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Using Lightroom with BitTorrent Sync

If I had all the money in the world (or could at least tack a few extra zeroes onto my net worth), my ideal computer setup would consist of a MacBook Pro connected to at least one 27-inch Thunderbolt display. In that way I could A) avoid the pain that is Windows 8 and B) do all my work on one computer, both at home and the road.

My main Lightroom catalog would be connected to a sizable external drive (or, better yet, a Drobo with five 4TB drives). New RAW files might temporarily reside on the MacBook’s SSD drive, but a better option would be an external hard drive or SSD drive. 

My current arrangement consists of a Windows 7 desktop and a MacBook Air both running Lightroom 5 and Photoshop CC. 

One problem that arises when working on the road is this: Getting my RAW files from my notebook’s Lightroom catalog to the permanent one on my desktop machine. My original, perfectly serviceable solution was to export new images from the laptop to another catalog on a portable external hard drive, then plug that drive into the desktop, and then import that catalog from the external drive into the main catalog on my desktop machine.

This has a few drawbacks, the most obvious being that my two computers run different operating systems. 

Also, the only reason for importing my new photos into Lightroom on my notebook machine is because I want to start editing them before I get home. This means I want all that information; pick flags, ratings, develop settings, metadata changes, to carry over when I bring the photos into the permanent library, rather than have to redo everything. If I’m not going to edit the photos in any way, I’ll just copy the RAW files off the cards to the notebook’s hard drive and be done with it, worrying about importing them to Lightroom when I’m home.

I’ve come upon a new way that skips the export catalog, then move to the desktop, and import catalog workflow. It involves using a software called BitTorrent Sync. BitTorrent Sync works similarly to services like Dropbox or OneDrive, in that it copies files on one computer to matching folders on another computer. The difference between Sync and Dropbox is that Sync has no “cloud” component. There is no company storing your files on its own servers. This makes Sync potentially more secure than Dropbox (if you’re worried about the NSA having a back door to your data), and also free.

You can do the same thing with Dropbox or OneDrive, but you will probably have to pay for additional storage. If you’re going to go that route, I’d recommend looking at DropBox or Google Drive. They offer the best bang for your buck, in terms of price per gigabyte per year.

The other advantage to BitTorrent Sync is that it can sync folders anywhere on your computer, not just under the DropBox or OneDrive folder like the other services.

Setting Up Lightroom on the Mobile Computer

The setup is relatively straight forward. First you have to set up BitTorrent Sync on your notebook and desktop computer. Download the program from bittorrent.com/sync and install it on both computers.

On your laptop, create a folder on your laptop, probably under your Pictures folder, but you can put it anywhere you like. Call it something useful, like Lightroom Sync . Create another folder inside that one. Call it Library.

Open Lightroom by CTRL-clicking Lightroom on Windows or CMD-clicking on the Mac. Instead of opening Lightroom, this will launch a new dialog that allows you to open Lightroom with a specific catalog file. Click the button to “Create New Catalog.”

Navigate to the Library folder and give the new catalog a name.

This will open Lightroom with a completely blank catalog.

At this point, you might want to set up things like your develop presets, your metadata presets, your watermarks, and your identity plate.

The following video by Adobe’s own Julianne Kost explains how to do a lot of that. This video is about the correct way to do what I used to do, before BitTorrent Sync (not necessarily the way I used to do it), so a lot of the information here is very useful.

Once you have done all that, close Lightroom. Lightroom has created a new folder inside the Library folder, with the same name as your new catalog. Inside that folder, create a new folder called Photos.

Make a copy of the Library folder, somewhere outside the Lightroom Sync folder. Rename it something like “Library Template.” You now a have a virginal copy of the new catalog you just created, which you can re-use .

Setting Up BitTorrent Sync on the Mobile Computer

Open BitTorrent Sync. This is done by right-clicking on the BitTorrent Sync icon in either the System Tray in Windows or on the menu bar on the Mac. Select Open BitTorrent Sync…

On the BitTorrent Sync window, select the Folders View.

Click Add a Sync Folder in Windows or the “+” button on the Mac. This displays the Add Folder dialog. Click the Browse button and select the Lightroom Sync folder. Then click the Generate button. This fills the Folder Secret box with a long string of characters. This folder secret is the “password” that allows your other computer(s) to synchronize securely with this folder.

Click OK. This returns you to the BitTorrent Folders view.

Transferring Your BitTorrent Sync to the Desktop Computer

You need to find a way to get the folder secret to your desktop. You can just put the laptop in the same room as your desktop, right-click on the Lightroom Sync folder, and select “Show Folder Properties,” then manually copy the secret to your desktop machine.

An easier and less error prone way would be to do this:

1. In the BitTorrent Sync window, right-click on the Lightroom Sync Folder.

2. Select Copy Secret. Open Gmail, Yahoo mail, or Outlook.com (or some other web-based mail service).

3. Create a new message.

4. Paste the secret into the message.

5. Close the message and let the mail service save it to your drafts folder.

6. Open your mail on your desktop and go to your drafts folder.

7. Open the draft message and copy and paste the secret to BitTorrent Sync.

But we’re getting slightly ahead of ourselves.

Setting Up Lightroom and Sync on the Desktop

Move over to your desktop machine. Create a matching Lightroom Sync folder on that computer. Open BitTorrent Sync to the folders viewer.

Click Add a Sync Folder in Windows or the “+” key on the Mac to open the Add Folder dialog.

Click Browse and select the Lightroom Sync folder.

Instead of clicking the Generate button, copy the secret from the laptop computer to the Folder Secret box. Click OK. The two folders are now synchronized between the two computers.

Your blank Lightroom catalog will now magically appear on the desktop computer.

Hitting the Road

Once you’re on the road, use Lightroom as usual. As you copy photos from your cards, import them into your catalog, make sure you copy them into the Photo folder we created earlier. This is necessary to keep the relationship between the catalog and the photos on both computers.

After that, you can edit them and modify them, and all of these changes are mirrored back on your desktop machine at home, auto-magically.

There are a couple of caveats you need to keep in mind if you want to do things this way.

Copying gigabytes of RAW files from one computer to another using BitTorrent Sync does not happen instantly. You may have to leave your computer on while you’re asleep in your hotel.

This is no job for a cellular data plan. If you use a tethered cell phone or mobile hotspot, you’ll burn through your data cap in minutes.

This is a job for hotel wi-fi, Starbucks, or even the wi-fi in the airport. This would be a good time to recommend a service like ProXPN. This is a personal Virtual Private Network (VPN) that secures your connection to the internet and keeps your computer away from prying eyes.

There would be a couple of advantages to a service like Dropbox, SkyDrive, or Google Drive. It’s probably faster to copy your files to the cloud and not have to wait for them to copy to your desktop at home.

The cloud copy is also an automatic second backup of your photos, which is good for the old peace of mind.

If you are not a regular road warrior, you can always sign up just for a monthly plan before you leave and cancel when you get home. Google Drive gives you 100 gigabytes for $5 per month.

When you get home, all you have to do is import the synchronized catalog into your main catalog. All of your flags, develop settings, and metadata are carried over.

Make sure you move the photos to the location where you store your photos permanently. Don’t leave them in the Lightroom Sync folder.

After your photos are safely ensconced in your permanent Lightroom catalog, you can now delete the Library folder from within your Lightroom Sync folder. It doesn’t matter whether you delete it from the laptop or your desktop, it will disappear from both locations.

When it’s time to head back out on the road, make a new copy of the Library Template folder inside the Lightroom sync folder and you’re ready to start over.

If you don't have Lightroom on your laptop, you can still use BitTorrent Sync to copy your files to your home computer while you're on the road. I wrote another tutorial on my blog. While it doesn't specify a cloud service, you can use BitTorrent Sync as well as any other service.

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