A Computer Darkroom Tutorial

Whether it's simply due to your photo library getting larger or you realise that it's become overly complex there will be occasions when it becomes necessary to reorganise things. Unfortunately, if you're not careful this can lead to photos or even entire folders going missing.

Note: this tutorial is compatible with Lightroom versions 2, 3 and 4. The Lightroom 5 version can be found here.


Finding missing or moved photos and folders

Question - My thumbnails have a ? badge on the top right corner what does this mean and how do I remove it?

Short Answer  - The ? badge is used to identify a photo that Adobe Lightroom can no longer access; probably because it has been moved using one of the operating system tools such as drag/drop or possibly the Move command. This may be have been a deliberate action (i.e. moving photos off-line) or accidental.

So, what's the long answer and how do I find these photos and folders?

Long Answer

For various reasons, not least of which is the fact that Adobe Lightroom can be really slow when moving folders, many users find that it is best done outside of Lightroom using the tools provided by the operating system (e.g. Move and Copy). In doing this they will almost always cause Lightroom to loose track of the moved folders and photos within them (denoted by ? badge on thumbnail or folder - see figure 1 below).


Figure 1 - Library Module

Clicking the ? badge on a photo will open a small navigational dialog (Figure 2). This dialog will provide information as to where the photo was originally located along with an option to find (Locate) it again. Clicking on the Locate button opens a operating system type window from which you can navigate your way to where the photo is now located. Typically, when all of the missing photos are located in the same folder you need only locate the one you were searching for and the rest will be automatically found. Unfortunately, the same is very often not case when the missing photos are spread around multiple folders. It's therefore much easier to locate the missing folders and reconnect them instead.

Figure 2 - Missing Photo Location

Tip 1: actually it's a warning  - on the Mac platform you need to be especially careful when using the Move command. I make this point because some users utilise a keyboard modifier when dragging their folders (i.e. Cmd+drag folder) rather than a standard Move or  Copy operation. Using the Cmd modifier does move the photos, but it also deletes the originals. Now, what happens if the moved photos got corrupted during the move process?

The actual process of reconnecting missing folders or subfolders is fairly easy, albeit not that easily discovered. In figure 3 below you will see a close-up view of the Folder panel with one subfolder showing the tell-tale sign that it's been relocated in a way that Lightroom can no longer find it.


Figure 3 - Folder panel indicating missing folder

In figure 4 below I've shown how the same approach outlined above can be used to reconnect to all missing folders and subfolders. This is achieved by highlighting the top level folder rather than an each individual subfolder.


Figure 4 - Folder indicating all folders and subfolders are missing

Step 1

The first step in finding the missing folder and photos contained within it is to open the Folder "context" menu: Ctrl+click on folder (Mac) or right mouse button click on folder (Windows). The context menu shown in figure 5 below will appear - choose Find Missing Folder...

Tip 2: Mac users with a multi-button mouse can use the right button method instead of the Ctrl key


Figure 5 - Folder panel Context menu

Step 2

Lightroom will open a Finder window (Mac) or Explorer (Windows). You will need to use the Finder or Explorer to locate the missing folder. In Figure 6 below I show how I've navigated to the new folder location using the the Mac Finder. Once the missing folder is located you will need to select it then click on the Choose button.


Figure 6 - Mac Finder window

Having clicked on the Choose button Lightroom will close the Finder/Explorer window and return you to the Folder panel. If all has gone well (i.e. you selected the correct folder and the files within it were not renamed in the interim) the ? badge denoting a missing folder will have disappeared. Figure 7 below shows that Lightroom is now reconnected to the folder. Once the missing folder has been reconnected the ? badge will be removed from the photos.


Figure 7 - Missing folder reconnected

Updating Folder Location

Up to this point I've demonstrated how you can find and reconnect a missing folder, but there is an alternative, and in my view much safer approach.

Tip 3: Earlier I mentioned that some users, primarily Mac, move folders around using the Cmd+drag keyboard modifier. They do so because once the move process is completed the original folder and its contents are deleted - it's quick, it's easy, and to be blunt it's foolish! It's foolish because, as mentioned earlier, they have no idea whether the photos actually transferred without being corrupted. Moving large numbers of photos on USB drives is particularly susceptible to corruption on all but the most recent Mac computers.

Tip 4: Whether using Mac or Windows I recommend that you do not move files/folders from within Lightroom. This is contrary to advice you'll read in the Help documents or given by many Lightroom experts. So, why do I contradict conventional wisdom? Well, for as long as Lightroom has been around I've noticed way too many users reporting on various forums that they've lost files (sometimes entire folders or even their complete collection of images) after using Lightroom's drag and drop feature for moving files/folders. The problem usually manifests itself after Lightroom crashes during such a move operation. It does because Lightroom automatically deletes files/folders after completing the move the files. Unfortunately, they will not be in the Trash, so your worst nightmare becomes a reality.

The approach that I recommend is to reorganise your folders into their new locations using the tools provided by the operating system. You will now have the original and a copy; the copy being the version that you want to link with Lightroom. Once the folders are all organised you can relaunch Lightroom. Notice that none of the folders or photos have ? badge. This tells you that Lightroom still knows where all of your photos are located (i.e. it's still linked to the original files/folders). Next, open the folder context menu (figure 8 below). You'll see that the menu has a lot more options than the version shown at Step 1 above. Choose Update Folder Location...  A Finder (Mac) or Explorer (Windows) window will open (see figure 6 above).


Figure 8 - Update Folder Location...

Now, follow Step 2 above to connect Lightroom with the folders in their new locations. Only delete the old versions when you're absolutely sure that Lightroom is connected to the correct folders.

Storing Photos Off-line

The method described above for moving and updating a folder location is the method you should employ when deliberately moving photos off-line. Typically, this may be because the photos are seldom accessed, they're spread over multiple disk drives or the user will be working away from their desktop computer. Each of these is a specific use case which I won't go into here, but they all have one thing in common -when the disk drives are disconnected Lightroom display the ? badge on folder name. Figure 9 below shows an example from my catalog where the Landscape and Nature Tiff Files folder and its contents have been moved to an external LaCie disk drive, which is shown in its off-line state. Accessing the off-line photos is fairly straight forward in that Lightroom will automatically find them when the disk drive is reconnected.


Figure 9 - Off-line Disk Drive

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