When you import photos into Lightroom you are essentially telling Lightroom where on your hard disk to find those photos. That location information is stored inside the Lightroom catalog along with all the metadata embedded in each photo. If you use Lightroom to move, rename, or delete photos (and you should only use Lightroom for those tasks), then that information is updated inside the catalog as part of the process.
The place where people can run into trouble is when they move, rename, or delete photos outside of Lightroom, which then results in the data contained in the catalog becoming out of sync with the actual state of those photos.
Lightroom lets you know when it can no longer connect to the source photos by displaying a question mark icon on all the affected photos and folders.
NOTE: If you were a Lightroom 1 user you may recall that missing or offline folders were shown in red, but this has changed in Lightroom 2+. You will see question marks on the folders too and they are no longer red.
Another significant change in Lightroom 2 is the Volume Browser. If an entire drive is offline or missing, you will also see that the disk label on that Volume Browser is dimmed and the indicator light is dark gray.
If you use one or more external drives, then you may see this quite often if/when you operate Lightroom without those drives being connected (as in the capture above). As soon as you reconnect that drive to your computer, you will see the label turn white and the indicator change color to reflect the amount of free space on that drive. The question marks on all the folders and photos on that drive will also go away.
Lightroom was designed to operate with disconnected drives, so this isn’t a problem at all. In fact if Lightroom has already generated standard-sized previews for all the photos on that offline drive, you can still work with the offline photos in all modules except Develop. You can print in draft mode, which uses the previews, as well as create slideshows and web galleries from those previews. However, you can’t export or send photos to an external editor since Lightroom needs to access the actual source photo for those operations.
Unfortunately, too often I see people facing the problem of dealing with missing or offline photos because they made a change to the path to those photos outside of Lightroom (i.e. move or rename). This is where Lightroom’s reconnection function comes into play.
Dealing With Deleted Photos
If you deleted photos outside of Lightroom, but still see the thumbnails inside of Lightroom, then this is the easiest problem to fix. Just select the thumbnails in Lightroom’s Grid view and press Delete. Choose Remove when prompted and they will be removed from the catalog.
Dealing With Folders and Photos Moved Outside of Lightroom
If you use Finder or Windows Explorer or some other file browser to move a folder from one place to another, then the path stored in Lightroom’s catalog is no longer valid and you will have to update it with this new information.
Here’s how to reconnect a moved folder:
Right-click (Ctrl-click on a Mac) the folder displaying the question mark and choose Find Missing Folder from the contextual menu.
Navigate to the new location of that folder and select it. Click OK (Choose on a Mac). Lightroom will then update its catalog with this new location and reconnect to that folder and all the folders and photos contained within it.
The process is essentially the same with reconnecting moved photos. Here’s how to reconnect a moved photo:
Click the question mark (this changed to an exclamation point in LR5) icon on a thumbnail.
Note the “Previous location,” this is the last place Lightroom knew that photo to be located. Click the Locate button.
The file name of your missing photo will appear in the top of the Locate dialog box. Navigate to the new location of that photo, select the photo, and click Select (Choose on a Mac). If you’ve moved other “missing” photos to that new location, you can reconnect them as well simply by checking the “Find nearby missing photos” box before clicking OK. As long as the file names of the other missing photos haven’t changed, then Lightroom will update them as well.
Dealing With Folders and Photos That Have Been Renamed Outside of Lightroom
The best solution to this problem is to avoid it completely and only rename your files in Lightroom; reconnecting renamed files is tedious—you must do each one individually.
The steps are the same as reconnecting moved folders and photos. The only difference is that you’ll have to repeat the steps over and over for each renamed photo. Lightroom has no way of knowing what the new name of each photo is unless you tell it and confirm it each time.
If you have lots and lots of renamed photos, it would probably be easier to rename them back to the original name outside of Lightroom (use the same application you used to change the name). This way Lightroom will simply reconnect to them as if nothing had changed. Then, you can rename them properly from within Lightroom and swear to yourself that you’ll never do that again.