One of the most common complaints I hear about Lightroom is that it looses links to photos. This usually comes about by user error and is not a problem with Lightroom itself. I for one have been using Lightroom since the first version six years ago and have never had a problem with unlinked files. Users that usually have these problems are working with external drives and to be fair I don’t use Lightroom with external storage as I have a desktop computer with four internal hard drives.
As a test eight months ago I imported a bunch of Lisa’s photos of Chester the cat to a USB memory stick, sometimes I plug the thumb drive in and other times I leave it unplugged, sometimes for months. Every time I plug the drive back in I am happy to report that the photos of Chester are safe and present in the library, this all worked even after the upgrade from Lightroom 4 to 5. If you follow the tips in this tutorial then, like me, you should not have anymore problems with lost files in Lightroom.
If you want to learn more about how to use Lightroom you should take a look at one of my most popular posts: How To Organise Your Lightroom Library. I have also posted my Five Hidden Tips for Lightroom, Nine More Hidden Tips For Adobe Lightroom 5 and How To Find Instagram Images In Lightroom.
How Lightroom works
Lightroom does not alter the JPEG or RAW files that are imported into it from your camera, instead it remembers what changes have been made to images in a database, the advantage of this is that it takes up much less space on your hard drive than RAW file plus an edited photoshop file. For the sake of simplicity whenever I refer to the RAW or Jpeg files from the camera I will refer to them as negative files. Lightroom needs access to the negative files some of the time, like if you want to make edits to a photo (color correction, cropping etc). For example, if you desaturate an image the black and white version you see is a temporary preview but if you were to look at the original negative file on your hard drive you would see it would still be in color. This is why at any point you can go back to your original image using the history palette in the develop module, even if you made the edit years ago.
If you are working within the library module (tagging, titles, flagging etc) you don’t need access to the original media. Lightroom has been designed to be ok not having access to all the negative files all the time.
My top golden Lightroom rule: only move and rename files and folders in Lightroom only
Only move / rename your negative files and folders containing negative files inside Lightroom, if images and folders containing images are moved outside of Lightroom in the Mac’s Finder or Windows File Explorer Lightroom will loose it’s link to the files. If folders or negative files are moved or renamed outside of Lightroom you start to see question marks on folders and exclamation marks on images which is something you don’t want.
To move a folder in Lightroom simply drag it from one folder to another.
If you want to rename a folder right click or on the Mac hold down the ctrl key and click the mouse, then select “rename”.
To rename a single image select it and then go to the Library Module. Click on the “Metadata” tab in the right hand column. Then you can change the file name by typing a new one in the “file name” field. Be sure to keep the file extension the same (the bit after the dot in the file name, .jpg, .raw, .dng etc).
If you want to rename lots of images take a look at the section on renaming files in my organizing a photo Library with Lightroom tutorial.
What to if you have a question mark next to a folder or exclamation on an image? (relinking images)
If you see a question mark next to a folder, right click on it and choose “Find Missing Folder” where you are prompted to navigate to where the missing images are in your file system.
If a single image has gone astray you can relocate it by clicking on the exclamation mark above the file, then you can locate the file when prompted.
If you have no clue where the missing folder is look at folder name or one one of image names inside the file. On the Mac click open Spotlight (search) by pressing Cmd + Space Bar or click on the Magnifying glass in the right hand of the menu bar and enter the file or folder name you are looking for. On Windows click on the Start icon in the bottom left hand corner of the screen and enter the file or folder name you are looking for. Hopefully this will locate your missing files, if it does not, plug in any external media and repeat the process (on both Mac and PC it might take a little time to index external media before they can be searched).
If you want to store images on an external drive
If you work on a Laptop and shoot a lot chances are you are not going to have a lot of room on your laptop’s hard drive to store all your images. This is not a problem as Lightroom works really well with external drives and they don’t have to be plugged in all the time. When the drive is not plugged in you see question marks and exclamation marks next to folders and images, this Lightroom telling you it does not currently have access to the negative files. When negative files are missing like this you can still work on the image in the Library Module, this means you can add meta data like tags, rate images and so on. You can also add images to Map and Collections but unless you have told Lightroom to render smart previews you won’t be able to make edits to the images themselves.
Smart previews in Lightroom 5
With the release of Lightroom 5 in June 2013 Adobe added the ability to render Smart Previews. These are a special kind of preview which enables you to edit images even when the hard drive that contains the negative files is not connected to your computer. It does this by making a special preview in the DNG RAW format that can take up 5% of the original file size. It does this by downsizing smart previews so they are 2540 pixels along their longest length, which is just under half the width of a file from a 5D mark iii. According to Adobe 500 raw images from a high-end DSLR can occupy 14GB of disk space, 500 Smart Previews would take up 400 MB of disk space, you can see the advantage of this if you have a laptop with a SSD.
To make smart previews of negative files you want to work on while your external hard drive is not connected to your computer you need to select images you want to work with and then in the menu bar go to: Library > Previews > Build Smart Previews. Once the smart previews are built only thing you can’t do is zoom into your images at 100% of their original resolution which means it’s not great if you want do fine sharpening and grain adjustments. Apart from that you can tweak everything else reliably, you can even export and print images up to 2540 pixels along there widest length which is good enough for a 20.5cm wide print.
You can tell if an image has a smart preview by selecting it in the develop or library module, if it has a smart preview it’s labeled as such under the histogram.
If multiple images are selected there are four icons. The 1st icon tells you how many Original files are present without smart previews, 2nd shows Originals with Smart previews, 3rd Smart preview with missing original and 4th shows the number of missing images.
Once you have finished editing images that have smart previews you can remove them by selecting images in the Library and going to Library > Previews > Discard Smart Previews.
Moving images from one computer to another
If like me you have a desktop computer and a laptop you will often have your newest images on the laptop and once I have worked on the laptop the images will need to be moved to the desktop for more permanent storage. Luckily moving parts of Lightroom libraries is not that hard, in the Lightroom library click on the folder you want to export. If you want to export multiple folders it’s best to make a new folder, then put all the folders you want to export into the newly created folder and then export the folder that contains all the others. With the folder of images that you want to export selected right click it and select “Export this folder as a catalog”.
When prompted select “export negative files” as these are the files from the camera. If you want can chose to export previews and smart previews but these can easily be rebuilt when imported into the destination Lightroom library. Select a destination for your export then click export.
Once you have a export folder that has been created on external media then move it to your 2nd computer and select File > Import from another catalog. Navigate to the folder and select the file that ends in .licat, on the next screen you select whether the images are kept in the original location or moved. Usually when you do this the catalog will be on an external drive so you will want to move the files to your main drive, for simplicity I import them where they are and move them once they have been imported by dragging from one drive to another.
Adding a hard drive that is not showing under the folders tab
If you look at my Lightroom Folders tab you will see that it lists two hard drives but I also have two others drives mounted but these don’t show up as there are no images imported from these drives. It’s easy enough to add additional drives, just click on the plus symbol in the top right of the folders tab and navigate to the folder you want to show up in Lightroom on a drive when prompted. Once done your new drive will be listed with the others and you will be able to drag and drop images and folders from other drives to the newly added one. Unlike in your operating system when you drag and drop files in Lightroom you are not copying, once moved to a new drive the original files are removed from there original location, it’s something you should be aware of.
More Lightroom tutorials
If you found this interesting you will probably like more of my Lightroom tutorials: How To Organise Your Lightroom Library, More Adobe Lightroom tips, Five Hidden Tips for Lightroom, Nine More Hidden Tips For Adobe Lightroom 5 and How To Find Instagram Images In Lightroom.