Dealing With Missing Files / Folders and Working With External Hard drives in Lightroom Tutorial

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.

Adobe Lightroom 5 library

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 LightroomNine 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.

question and exclamation mark missing files lightroom

To move a folder in Lightroom simply drag it from one folder to another.

moving a folder in lightroom

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”.

rename folder lightroom

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).

reamain files lightroom step by step

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.

find a missing folder in Lightroom

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.

click on exclamation mark locate file lightroom

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).

search windows and mac os

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.

build smart previews lightroom 5

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.

how to see a smart preview

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.

multiple images smart previews

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”.

export folder as catalog lightroom

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.

Export as Catalog Lightroom

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.

moving a folder from one drive 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.

added a new hard drive in Lightroom

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 LightroomNine More Hidden Tips For Adobe Lightroom 5 and How To Find Instagram Images In Lightroom.

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41 Responses to Dealing With Missing Files / Folders and Working With External Hard drives in Lightroom Tutorial

  1. Brandon Feinberg says:

    Thanks this has been a huge help.

  2. I am trying to import photos from my canon camera to an external drive since my hard drive is filled up. When I try to do this it says I don’t have capacity for these photos which is not true. It is a brand new empy large external hard drive. Not sure what is going on. It should be pretty simple.

    • lomokev says:

      If it’s totally empty maybe try formatting the drive? Have you tired copying the photos to the drive in the operating system and then importing them at the current location in Lightroom?

    • Thanks for your comments. I tried just copying a photo to the external drive to see if it worked at all and it did so I know that’s fine. I will try what you say. Normally I just have it set to import to Lightroom from my card. Thanks

  3. brian says:

    I see my pictures in Lightroom. I can view all of them. I can’t edit any of them it tells me my folder is missing. I don’t understand because I can view every image.

    • lomokev says:

      Lightroom generates it’s own previews so it can show you images quickly, you are seeing previews not the original files. Once you start editing Lightroom needs the original file, this why you can’t edit. You must of moved, renamed or deleted the original image files or you might of unplugged the drive they where on. What ever you have done you need to locate the original files. Scroll up to this page to the section “What to if you have a question mark next to a folder or exclamation on an image? (relinking images)”, hopefully that should help you find your original images.

  4. maryalicecraig says:

    If I can’t locate my original files, am i just screwed?? #panicmode

    • lomokev says:

      If really can’t find the files you are probably screwed I am afraid. Do have any clue how you lost them? If you deleted them or the drive they were on has been corrupted your stuffed especially if you don’t have a back up. You should make local backups and use an online backup solution like Crashplan to keep your files ubur safe.

  5. Clare Carrier says:

    I recently bought a 27″ iMac to replace my Macbook. I have moved all my photos successfully from the Macbook to my iMac and LR5 is all good. The one thing that is now working is my external hard drive. I had a Lacie external hard drive that I had mounted on my Macbook. A green light used to light up next to it like it does with the Macintosh HD under “folders” in LR. This no longer happens since my move to the iMac. I go to disk utility and it says the Lacie hard rive is mounted – why then is it not showing up as a folder? I want to move some of my photos from my iMac to my Lacie external hard drive and cannot do this. Any suggestions.

  6. Avery Wham says:


    I worked on a folder of images for several hours and I thought I saved my changes, either by making a new catalog or exporting, (I still have the unedited raw files on an external hd,) but there doesn’t seem to be any way to reopen it with all my edits. In my pictures folder the Lightroom folder only has catalogs that are old, so it’s not there. Does that mean all that work is lost? I have been switching between several things at once and my computer did crash twice, so maybe it was during that time…

    I have done searches for Lightroom, specific folder names and file names, but I am not finding anything that has been edited.

    I had been under the impression so far that Lightroom doesn’t delete your work unless you tell it to (as I am always switching between projects and I haven’t had a problem until now.)

    I am so behind on work I can’t even believe I am going to have to do this again.

    Any advice will be much appreciated.

    So sad,

  7. Hello
    I have a lightroom catalog working with an external drive but now have a number of folders on my laptop hard drive. I would like to import these to the one catalog and I would also like the images themselves in the same folder as the others on the external drive. I am not sure how to recognse the source files on the external drive and distinguish between the catalog?

    I am really struggling with this and it has stopped me from going out and shooting more photographs. 🙁

    I would really appreciate some help.
    thanks Maddie

    • lomokev says:

      So do you have 2 Lightroom catalogs or do you have one lightroom catalog using multiple drives? Whatever happens you should not let it stop you from shooting!

    • Hi lomokev, no I have 1 catalog and several folders of images on my laptop not yet included in the catalog. I just want the one with all images in the same place on the external drive.

  8. Hello
    I store my file folders on external hard drives to free up space on my iMac. I added a new Lacie 3TB hard drive, and now after editing photo files in Photoshop the new file does not show in Lightroom. (Typically a new file with the Photoshop edits appears as a duplicate) This does not happen when using a file from my previous Lacie hard drive, and does not happen when the files are located on my iMac hard drive. I can use Synchronize to get the file back, but I don’t want to have to do this every time, and I shouldn’t have to. Any suggestions?

  9. Peter Gray says:

    My problem is with importing photos from an external drive, like a thumb drive. It seems that the “import” operation in this case doesn’t mean saving photos to my hard drive, just making the note of their location; LR assumes that my thumb drive will stay plugged in permanently (eventually I have to unplug the drive and of course I get the dreadful message that the file cannot be located). For the life of me I cannot find a good explanation of the “import” operation, except when the images are imported directly from my camera. Should I move the images manually first to HD and then “import ” them?

    • lomokev says:

      You are probably ‘adding’ images to your Library, you need to copy or move them. When importing you are presented with 4 options of how you want to deal with the original files:

      move copy add Adobe Lightroom

      Copy as DNG: Convert to DNG in a new location and add to catalog.
      Add: Add photos to the catalog without moving them.
      Move: Move photos to a new location and add to catalog.
      Copy: Copy photos to new location and add to catalog.

      I always use ‘Move’ as I don’t want to left with duplicates that I then have to wonder if I need to delete or not. If you want keep originals on your thumb drive then use copy. It’s very rare that you will want to use just plan old ‘Add’.

      If you want to know more about importing and dealing with images in Lightroom you should check out my ‘Organising a photo library with Lightroom‘ blog post.

  10. John T. says:

    I am trying to copy my Lightroom 5 photos which are all titled and numbered on my Windows PC to my MacBook Pro. I copied the files to an External HD connected to the Mac where I also copied the .lrcat and .lrdata folders. When I open the folder on my Mac the titles are there but when inImport them to the Mac the titles are missing. What am I doing wrong?

  11. Charly says:

    Hoping you can help. Some glitch or operator error caused an external drive for a catalog not to be seen. In most cases, I have found the 2000+ images with a ? mark, but…. Many of my PS edited images ending in -edit.tif cannot be found anywhere.

    I’m on a Mac 10.6.8 using Lr 4.4, whereas I hit cmd + e to open an image in PS to edit. Once finished I hit cmd + s to save it, which then opens it up back in Lr with suffix -edit.tif I did find a few of these on the drive, yet too many cannot be found; either using Lr or searching my drives using Spotlight. Even stranger, I can find on the drives and through Lr the .arw file, but when I try to import it Lr omits it.

    I did try to see if they would sync to proper folders or to move them into a folder to no avail, since the image seems not to exist anywhere. Any ideas on how to save these images from the catalog with all information?

  12. harry schanzer says:

    I cannot find the “File Handling” in my Lightroom . I used to have it. What do I do?

    • lomokev says:

      Not sure what you mean by “File Handling”. Do you mean the left hand column of the library module? If so hit TAB as you may of hidden it, TAB hides and shows the side panels. You can also show and hid the side panels buy clicking on the arrows that are in the centred vertically on the extreme left and right of screen.

  13. gingerana says:

    Hi there, My external HD suddenly vanished from my Folders. I’ve tried reconnecting the ext HD however it doesn’t come up in a separate selection box, instead it comes up as a new “volume” within my laptop’s HD.
    I suppose this is fine but I would like to figure out why it’s not appearing as usual… Any help would be much appreciated.

  14. Christina says:

    I seem to have the opposite problem of most people in that I am trying to delete photos from Lightroom and my hard drive completely, and yet my start up disk is always full, and a view at the storage shows my hard drive is full of photos. (I have a Mac.) I accidentally removed a huge number of them them from the Lightroom catalog only, but did NOT delete from disk. I wanted to remove from disk. How do I locate these again and delete them, so I have room on my hard drive to work? Anybody?

  15. Eirini says:

    Hi, i have been trying to import my RAW files from a wedding photoshoot. The file says it contains 700+ RAW files. But when i import or update the file in Lightroom it says there are no more new photos to add. In Lightroom library i only have 400+ files. I don’t know what is going wrong.

    P.S I checked the names and no picture-file has a duplicate. So the number is 700+.

    Help! Thank you for your time,

    Eirini, Cyprus.

    • lomokev says:

      I check my comments a lot less than I check my blog comments. Glad I could help you out over email. Don’t what your problem was but I am glad my suggestion work. Anybody else has the same problem start a fresh Lightroom catalog, import the problem photos to it. Then open up the old catalog and do “File > Import from another Catalog…” and select the new catalog this will hopefully import the photos into your main catalog without problems.

    • Eirini says:

      Thanks again! 🙂

  16. Ishmael says:

    Please help: I am using a laptop and home PC with some external drives. I often need to make a contact sheet print to show clients to choose pictures to print for sale. Sometimes the contact sheet just come out blank with only file names. What I am doing wrong and how tofix the problem?


    • lomokev says:

      That’s complete off topic for this post. I assume you are using the Lightroom Print Module? You might be better off looking at Lightroom forum on the Adobe site you could ask the question there: As it sounds like a bug (titles but not images) I would consider contacting Adobe customer services about this.

  17. Ann-Marie Keenan says:

    I have a new macbook air. I have uploaded photos from a memory card to the laptop. They are there when I go into ‘Photos’ on my mac. However, when I try to import into Lightroom, nothing. Under my name I have various folders – applications, desktop, documents, pictures, etc. But when I go into pictures, I cannot find the photos that I want to import…I am quite new to photos on mac and definitely new to Lightroom but I am baffled as to how to include my saved photos under the ‘Source’ option when I try to import to Lightroom. What am I doing wrong?

    • lomokev says:

      I think the Mac will always want to import your photos to the ‘Photos” app. Once you have imported to your photos to the ‘photos’ app they ate hidden in the files system. Next time you import quit the Photos app and do not import photos to it. Instead import to Lightroom, as for you photos currently in the ‘Photos’ you’re going to need to export them from ‘Photos’ before you can import them to Lightroom. Hope that makes sense.

  18. I am new to LR but not to PS CC. I only keep my last 6 or 7 edited shoots (shot in Raw, edited in photoshop and then saved as j.pegs for my clients) in folders on my desktop, so I don’t block up the memory of my Mac and slow it down. The rest of my previous shoots are stored on two Seagate external plug in drives. At the moment I just use Bridge to navigate from folder to folder and iphoto if I want to create a slideshow or book. If I am to import all my work into LR from the external drives, what will happen if I disconnect them. Will I then have the ? files missing problems that other are reporting on here? And will the ? disappear when I plug them back in?
    And to clarify, if I import folders of work into LR does that mean there is still only one true copy of the files on the Mac, with only previews showing in LR. There are not two versions of the same thing on my Mac, are there?

    • lomokev says:

      You will be able to import your files from your external drives. If you unplug the drives you will see question marks on folders and some image previews might not display but once plug the drives back in everything will work normally. Lightroom does not mind if you unplug drives, the key is to never rename the drives, images files or folders they are contained in out side of Lightroom.

  19. Evelyn says:

    Hi, I am trying to redo a link to my missing photos. They are now on an external hard drive. I can get to the drive and open the folders through LR, but the open files say that there are no pictures. But I know they are there.
    Any idea what the problem is?
    thanks for your help.

  20. Phill Mayfield says:

    Do the comments you have made since 2013 about negatives, files etc., listed above, also apply to the latest version of LR (6)?

    • lomokev says:

      I have just read everything above about negatives files and it is all still relevant to he current version of Lightroom (2015.10) which is version 6.

  21. Chris says:

    This still doesn’t answer my question. I use multiple external hard drives with Windows 7. Sometimes they mount as F drive, and sometimes as G drive. Right now I have perhaps 40 folders on this hard drive but Lightroom is showing only about 5. I will have imported at least 30 of these folders. So I do not have the case where Lightroom shows me the folder name but cannot find the folder. Rather, Lightroom is not even showing me the folder name. I cannot use any smart collection to navigate to images I’ve worked on previously as it has been months since I worked on these images. To try and fix this I decided I would force Windows to mount all my external hard drives as drive P in future (for ‘Photography’) – so I have just remounted this drive as P. Here’s the confusing bit – Lightroom 4 still shows those 5 folders even though the drive letter changed! Then why can’t it show me all 30+ folders I’ve imported previously, possibly under other drive letters? More to the point, how do I get Lightroom to show me the photos now? I don’t want to use Lightroom to manage and move images and folders – that’s what Windows Explorer is for. I want Lightroom to not lose track of images when I move them using Explorer. Also, sometimes Lightroom starts using a catalogue on the laptop’s internal C drive – sometimes under my user profile and other times at another location. So it’s a mess – catalogue files everywhere. To fix this properly and stop all this frustration I am considering building a server with network accessible storage (NAS) with a single drive letter for *all* my photography work – this means moving all my photography from about 8 external drives (plus C drive) to a new network storage. How to get Lightroom to recognise all that work when it has been using separate catalogue files (one per hard drive – I store the catalogue on the external hard drive) plus the C drive catalogues? Obviously I don’t want to lose all my past editing.

    • Chris says:

      I should add – by opening a previously used catalogue (on C drive), Lightroom is now showing me dozens of folders it can’t locate – so it seems the solution here was that I was using the “wrong” catalogue (however I have no idea why Lightroom keeps using C drive for catalogues – it shouldn’t. I set up a catalogue on every external drive I use). So the second part of the question remains – how to consolidate my work from across multiple catalogues into a single catalogue on a single network storage.

    • lomokev says:

      Sounds like you are in a bit of mess. I only have one catalog and that lives on my system drive (PC equivalent of C:). By having multiple catalogs on different drives you may of opened a big can worms, I think your priority is to fix your catalogs on a catalog by catalog basis, open each catalog and try and work out what is missing by looking for unique file names or other unique metadata like the date and then location those files on your drives. It’s really difficult to help with looking at what’s on your drives. This is one of the reasons I rename files on import as out lined in this article. I think going forward you need to make sure each of your drives has a unique name when mounting it’s no good all the drives being P when mounted. Not sure if they can all be unique but having one big network drive definitely sounds like a step in the right direction. Sorry I can’t be of anymore help as it’s difficult without looking at the drives.

    • Chris says:

      Thanks for your reply. I think I have pretty much worked it out. In my case I put a catalogue onto each hard drive, so naming all hard drives the same letter should pose no problem – catalogue opens and has information for the images on that drive. That resolves the issue where the drive letter changes and Lightroom periodically can’t find images/folders. The second issue is that at some point Lightroom started using a catalogue on C drive – possibly I needed to quickly edit something without any of my hard drives attached – then after that it’s kept using that catalogue on C drive, without me realising, as I’ve connected hard drives and imported photos. This means I will have to somehow migrate the contents of that catalogue on the C drive back into the correct hard drives. I found another blog article that discusses merging catalogues. In fact, it’s a series of about 6 or 7 articles discussing different approaches to workflow – ie. it asks the questions of why and whether you would want to use different catalogues (as I do) or just a single catalogue. (Wish Adobe presented these rationales in a tutorial on first opening Lightroom!) Anyhow, that should get me out of jail there.

    • lomokev says:

      I use 2 catalogs, one on my laptop with current stuff I’m working on and another on my desktop which is for long term storage. The laptop only has about the last 4 months of images, after that I will export the oldest month as it’s own catalog and import onto the desktop. I’ve got half a million photos on the desktop library and it works just fine. Hope you get your problem sorted.

  22. gary askew says:

    i have transferred my all my catalogues and all the location of the raw files everything. but its not coming up even when i click the + icon

Questions or Comments?