Almost everyone who has used Lightroom has, at some time, encountered the dreaded question mark icon – indicating a missing file or missing folder. Sometimes it is a nuisance, but other times I’ve had to help people who have managed to have their entire catalog peppered with question marks. Today, I’d like to provide a two-pronged approach to managing this problem:
- Workflow strategies to prevent the “missing file” or “missing folder” problem; and
- Recovery strategies for fixing a catalog that has missing files or folders.
Let’s start with the workflow strategies.
Consider the “missing file” problem. First of all, why does this happen at all? You’ve imported your images into Lightroom, did the program become senile, and is it just “losing” your images? This is not likely. The majority of these types of problems are self-inflicted, and thus can be self-prevented. Key to this prevention is one of the cardinal rules of Lightroom workflow:
- If you want to move or rename files or folders that are tracked within your Lightroom catalog, move or rename them within Lightroom!
I can’t stress this enough. Lightroom is a database, and there are NO images in the catalog. The catalog is a list that records the locations of the original image files on disk. If you go behind Lightroom’s back and move your files – even if you rename a folder or file – Lightroom has no way to know you did it. All the program knows is that the filename recorded in the catalog is not found at the location recorded in the catalog.
Fortunately, moving and renaming files is not very complicated in Lightroom, and it works much the same as your system file browser. Just use the Library module, and you can drag folders around in the Folders panel on the left, rename folders by right clicking (command clicking on a Mac) and rename individual files by using the Metadata panel on the right.
A less frequent problem, but one that people seem to run into a lot, is a change in the identification of the hard drive. This happens on Windows when a drive is changed or moved in the system, but similar problems can happen on a Mac, and both cases can be easily managed if you follow the second cardinal rule of Lightroom Workflow:
Always include a single top level folder in your catalog folder structure, and put all your images into subfolders below the top level.
This will prevent a lot of work in the future, if you have to point Lightroom towards a new drive or folder location. As an example, I have all my imported camera raw files in a top level folder called, obviously, “Camera Raw Import,” and all the files are organized by date below that main folder:
As you’ll see below, if you need to move this catalog to another drive, or if your drive letters change, this makes the repair a one-step process.
Now, let’s talk about recovery strategies:
OK, so you’ve changed your ways and now you follow the two cardinal rules above relentlessly. Still, once in awhile, you’ll forget and make a mistake, or someone might make it for you, and you end up with a missing file or folder. We’ll look at files first, then folders.
When a file is moved or renamed outside of Lightroom, the catalog record points to a file that no longer exists. You get a thumbnail (thumbnails and previews are stored in a special Lightroom folder along with the catalog) and the thumbnail has a question mark icon in the top corner:
In this case, I did this on purpose by renaming the file using Windows Explorer. To fix Lightroom’s record and point the catalog back to the renamed file, we simply click the question mark, bring up this dialog:
Click Locate, and you’ll get the Locate dialog box, initially opened to the last known location of the missing file. We can browse and find the correct file, then click Select:
In this case, since the file was renamed and not simply moved, we get a confirmation dialog as well:
Once you click Confirm, the missing file is re-linked, and the question mark icon goes away.
Sometimes, it isn’t a single image, it is an entire folder of images that gets moved or renamed. The process is similar. Start from the Folders list in the Library module, and right click the folder with the question mark. Choose Find Missing Folder…
This time, you get the Find Missing Folder dialog, and you can browse to locate and select the correct folder. In this case, my original folder was called “2011-04-08” but “someone” renamed the file in Explorer to “2011-04-08 Bluesfest.” Once that folder is located and selected, click OK to relink the catalog to the proper folder on disk:
Once the folder is relinked, the bothersome question mark goes away and our catalog integrity is restored:
This can happen sometimes, as mentioned above, when a drive letter changes, when you move your catalog over to an external drive, or when a catalog on an external drive is opened from another computer where the drive identification is different from the original. In this case, the entire catalog is covered with question marks. In the example below, the catalog was originally on Drive “Q:” but now it is moved to another drive.
This is where cardinal rule two comes in: have everything imported under a single top level folder. In this case, just right click the top level folder, and follow the process above to Find Missing Folder…
Browse to the top level folder, wherever it has been moved. Note in this case, not only was the top level folder moved to Drive “F:” but the name was changed from “Originals” to “Camera Raw Import.” No matter, just select the correct top level folder and click OK:
Since the files on disk are all located in subfolders under the “Camera Raw Import” folder, locating the top level folder is all Lightroom need; it is capable of finding all the rest of the files nested underneath. Missing catalog restored!
Notice that the folders are now under drive “F:” and that the top level folder’s name is updated to reflect the folder chosen above. Easily done when all the folders are nested like this.
Of course, when you don’t follow cardinal rule number two above, and have folders scattered all over creation, you’ll have to work a lot harder to remedy problems like this one. After all, that’s why I created cardinal rule number two!! I hope these tips will help you to improve your Lightroom workflow… If you get into a bind with missing files or folders, now you don’t have to panic, because you have the means to fix things up quickly.
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