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Photoshop Lightroom Reference Guide

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Reconnecting Missing Files in Lightroom

Last updated Apr 25, 2008.

Have you encountered question mark icons on your Lightroom thumbnails, or seen folder names displaying in red within the Folders panel? If so, then for some reason Lightroom is unable to access those files or folders. There are several ways by which Lightroom can become disconnected from the photos you’ve imported, and they’re all avoidable. Understanding why this happens will enable you to prevent it from occurring (or help you to fix it if it does).

What Happens When You Import a Photo?

The import process is essentially a meet-and-greet session between your photos and Lightroom’s database. This process may or may not include photos being copied or moved between two storage locations, but the most important part of the process is that Lightroom’s catalog (that is, the database) records everything there is to know about each photo you import. This data is the only thing that actually goes into Lightroom. After import, Lightroom goes through another process where it creates a JPG preview copy of each imported photo and stores that preview in a special cache folder right alongside the catalog file. It’s these previews that you ultimately work with and look at inside of every Lightroom module except the Develop module.

When you bring a photo into the Develop module, Lightroom connects to the original source photo and creates an on-the-fly preview based on the current Develop module settings. As you change settings, Lightroom updates its on-the-fly preview. Because of its reliance on the source file to generate that preview, Lightroom has to be able to access that source file. If it can’t, you’ll see a message that reads, "The file named ’[filename]’ is offline or missing" above the preview when you enter the Develop module. Figure 1 shows an example.

If you press G to jump to Grid view in the Library module, you’ll see a question mark icon on the thumbnail of this image (and any other missing images), as shown in Figure 2.

Why does Lightroom think that this file is missing or offline? Because Lightroom simply checks the path to the image that’s stored in its catalog file, and looks to see whether the file is at that specified location. If the image isn’t at that exact path (from the drive to the filename), Lightroom concludes that it’s offline (a network or external disk is disconnected) or missing (the file has been moved, deleted, or renamed).

You might wonder how you can see the photo in Lightroom if the file is offline or missing. Remember that you’re only seeing the preview copy stored alongside the database—not the file itself. This is actually helpful when you intentionally work with offline files; such as when you’ve imported some images from a network drive, but aren’t connected to that network. Assuming that previews have been created, the only things you can’t do with offline or missing files are work in the Develop module, or export copies. In all other cases, Lightroom will try to make do with the previews alone.

Fixing the ’Missing File’ Problem

If the file you’re trying to access is on a disk that’s not currently connected to the computer you’re using, all you need to do is reconnect the disk, and Lightroom will be able to access the file again. No real problem there.

However, if you moved, deleted, or renamed the file outside of Lightroom, you need to update the catalog with this new information so that it can be happily reunited with your file again. Let’s go through the process of correcting each situation.

The easiest situation to fix is the case where you deleted a file outside of Lightroom. All you need to do here is select the thumbnail in Grid view and press Delete. When prompted, click Remove. This action removes the file from the catalog and thereby brings Lightroom up to date with the reality of that file (see Figure 3).

If the file was moved or renamed, the process is a little more involved, but not too painful. Here are the steps from Grid view:

  1. Click the question mark icon on the thumbnail. This will open a dialog box that asks whether you’d like to try to locate this missing file. You will also see the path that Lightroom has stored in its catalog for that file, as shown in Figure 4. This information may help you to remember what happened to that file. Did you do a bit of housekeeping and shuffle files around? Did you do a batch renaming in Bridge because you like it better? Did the drive letter change on the external drive since the photo was imported? Your job is going to be reuniting Lightroom with that file, so hopefully that piece of information is enough to lead you to where the file is actually located.
  2. Click the Locate button.
  3. Navigate to the location of the file, select it, and click Open (Windows) or Select (Mac).

That’s it. Lightroom will update its catalog to reflect this new information, and you’ll be on your way.

If you encounter a situation where an entire folder is considered offline or missing, you can follow a similar process to bring Lightroom up to speed. Lightroom displays offline folders in red within the Folders panel. To reconnect the folder, right-click it, choose Locate Missing Folder (see Figure 5), and go through the same process just described for a single photo. Once the reconnection has been made to the folder, Lightroom will update the location information for all the photos contained inside the folder.

The best way to avoid ever having to go through that process is to always perform your housekeeping inside of Lightroom. That means do all your renaming, moving, and deleting from within Lightroom. This not only gets the job done, but it keeps the catalog up to date at the same time.