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 5 and higher. 


This tutorial is split into three parts. The first concentrates on assisting Lightroom Classic users who find themselves in a position were Lightroom Classic 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 off-line storage and 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 Classic can no longer find/access. This is probably because it has been moved or renamed outside of Lightroom Classic using one of the operating system tools such as drag/drop or possibly the Move command. Alternatively, it may be have been as a result of you moving the photos to an external disk drive that is no longer connected to the computer (i.e. off-line).

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 Classic can be really slow when moving folders. As such, many users find that it is easier and faster done outside of Lightroom Classic using the tools provided by the operating system (e.g. Move and Copy).  Likewise, renaming* photos and / or folders outside of Lightroom Classic will result in the same issue. In doing either of these operations, the application will very likely lose track of the moved or renamed folders and photos.  This is denoted by the ? badge on folders and ! badge on the individual photo thumbnails in the Library module (see figure 1 below).

* fixing the issues arising from renaming folders and / or photos outside of Lightroom can be much more difficult to resolve than is the case if they're moved. Therefore, I recommend that renaming folders and / or photos outside of Lightroom Classic should be avoided.

Tip 1: actually it's a warning  - on the Mac platform you need to be especially careful when using the macOS 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 or disk accidentally ejected during the move process?


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 found automatically. Unfortunately, the same is not case when the missing photos are spread around multiple folders. It's therefore much easier to locate the missing folders and reconnect to them instead.


Figure 2 - Missing Photo Location

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 Classic 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 Classic 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 Classic 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 Classic 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 have demonstrated how you can find and reconnect to a missing folder(s). However, what if you really need to move the folder(s).

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, the user has no idea whether the photos actually transferred without being corrupted. For example, moving large numbers of photos on older drives based on USB 1 and 2 standards is slow and particularly susceptible to corruption. Fortunately, USB 3 and the more recent USB-C/Thunderbolt are vastly superior in both performance and significantly less likely to result in file corruption when moving large numbers of files. Nevertheless, using Move instead of Copy is still a risk not worth taking, in my opinion.

Tip 4: Whether using Mac or Windows I recommend that you do not Move folders or large quantities of photos  from within Lightroom Classic. 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 too many users on various forums reporting that they've lost photos (sometimes entire folders or even their complete collection of photos) after using drag and drop within the application for moving files/folders. The problem usually manifests itself  if the application crashes or stops responding during such a Move operation because Lightroom automatically deletes folders/photos 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 copy your photo folders into their new location/drive using the tools provided by the operating system (i.e. Finder on Mac and Explorer on Windows) . Doing so will mean that you have retained the original copy and organisational structure along with a new copy; the copy being the version that you want to link with Lightroom Classic. When you've completed copying the photo folders  to the new location/drive, you can relaunch Lightroom Classic. You'll immediately notice that none of the folders have a ? badge. This tells you that Lightroom Classic still knows where all of your photos are located (i.e. it's still linked to the original photo 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 Classic 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 the user will be working away from their 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 Classic will display the ? badge on folder name. Figure 9 below shows an example where a Photo Library folder and its contents have been moved to an external 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 the thumbnail.


Figure 9 - Off-line Disk Drive

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

With Lightroom 5 and higher it has been possible to make develop adjustments to off-line photos using Smart Previews. What are Smart Previews?


Figure 10 - Off-line Photos with Smart Previews

Smart Previews are lightweight files that can be used in place of the original raw files. They are Lossy DNG files that are limited to 2560 pixels on the longest side and they reside in the same folder as the catalog, and are contained in a 'lrdata' file folder structure similar to normal previews. If available, the original photos are prioritised (see Lightroom 6.7 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  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 Classic 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 relaunch of the application. To create smart previews after import - in Library, go to the Library-> Previews -> Build Smart Previews menu command.

Lightroom 6.7 and higher

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 Classic to use Smart Previews even when the original photos are available.

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 zoomed into a photo at 100% (1:1) Lightroom Classic 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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