Tutorial: Reconnecting folders and photos in Lightroom

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.

Volume Browser

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:

Step 1.

Right-click (Ctrl-click on a Mac) the folder displaying the question mark and choose Find Missing Folder from the contextual menu.

Find Missing Folder

Step 2.

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:

Step 1.

Click the question mark (this changed to an exclamation point in LR5) icon on a thumbnail.

Step 2.

Note the “Previous location,” this is the last place Lightroom knew that photo to be located. Click the Locate button.

Step 3.

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.

22 thoughts on “Tutorial: Reconnecting folders and photos in Lightroom”

  1. Instead of the extremely tedious process of finding renamed files and confirming each one, why wouldn’t you just re-import folder with the DNG files with the new name, delete the question marked folder, and avoid the whole headache?

    1. A fair point! However, not everyone has Lightroom set up to write from the database/catalog to the source photo’s XMP (regardless of the file type). In addition, not all data contained in the catalog is able to be written to XMP, so if:

      – You have written all data to XMP prior to the disconnect
      – You don’t mind losing collection membership, flag status, virtual copies and history steps

      Then you can simply remove the disconnected files from Lightroom and then import that same folder and start from scratch. During import Lightroom will read from the XMP metadata space of each photo and preserve develop adjustments, keywords, ratings, color labels and other EXIF/IPTC data you may have entered previously.

      In my experience the number of people who do renaming outside of Lightroom and create that problem for themselves is relatively low. More often it seems people move photos outside of Lightroom to new locations, and typically move the entire folder, which is relatively easy and painless to update. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Rob, my tweet just wasn’t going to do my issue justice.
    I’ve just experienced an interesting hiccup that may be attributed to changing my connection type:

    My external Seagate 500GB drive is connected via Apple Airport Extreme. My original wireless connection to the Airport Extreme was recently changed to a hardwire/ethernet connection for my main computer. I don’t remember if this was the exact time that it happened, but my external drive showed up a second time in the Folders list with the same name appended by a “-1”.

    If it did not show up immediately, it definitely showed up when I tried to relink one of the missing folders on the original external drive. Unfortunately I didn’t notice beforehand when the drive showed up.

    What I find interesting is that both the original drive and the duplicate both show up in the LR Folders list as being connected (green box). When I try to relink any of the missing folders from the original (all folders show as missing), it immediately relinks the folder to the “-1” drive.
    I really don’t want to have to relink a hundred folders to the “new” (duplicate/aliased) drive.

    I just tried going back to my wireless connection to the Airport Extreme and the drive still shows up twice with the missing folders all still missing… and the relinked folders still in the newly-created drive (which is now just named the same as the original). I can determine which is the original connected drive as the newly created one still only holds the 3 folders I relinked up and the original still all missing folders.

    I hope my explanation is not too confusing.

    I would really love to keep all the files with their respective flags/stars/collections, etc.

    1. Bummer. Lightroom stores the path to each photo from the volume name to the file name. If anything in that path changes then Lightroom considers those files missing. Setting that drive back up the way it was originally should result in Lightroom seeing all those folders online again. If you had all your photos stored in a single top-level folder you could just reconnect that one folder and Lightroom would update all photos/folders inside of it, but looking at your screen capture I see that you don’t have a single top-level folder. Another thing that looks odd is that the drive free space and total capacity are different, which doesn’t make sense if it is in fact the same drive in both instances.

      Do you have a backup copy of your catalog from before the change in configuration? If so, I would:

      – swap out the “problem” catalog with the backup .lrcat copy
      – set that external drive back up exactly the way it was originally (same volume name)
      – open the backup .lrcat into Lightroom (double-click) and see if you are back to where you were before the change

  3. Two weeks ago everything was normal. To access my photos I went, as usual into my one and only catalog stored on my portable hard-drive and from there opened Lightroom 2. Today however when I follow this same process, the images in LR have question marks. I have followed your instructions for locating missing files (which is awful for the sheer number of images I have). My issue is that when the missing file and nearby files have been located, LR does not put them in the folder on LR where they originally were (my portable hard-drive folder), rather it stores them on my hard-drive folder, and they are stored as individual images not in their original folders. Have I done something wrong? How do I get the images back into their correctly named folders (e.g. 20100728_Event)? Hope this makes sense.

  4. I followed your process for moving folders and files. The embedded folders moved OK, but the only a small number of the file in the folders were moved. I tried to go back and move the remaining files, but was unable. I guessing that Lightroom thinks the files have been moved. Any comments?

  5. I like to put my photos into specific folders. After a shoot, I may want to put the photo’s into 2 or 3 folders. I also frequently like to move pictures from one folder to another, some times just one or two, other times a lot of them. I do not want to file my pictures by date, usually it is filed by subject and project.

    As far as I can see, Lightroom will not let me move one or two pictures into a differnet folder, it certainly will not let me place a photo shoot into different folders.

    My preference is to put the day’s shoot into a temp file, delete the bad ones and then move them to their respective folders for more sorting and editing.

    It would be nice to be able to refresh the catalogue, have it look through the folders of my choice and update the catalogue. This would work with my workflow.

    I find Lightroom to be awkward and “apple-ish” in not letting me use my preferred workflow.

    Instead of converting me to Lightroom, it has really turned me off. I end up missing all the other great features of Lightroom.

    Maybe I am the only one on the planet that sees this as a shortcoming. I am unable to use Lightroom much at all.

    1. Eric, You can arrange your folders any way you wish, and you can certainly move one or two photos into a different folder. You just need to use Lightroom to do the moving so that the database is updated regarding the new location of the photos (see here: http://goo.gl/JanlA). You can’t refresh the catalog so to speak, but you can synchronize a folder (right-click the folder in the Folders panel and choose Synchronize Folder), which tells Lightroom to check that folder any new photos that may have been added to it outside of Lightroom (not necessary if you do the moving with Lightroom though).

  6. Greetings,
    As a new LR3 user I am going thru a lot of file-folder-finding. When I import ‘missing’ pic’s some of my layered psd’s are not recognized? I am told to re-open in photoshop and save with max compatibility? This no fix it but I can save as layered TIFF, then re-save as PSD which overwrites orig, then import works ok. is there a simpler way, what am I doing wrong? Thanx in advance, Michael

  7. Hi Rob–I have LR 2 and have a problem. I somehow have two Master folders which duplicate about 600 images. If I remove a photo from one folder, the same photo is removed from the second folder. How can I correct this so only one Master folder exists with only one set of images instead of duplication? Do I have to export all the images to the desktop and then reimport them after I remove one of the Master folders? How would you correct my stupid mistake? lol!!! I hope you can help. I enjoy your website.
    Thank you—Frank

  8. help please! I moved all my photo’s to external hard drive. went into lightroom clicked each folders check mark and relocated folders all good… but after restarting LR i get the same question mark. eek!

  9. If I did the “Add but not move” feature in Lightroom on windows. and did my changes from there, after everything is changed how do I get the the whole folder of photographs with the changes?? Do I now make that a catalog or will I loose the changes??

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