugins that are more like external editors, such as the ones from Nik Software that you access via the Photo > Edit In menu, then you will want to go to the developer’s web site and download the installers for those plugins to the new computer and install them like new software at the end of the transfer process.

Tip: While you have Lightroom open take note of your preference settings so that you can re-configure them on the new computer. Now that you have all your photos, presets, and plugins copied to your external drive let’s turn our attention to the Lightroom catalog.


Copying the Catalog

When it comes to migrating the actual Lightroom catalog I advocate creating a copy of your working catalog to transfer to the new computer because in Lightroom 3 there is no other way to transfer the Publish Service connections you previously set up, as they are not included in a catalog export. In addition, a catalog export only includes keywords that are applied to exported photos, which may leave out parts of your entire keyword hierarchy that have not yet been applied to photos (though it is possible to export a keyword list and import it into a new catalog).

To find your catalog, go to Lightroom > Catalog Settings > General (PC: Edit > Catalog Settings > General), and click the Show button to reveal its location. The default location of the catalog is in the Pictures (PC: My Pictures) folder, but the Lightroom catalog can exist anywhere on your drive. For example, I keep my main catalog in a folder off the root of my C drive so that I never get it confused with any of the temporary catalogs I create for various reasons.

Within the folder containing the catalog are two important files, the catalog itself with the. lrcat file extension and the associated preview cache with the .lrdata file extension. If you see a .lock or .journal file then close Lightroom and they will go away, as they are temporary files that assist the catalog. If you’ve never changed the default location of the catalog backups then you might see a Backups folder as well, but we can leave that folder behind (here’s my ). With Lightroom closed, copy (not move) the .lrcat and .lrdata files to a folder on the external drive. If you can fit them on the same drive holding your photos then go for it. If you need to use a separate drive that’s fine too.

Note: It is not critical for the preview cache (.lrdata) to be transferred to the new computer since Lightroom will automatically regenerate a new preview cache when the catalog opens if no .lrdata file is found. The benefit of bringing it along is that it will speed up the process of seeing your photos on the new machine. However, the preview cache can be quite large, so if space on the external drive is an issue you can leave it behind. Just be prepared to see gray boxes in place of thumbnails until Lightroom is able to regenerate them all.

You should now have a copy of your photos, your presets, and your catalog on the external drive.

Safely disconnect the external drive from the old computer and connect it to the new computer.


Transferring to the new computer

Launch your file browser on the new computer and view the contents of the external drive. First, copy the folder containing the Lightroom catalog (and preview cache if you included it) to a location of your choosing on the new computer. Then, copy your photo’s folder structure to a new location of your choosing (or leave them on the external drive if that is your plan). Once those copy operations are complete, navigate to the catalog in its new home and double-click the .lrcat file to open it into Lightroom.

Don’t panic if you see question marks on your folders and photos, you just need to update the catalog to point to the their new location. This is when having a single parent folder showing in the Folders panel comes in handy.

STEP ONE: Ctrl-click (PC: right-click) the top-level parent folder and choose Find Missing Folder.

STEP TWO: Navigate to and select that exact folder in its new location and click Choose (PC: OK).

Lightroom will then go through the process of updating the catalog to reference that folder (and everything inside of it) at this new location. Repeat the process for any folders not contained within that parent folder (if you have any).

Next, go to Lightroom > Preferences (PC: Edit > Preferences) and re-configure your settings. I suggest that you configure the Default Catalog on the General tab to reference this catalog specifically instead of loading the most recent catalog. Once configured, go to the Presets tab and click the Show Lightroom Presets Folder button to open it in your file browser. Copy all your custom presets, templates, plugins and web galleries from the external drive to their respective folders on the new computer. Restart Lightroom when the copy operation is complete to see your custom bits inside of Lightroom.

Go to File > Plug-in Manager and make sure all your plugins are installed and running. If you haven’t already, this is a good time to make sure you are running the latest version of each one. You will need to re-register any third-party plugins you had running on the old computer.


A Word about Publish Services Connections

Connections that were setup on the old computer to online sources such as SmugMug or Flickr should still work, but give them a test drive to make sure. However, existing hard drive connections will display any photos they contain, but may no longer function due to the change in drives. The export location of an existing connection cannot be changed after the connection is created, and it will have to be rebuilt by making a new hard drive connection on the new computer. Once you create the new hard drive connection you can re-populate its contents to match the old connection and you’ll be back in business.

Give your catalog a thorough walk through to make sure there are no lingering question marks on any files, that all your presets are accounted for, and everything is functioning as it should. If you are satisfied that all is well you can close Lightroom and install any additional third-party plugins (such as the kind from Nik Software or OnOne) if you have them. Congratulations on the successful migration!


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