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Lightroom: Missing Files, No Longer!

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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:

  1. Workflow strategies to prevent the “missing file” or “missing folder” problem; and
  2. 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.

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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:

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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.

Missing Files

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:

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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:

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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:

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In this case, since the file was renamed and not simply moved, we get a confirmation dialog as well:

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Once you click Confirm, the missing file is re-linked, and the question mark icon goes away.

Missing Folders

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…

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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:

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Once the folder is relinked, the bothersome question mark goes away and our catalog integrity is restored:

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Missing Everything

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.

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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…

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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:

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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!

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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.

About Michael Hoffman (224 Articles)
Mike has been a photographer, artist, educator, and technophile for most of his life. Early in his career, he created technical illustrations and photographs for electronic equipment manufacturers, and taught classes in computer aided drafting and 3D modeling software. When digital cameras became widely available in the late 1990s, the move was a natural one, and has led to a happy combination of technology, software, photography and art. Mike is an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop and Acrobat, and is well versed in Lightroom and Photoshop Elements, as well as Illustrator and InDesign. He has also contributed his time and efforts to the excellent work being done by Operation Photo Rescue, in restoring photographs damaged by natural disasters. As an active member of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals, he continues his quest for excellence in art, excellence in design, and excellence in education.

5 Comments on Lightroom: Missing Files, No Longer!

  1. Thank you, thank you! I have all my catalogs and files on a portable hard drive that I use in class and at home, and your “missing everything” instructions are clear and concise, and provided the solution.

  2. Please add a red line of yours resuming :
    “Recovering a missing (renamed, grayed-out) drive is not recuperable otherwise then via “Find missing file”, this one-by-one (maybe hunderds !).
    (+ “if you have not followed my recomendations etc..” if you like)

    ..If this holds true. (Because this information is hard to find (if true) amongs all the posts and answers on that simple matter).
    Thank You.

  3. Bradford // March 14, 2012 at 4:25 pm //

    So i have run into the “missing everything” part – they were all on an external drive, and after upgrading to LR4 – it now recognizes my HD as a new named drivg (G:) instead of in the past it was (H:). So I have been “finding missing folder” one by one as I have them all in a master “Photos” folder and each is a separate subfolder. I am afraid when I click the “parent folder” to find the missing folders to click OK when it tells me “the selected folder or one if its subfolders is already in LR. Do you want to combine these folders?”

    My fear is that if I hit merge (as it is only merge, and cancel, not merge or don’t merge and cancel) that it will lump them all into ONE super folder not keeping them all in individual sub folders. What do you advise. I have about 200 subfolders on this drive and well I don’t want them all lumped together for obvious reasons.

  4. John McClung // October 16, 2013 at 7:19 pm //

    My LR3 shows a couple dozen folders with zero items. No questions marks, just empty folders. Those folders inside my master LR folder are also empty. I think I must have moved images around outside of LR before I knew better, but when I hunt down the folders in various back up drives, they’re all empty as well. Any clue what might have caused this, and how to find folders with images actually still present?

  5. Make sure that you have “Show Folders in Subfolders” checked ON in the Folder Panel options. You access the options by clicking on and holding the small plus sign “+” to the right of the word “Folders” at the top of the panel.

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