A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Have truer words ever been spoken? When it comes to the task of storing and organizing digital image files over the long term, there are several opportunities for various “weak links” to wreak havoc. There’s nothing more insidious, however, than when an image file—or even worse, a folder full of image files—goes missing. As someone who uses Lightroom as the epicenter of my digital image organization system, when files go missing I inevitably suffer a minor panic attack. Whether I’ve relocated an image file deliberately or inadvertently, sometimes Lightroom simply cannot find it. To that end, here’s how to find missing photos in Lightroom and how you can prevent the problem in the future.
When you open an album or catalog in Lightroom and see the mysterious question mark icon accompanying a grayed-out file or folder name, that means Lightroom no longer knows where to find the files you’re looking for. Typically, this isn’t because the application has spontaneously forgotten where it was storing them. Instead, it’s almost always due to user error—moving a file or folder while working outside of the Lightroom catalog.
In practice, this could happen when an external hard drive becomes unplugged. Or perhaps when an image residing in the Documents folder, for instance, is dragged and dropped into a subfolder or some other location on the same drive. If you make that move within Lightroom, there’s no problem—because Lightroom knows where you moved the files to. (After all, it did the moving for you.)
But, if you open the Finder or File Explorer and simply start moving files and folders around, when you go back into Lightroom it won’t know where those files and folders have gone. To indicate there’s an issue, Lightroom displays the folder name in the Library module as grayed-out text with a question mark next to the folder icon. Simultaneously, each missing image is still displayed in thumbnail form in the filmstrip—and you might even be able to see a big version if you’d rendered the previews—but rest assured the photos are missing. (You’re simply seeing the low-res reference versions of the images that Lightroom uses to make browsing faster and less taxing on your CPU.)
Adjacent to the missing thumbnail, however, is an exclamation point icon indicating there’s a problem. Hover over it and Lightroom will tell you that the photo is missing. Click it and Lightroom will give you an explanatory message and offer to help you locate the files. Alternatively, by right-clicking on a missing file or folder, you can tell Lightroom to “Find Missing Folder.” Then a Finder window will appear to allow you to navigate to the new home of the file or folder in question. Simply click it and choose OK to point Lightroom to the new home of these already indexed images.
You’ll note, however, that because Lightroom organizes your files using the same hierarchy that the Finder and File Explorer use, the location of the images will also move within Lightroom. So, if the folder had been previously found on the C: drive with a bunch of other photos but has now been moved to an external hard drive, once you point Lightroom to the files’ new location it will list those folders under the corresponding new drive. This change may or may not matter, depending on your organizational system, but if you’re wondering where your files went, especially since you just pointed Lightroom to them, now you know. They simply moved within Lightroom to match where you moved them on the hard drive.
I should also point out that this technique is a regular part of my archiving process, and isn’t always cause for alarm. As I monthly copy file folders from my internal hard drive to an external long-term storage drive, after copying the files I can delete the originals, and then have to point Lightroom to the new location of the images now found on my external drive. The process is efficient and quick but can be confusing the first time you confront it. Fixing these missing files and folders is simple enough, but it’s also essential for keeping an organized image library in Lightroom.