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 has been updated for Lightroom 5 and higher.  For Lightroom versions 2, 3 and 4 click here.


This tutorial is split into three parts. The first concentrates on assisting Lightroom users who find themselves in a position were they can no longer find individual photos or whole folders with photos. Part 2 describes a method by which you can safely and efficiently relocate your photos on to a different disk drive. The third part discusses how Smart Previews can be used in lieu of original raw photos to speed up your workflow.

Part 1 - 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 Lightroom can no longer access. This is probably because it has been moved outside of Lightroom using one of the operating system tools such as drag/drop or possibly even the Move command. Alternatively, it may be have been as a result of the user deliberately moving the photos to an off-line disk drive that is no longer connected to your computer.

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

Long Answer

For various reasons, not least of which is the fact that 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. This is denoted by ? badge on folders and ! badge on the individual photo thumbnails in the Library module (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. So, what happens if the moved photos were 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 missing or possibly 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 a situation where all folders and subfolders are missing.


Figure 4 - Folder indicating all folders and subfolders are missing

Step 1

The first step in finding the missing folder and photos contained within 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 (Mac) or Explorer (Windows) type window. From there you can 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 photos within it had not been 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 also be removed from the missing photos.


Figure 7 - Missing folder reconnected

Part 2 - Updating Folder Location

Up to this point I've demonstrated how you can find and reconnect to 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 from one disk to another 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 older USB drives based on USB 1 and 2 standards is slow and particularly susceptible to corruption. Fortunately, USB 3 and the more recent USB-C are vastly superior in both performance and significantly less likely to result in file corruption when moving large numbers of files.

Tip 4: Whether using Mac or Windows I recommend that you do not move photos or 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 photos (sometimes entire folders or even their complete collection of photos) after using Lightroom's drag and drop feature for moving files/folders. The problem usually manifests itself  if Lightroom crashes during such a move operation because Lightroom automatically deletes photos/folders after completing the move photos operation. Unfortunately, the missing photos 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 location using the tools provided by the operating system. Doing so will mean that you have retained the original and also have a new copy; the copy being the version that you want to link with Lightroom. Once the folders are all organised you can relaunch Lightroom. You'll immediately notice that none of the folders have a ? badge. This tells you that Lightroom still knows where all of your photos are located (i.e. it's still linked to the original photos/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... In this example I'm going to update the location of the folder named 'DNG Edited Photos' along with all of its content folders.


Figure 8 - Update Folder Location...

A Finder (Mac) or Explorer (Windows) window will open (see figure 6 above). Now, follow Step 2 above to connect Lightroom with the folders in their new locations. Only delete the old versions when you're absolutely certain that Lightroom is connected to the correct folders.

Part 3 - Storing Photos Off-line

The method described in Part 2 above for moving and updating a folder location is the method I recommend you employ when intentionally moving photos to a disk drive that will subsequently be disconnected from your computer. Typically, this may be because the photos are seldom accessed, they're spread over multiple disk drives or you will be working away from your desktop computer. Whatever the reason for moving the photos to another disk drive they all have one thing in common - when the disk drives are disconnected Lightroom will display the ? badge on folder name. Figure 9 below shows an example where my Photo Library folder and its contents have been moved to an external LaCie disk drive, which is shown in its off-line state.  Notice that like above, the off-line photos are denoted by the ! badge on top right corner of thumbnail.


Figure 9 - Off-line Disk Drive

Accessing the off-line photos is fairly straight forward in that Lightroom will automatically find them when the disk drive is reconnected. However, what if I wanted to edit the photos while they are off-line?

Prior to Lightroom 5 it wasn't possible to make develop adjustments to an off-line photos, but with the introduction of Smart Previews this changed. What are Smart Previews?

Smart Previews is an all new feature in Lightroom 5 designed to help users with large numbers of photos that they may wish to edit whilst the photos are off-line. Prior to Lightroom 5 this meant that the user had to reconnect the off-line photos.


Figure 10 - Off-line Photos with Smart Previews

Smart Previews are lightweight files that can be used in place of the original raw files throughout the application, including the Develop Module. They are Lossy DNG files that are currently limited to 2560 pixels on the long side and they reside in the same folder as your Lightroom catalog and are contained in a 'lrdata' file folder structure. This is similar to the existing Preview file structure. If available, the original photos are prioritised (see Lightroom 2015.7 update below) above Smart Previews and will always be used when available. An important difference in how missing photos are denoted when smart previews are available is the presence of the badge on top right corner of photo rather than the ! badge. If original photos are not available any edits applied to the Smart Preview and will at same time be saved to the Lightroom catalog. When the original photos are reconnected the edits will be automatically applied to the original.

Figure 11 - Smart Preview Badge on Photo

Smart Previews can be created during or after import, and files having an original and smart preview can be recognised by a note under the histogram (Library and Develop modules).

Figure 12 - Smart Preview on Histogram

To create the smart previews during import - check the "Build Smart Previews" field in the Import dialog File Handling panel. This checkbox is off by default and is persistent between Import sessions. The checkbox should revert to off in between Lightroom sessions. Within Preferences, check the "Build Smart Previews during Import" option. When enabled, this will make the "Build Smart Previews" checkbox enabled by default within the Import dialog. You can still uncheck this on a per session basis, but it will revert back to the default on Lightroom restart. To create smart previews after import - in Library, go to the Library-> Previews -> Build Smart Previews menu command.

Lightroom 2015.7

Smart Previews for Faster Performance

Astute users of Lightroom 5 and 6 recognised that using Smart Previews in the Develop module resulted in faster slider response when their original photos were off-line. With the Lightroom 6.7 update Adobe provided a user Preference in the Performance tab that enables Lightroom to use Smart Previews when available in preference to the original photos.

To use this feature,

  1. Choose Edit > Preferences.

  2. In the Preferences dialog, select the Performance tab.

  3. In the Develop section, select 'Use Smart Previews Instead Of Originals' For Image Editing.

  4. Click OK and then restart Lightroom.

Use Smart Preview instead of originals

Note that when you zoom into a photo a 100% (1:1) Lightroom will automatically display the original file rather than the Smart Preview. This will allow you to accurately apply the appropriate amount of sharpening and noise reduction to the photo.


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