Help! Lightroom Lost My Files!

Help! Lightroom Lost My Files!

If there’s one thing that confuses new Lightroom users it is that quite often files that should be in Lightroom appear to have gone missing. Here are some things to look out for when this happens to you.

Is a Filter Hiding Things?

If you think a folder should be displaying more images than it does, check that there is not a Custom Filter in place. In the Library module, make sure the Filmstrip is visible and if there is a filter listed in the Filter box then that’s affecting what you’re seeing. To return to showing all your images in the currently selected folder, select Filters Off from the Filters list.

Lightroom custom filter

Are you looking in the right place?

While Lightroom’s folders mimic the folder structure on your computer and external drives sometimes you really want to look through all the files in Lightroom. To do this, open the Catalog panel in the Library and select All Photographs. This selects all the photographs in the Lightroom catalog as the basis of your search.

Lightroom all photos

Images in Subfolders

If you click on a folder that has subfolders but you see nothing or none of the images in the subfolder that is typically caused by a Lightroom setting. This setting lets you control whether or not you see photos in subfolders when you click that folder in the Library module. To view the current setting choose the Library menu > Show Photos in Subfolder. The setting can be enabled or disabled depending on your preferences but it’s often the cause of photos in subfolders not showing when you think they should be there.

Lightroom show photos in subfolders

Look in Folders and not Collections (or vice versa)

Lightroom has folders and collections and they can have the same name. You’ll find Collections in the Collections panel and folders in the Folders panel. A collection can include files from a number of folders but a folder can only contain images which are stored in that folder on your disk, so make sure you’re looking for the right folder or collection.

Contents of Smart collections Change

Regular collections are fixed so that the images, once placed in the collection, remain in that collection until you remove them. Smart Collections are dynamic so the images in them change depending on the criteria you have set for them. For example, the 5 Star Smart Collection shows all images that are 5 Star images. If you make an image a 5 star image it automatically gets added to that collection. If you change a 5 star image to a 4 star one then it no longer appears in that Smart Collection and that might be the cause of images going ‘missing’.

Lightroom smart collections

Search for Lost Images

If you’ve lost photos and you know roughly when they were captured or which camera you captured them with it is possible to search your Lightroom collection for them. Start in the Library and click the Catalog panel and click All Photographs. Then choose View > Show Filter Bar. Click Metadata and you can then locate images by their metadata. For example if you know the approximate capture date was January 2012 then make sure that the first filter is set to Date and click 2012 and then January. This will show only those images that you shot during that time.

It’s also possible to filter by camera, lens and other metadata. You’ll just need to make sure that the primary field that you are filtering on is the one on the left of the Filter Bar. Images are filtered from left to right so, if the leftmost panel is Date and the one to its right is Camera type – you’ll see the camera types for only those photos shot on the specified date. If Camera type is the leftmost column and Date the rightmost one, then you’ll filter out all the images captured with a certain camera and see only those dates you actually captured images with it.

Lightroom library filter

Lightroom Can’t Find the Image

Sometimes Lightroom will display an image with a question mark in its corner indicating that the photo is missing. This means that the image was imported into Lightroom but Lightroom can’t find it any longer. To return it to Lightroom, click its question mark icon and you’ll be prompted to locate the image on disk. Click Locate, find the image on disk, select it and it will appear again and it will be editable inside Lightroom.

Lightroom missing file

Lightroom Lost the Entire Folder

If you move or rename a folder on your disk outside Lightroom then Lightroom won’t know what you’ve done. If there are photos in the Lightroom catalog in that folder it will report the entire folder as missing when you launch it next. Missing folders will have a question mark beside their name. If you know where you moved the folder or that you renamed it, you need to tell Lightroom where it is. To do this, right click the folder in Lightroom and choose Find Missing Folder then locate the folder on disk and Lightroom will update accordingly.

Lightroom missing folder

A Folder is Missing Some Files

If you have a folder which you think should have more images in it than are currently showing in Lightroom this could well be the case. The Lightroom folder structure mimics the disk folder structure but only those images you import into Lightroom will actually be in Lightroom. It is also possible to remove images from Lightroom but in such a way as they remain on disk.

To check to see if there are additional images in a folder that aren’t showing in Lightroom, right click the folder in Lightroom and choose Synchronize Folder. Make sure that the Show Import Dialog before Importing option is enabled and select Synchronize. This shows the import dialog and those images that are in the folder but not in Lightroom so you can synchronize the contents of the folder with Lightroom.

Lightroom synchronize folders

Now it’s over to you. Have you ever experienced missing files in Lightroom and, if you did, what was the cause and how did you resolve the issue?

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Helen Bradley is a Lifestyle journalist who divides her time between the real and digital worlds, picking the best from both. She writes and produces video instruction for Photoshop and digital photography for magazines and online providers world wide. She has also written four books on photo crafts and blogs at

Some Older Comments

  • Roger September 28, 2013 09:38 am

    I had several folders missing various numbers of files, totaling a few hundred files in all. "Synchronize" would see these missing files, and begin the process of importing them, but at the end would always flash "no pictures to import."

    But, by following your advice to "Show Import Dialog" I noticed a setting that was checked to "Ignore Suspected Duplicates." When I deselected that, all the missing files finally imported during that synchronization.

    I have no idea why the files went missing to being with. To my best recollection, I had not done any file or folder renaming. So, I have to suspect files will go missing in the future, since the missing files to date were widely scattered (across dozens of folders over two years), suggesting many separate instances of going AWOL. At least I know how to recover them.

    I am worried though, that I will start to accumulate duplicate files that this setting had been preventing until now. Oh well. Lesser of two evils.

  • Diana August 7, 2013 06:50 am

    ok so last week I had my computer worked on because it was so slow. They made a time machine of my Mac. Worked on it and fixed the hard drive. Put everything back on the Mac and up and running. Worked in LR and PS everything is fine. Got a call today, asking if everything was good and they were going to clean off the back up. Said yes. Then later today I decided that I need to get my act together and was going through LR to make one folder for each client type for my website. Had to go to one of my older LR catalogs and it is showing NO IMAGES, NO FOLDERS ??? what? Please tell me this is a silly mistake and I simply need to direct LR better. It knows I have a catalog just nothing in it? ~scared~

  • Bill December 14, 2012 03:04 pm

    Lesley, no - I don't have the old HD, I thought I had set up LR to work off by my back-up drive and then I would save my finished work to the regular HD, I must of changed something in the workflow. I was just hoping the files were just hidden somewhere. When I check on the ? it goes to the computer HD and not the back-up drive. Fortunately they weren't real critical images, I am still getting familiar shooting digital with my d800.
    Thanks for your input.

  • Lesley December 14, 2012 12:29 pm

    Bill, that happened to me when I bought my Mac and painstakingly dragged things from the windows machine to the new mac. Or so I thought. When I opened Lightroom, I could see the folders and the greyed out spaces with the little ?, but like you found, they were all empty, they didn't actually move. They were still on the old machine, and I had to figure out a better way. Can you connect up the old hard drive or is it really dead? Or do you have a backup somewhere you can use to get them back? If you click on the ?, it will ask you if you want to locate the files and it will show you where it thinks they are. That's a good place to start. I hope this makes some sort of sense.
    Good luck.

  • Bill December 13, 2012 12:48 pm

    Everyone, please forgive me I have gone through the posting and don't see the issue I am having, as I finally made the digital leap forgive me if the question has been answered already.
    OK, the background information: I am using a Mac (10.8.2), lightroom 4, and a Nikon shooting in RAW. Due to an Apple recall I recently had my HD replaced and that's seems to be when the problem developed.
    My most recent captures are just grey boxes with a question marks. I tried re-linking them to no avail, when I click I the grey box the key words and other meta data is displayed but no photo. Can someone give this old Velvia shooter a hand, I'm really not computer dummy, I've used Elements for years without a problem.

  • Emily Smith September 29, 2012 02:13 pm

    I haven't worked in my Lightroom (64 bit) in a while and tonight when I opened it there was no sign of any of my catalogs, pictures or anything. I looked for them under the file drop down menu and there is no history of them. I have done several back-ups but although I know this only saves files and not images, I am very concerned that I will not be able to recover anything. Any suggestions on where they all could be? Two years of school work is within several catalogs (3-4). That is about 2,000 images and several folders.

  • David September 24, 2012 09:43 pm

    Personally I would store important documents or emails on paper due to technology never being a 100% reliable, I’ve used a company call EVASTORE before, they provided good customer service, you should give them a try

  • Lesley August 22, 2012 12:52 pm

    Lightroom hasn't lost my files, but it has started doing something very annoying. I've been scanning all my old albums and then bringing the files into Lightroom for tagging etc.
    Problem is, when I import them in, Lightroom adds -2 to each filename.
    I have noticed that sometimes I accidentally press keys that seems to be a shortcut for something and I may have done this here, but I can't figure out what it might be. However, I've checked all the import settings and also the 'rename' space when I do the import and nowhere have I asked for this to be done. Any help would be gratefully received.

  • Helen Bradley August 17, 2012 12:56 am

    @Mallory, what techniques have you tried to find the files in the catalogs? Have you searched for them by date or by metadata? If you can tell us what you've tried so far we might be able to help. Have you searched for the files on the disk? are they there but just not showing in Lightroom?

  • Mallory August 14, 2012 04:56 am

    I seem to have lost the original raw files when I exported them into the same file as jpgs. Now I have the raw files I did not export, the first half of the shoot), and the jpg files of the second half of the shoot, but the second half of the raw files are not available. Can't see them in any catalogues or files.

    I could go back to downloading again, but there is a significant amount of editing time already put in.

    Has this happened to anyone else?

  • Lesley August 10, 2012 09:09 pm

    Thanks danfoy. That's good to know, as you would have realised from my comment, this is exactly the feature I want.

  • danfoy August 9, 2012 11:42 pm

    You'd like LR4, Lesley - its built-in geotagging interface lets you specify areas as 'private', so you can see where they were taken in your library, but then the geotags are stripped from these areas when you export the images.

  • Lesley August 9, 2012 10:37 pm

    It's taken me a year to get used to the way LR works and I'm thinking of upgrading to LR4. I love the way it works with RAW images and I've found that by staying calm and using the tools shown above, I haven't lost anything yet. I though I had, many times, but I've always found it.
    I import new photos into date folders and after keywording and adding locations etc I put them into collections. I can put the same photo in more than one collection without making another copy and clogging up my space and I love Smart collections. I also use Jeffrey Friedl's plugins for geotagging travel photos (never for personal or near home shots) and also for uploading to Picasa if I want to share with people.

  • Tom Leparskas August 8, 2012 01:10 am

    When I got LR3 I finally felt confident that I had mastered my woeful filing system once and for all. I let LR re-name all my files based on date. Had to force myself to NOT make folders in the OS and let LR manage them.
    I have tried multiple catalogs - but got tired of copying a folder of up-to-date pre-sets into them, so now I've gone back to ONE big catalog. I've never lost a picture and LR4 has kept me on the straight and narrow.
    I love collections and smart collections - great feature and as powerful as virtual picture copies feature.
    Learn Lightroom's way as mentioned in a previous post - you'll be happy.

  • danfoy August 7, 2012 08:33 am

    Great article. Lightroom is not only an amazingly powerful tool for RAW processing, but a great integrated digital asset management (DAM) system. Unlike, say, Photoshop, where there are 'best practices' you can follow (using adjustment layers, smart objects etc), Lightroom does have a more 'set' workflow that you should follow if you want to get the most out of it.

    Lightroom stores your images in folders pertaining to the year, month, and day of shooting. I know it's frustrating when software hasn't been written to exactly mimic the way you currently work - I know it wasn't how I worked when I first got Lightroom - but Lightroom is built from the ground up to give you maximum efficiency and scalability when using the system set out by Peter Krogh in The DAM Book.

    The problem with storing your images in folders based on subject matter is that the folders will eventually become unmanageably massive, making it incredibly hard to be organised and to find photos a couple of years down the line, especially if you take photos on a daily basis. The other major problem with this is that photos don't generally fall neatly into one category for storage... a single photo could be easily argued to fit into a portraits folder, a holiday folder, a family folder etc etc, all at the same time, which means there isn't an obvious place to store it.

    The way Lightroom gets around this is by allowing you to set keywords within the software. That way you can see all your related images together in a search as if they were all in a big folder together, without having to route through a crazy folder structure to find them. This makes it much harder to lose images. You can still group the photos into albums if you want, so you can still have your '2012\Home town photos' folder - the difference is that it's a 'virtual' folder (a 'collection') inside Lightroom, leaving the photos in a nice predictable date order on your harddrive for easy backing up.

    This works beautifully with ratings and EXIF data too. If you rate all the passable photos from your shoot with 1*, then the best of those 2*, and then finally the very best ones 3*, it becomes very easy to, for instance, search for all 2* images taken of your wife at f/2.8, even if the photos are years apart or from wildly unrelated shoots.

    I digress, but yes, great article - readers bear in mind that Lightroom was made the way it was for excellent reasons, and it's better to learn why Adobe made Lightroom the way it is - and why this is beneficial - than to try and force it to work the way you happened to organise your files when you bought your first digital camera.

  • Azhar Khan August 7, 2012 04:12 am

    I used to always have problems with my files UNTIL I bought Lightroom: now I have both an organiser and sufficient editing tools to even stay away from photoshop. I am compulsive when it comes to organising my library so I don't think I will ever misplace a file :D

    Hopefully anyway

  • Jai Catalano August 7, 2012 12:08 am

    The feeling of losing files is horrible. I have lost files before (not in lightroom) and have almost died. I had a cringe in my stomach reading the title.

  • Paul August 6, 2012 09:38 pm

    I think the title of this post is not a rhetoric question, meaning that users missed something, and they can learn. I think Lightroom REALLY has some bugs regarding file management. I lost (or maybe couldn't import) some files and couldn't [re]import them in the collection/folder/library no matter what I did. Shooting with identical cameras, and having huge number of files, some duplicates appeared. Lightroom couldn't see the difference and couldn't import the new ones not even manually...

  • Kenneth Rivera August 6, 2012 10:01 am

    Using Lightroom is not a trivial decision, it involves lot of work and be very organized. It took me at least 3 weeks to get used to it on the workflow and how to take my work to the internet, also you have to think ahead how to organize the files on your PC/Harddrives.

    This is a nice article, hope there will come other on how to split libraries or how to manage multiple libraries, i found out that after 25.000 images LR starts to become slower and slower...

    Keep up the good work!

  • Gary August 6, 2012 08:01 am

    When I first started with Lightroom, I had many problems with file management. When using Lightroom to import new photos off my CF card I just never knew where files would end up. Even when it mostly worked, Lightroom would keep creating subfolders based on date when I just wanted all the photos from the same trip in one folder. I am sure there is a fix for that under preferences.

    My answer was simple. I went back to my old methods. Under C:\mypictures I create folders by year then sub folders based on subject.

    C:\mypictures\2012\Home town photos.

    Then with Lightroom not running, I copy photos to the folder I have just created or to an existing folder.
    Next, I always keep the Lightroom catalog for photos as a sub-folder of where the photos are stored.
    Turn on Lightroom, open the catalog if it exists, or create a new catalog in the folder the photos are stored in. Lightroom creates the subfolders.

    Then in Library, choose import and in the upper left corner choose the folder you put the photos in. Keep the box checked for only new photos and you should see just the photos you want.
    Click import at the lower right and all should work well and you and Lightroom know where everything is stored.

    To find photos from years back I like Google’s Picasa.