How to Import Photos into Lightroom

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If you are new to Lightroom, the first thing you need to do after installing the software, opening it up, and taking a look around is import some photos.

As Lightroom is a database you can’t open photos in it the same way you can in Photoshop – instead, you have to import your photos before you can view, or process them. The import process adds photos to the Lightroom Catalog (Adobe’s name for the database that the program uses) and generates a preview of the image for you to view. Once imported, images stay in the Lightroom Catalog forever (or until you remove them from the Catalog yourself).

The Lightroom modules

Lightroom is modular software, there are seven of them: Library, Develop, Map, Book, Slideshow, Print and Web. You can only work in one module at any one time, but you can move around between them as often as you want.

The Library module is the heart of the system. This is where you view photos, organize them into Collections and carry out searches. The Library module is your window to the Lightroom Catalog ,and all the information that it holds about your images.

Importing and viewing photos happens entirely within the Library module.

The Lightroom module layout

The screenshot below shows the Library module layout. If you haven’t imported any photos into the Lightroom Catalog yet this is what it will look like.

Importing photos into Lightroom

1. Module selector
2. Side panels
3. Filmstrip
4. Content area

The screen is divided into four areas.

1. The Module selector: This is the bar at the top that tells you which module you are in (in this case, the Library module). You can make it disappear by clicking the white arrow at the top of the screen, freeing up screen space.

2. The left- and right-hand panels: These contain all the Library module tools. You can click the arrow on either side to make them disappear and reappear.

3. The Filmstrip: Displays thumbnails in the currently selected Folders, Collections or search results. If there are no photos in your Catalog it will be blank. Click the white arrow at the bottom of the screen to show/hide it.

4. The Content window: This is the central display area. After you have imported some photos into Lightroom you can view them here. If you hide all four side panels (use the keyboard shortcut Shift+Tab) it will fill your screen.

Importing photos

To get started, free up some screen space by hiding the Module Picker, Filmstrip and right-hand panels. Click the Import button in the bottom left-corner of the left-hand panel.

Importing photos into Lightroom

If this is your first import you are likely to be importing your photos from your hard drive, but you can also import them directly from a memory card, or connected camera.

It is best to import your photos one folder at a time, so you can organize them as you go along. It is more difficult if you import all your image files in one go. Plus, Lightroom will make you wait a long time while it carries out the import process!

The Import window

When you click the Import button Lightroom takes you straight to the Import window. It is divided into four sections (marked below).

Importing photos into Lightroom

1. Source 
2. Photo thumbnails
3. Import options
4. Destination

1. Source (left panel): This is the folder(s) from which you are going to import the photos. You can navigate through all hard drives, cameras, or memory cards connected to your computer.

2. Photo thumbnails (middle section): Here Lightroom displays thumbnails of the photos in the selected source folder or folders. The photos are ticked to show that Lightroom will import them into the Catalog when you press the Import button (you can untick any that you don’t want to import).

3. Four import options which tell Lightroom what to do with the photos (top middle): They are:

  • Copy as DNG: When you select this option Lightroom converts your Raw files to Adobe’s DNG format (non-Raw formats such as JPEG and TIFF are not converted). This is the most time consuming option as Lightroom has to first copy your photos then convert them to a new format. Make Lightroom Faster by Using DNG explains the advantages of the DNG format. If you’re new to Lightroom leave this option alone for the moment, as it’s for more advanced users.
  • Copy: Lightroom copies your files from their current location to a new one, without changing the file format. This is ideal for importing photos from a memory card, as it leaves the original files intact on the card.
  • Move: Lightroom moves your files from their current location to a new one, without changing the file format. However, it does delete the original files after they have been moved. This is ideal when you want to move photo files from one folder to another on a hard drive.
  • Add: Lightroom imports your photos into the Catalog, without moving or copying them from their current location. Select this option if you are importing photos from your hard drive and don’t want to change their location.

4. Destination (right panel): This is where you tell Lightroom what to do with the photos (and where to put them) during the import process. If you select the Add option you will see two panels here (File Handling and Apply During Import). If you select Copy as DNG, Copy, or Move, Lightroom also displays the File Renaming and Destination panels.

To recap, this is what happens in the import process:
  • Lightroom makes a note of where the imported files are saved. This is true regardless of whether you select Copy as DNG, Add, Move or Copy. This information is saved in the Lightroom Catalog.
  • Lightroom imports the metadata associated with each photo and saves that in the Catalog. This includes camera settings, file name and so on.
  • Lightroom creates a preview of each imported photo and saves that on your computer’s hard drive. It may also create a Smart Preview if you tell it to do so.
  • The metadata and file location are saved in a Lightroom Catalog (.lrcat) file on your computer’s hard drive (on my Mac, in a folder called Lightroom that is in the Pictures folder).
  • The previews are saved in a previews (.lrdata) file.
  • Any Smart Previews are saved in another .lrdata file.
  • The .lrcat and .lrdata files are your Lightroom Catalog. In fact, you don’t even need the .lrdata files as Lightroom can regenerate previews if it needs to. As long as you have the .lrcat folder, your Lightroom Catalog is intact.
  • But – the photos themselves are not stored in the .lrcat file. They are saved on your hard drive. Backing up your .lrcat file does not back up your photos. It only backs up your Lightroom Catalog. But some people think their photos are in the .lrcat file, which is why we point out that they are not.

Putting it together

Ready to import your first photos into Lightroom? These are my recommended settings – you can start with these and adjust the workflow to suit your needs as you become more comfortable with Lightroom’s settings.

1. Navigate to the folder containing your photo files on the left and select the Add option from the top.

Importing photos into Lightroom

2. On the right open the File Handling panel (click on the heading to open and close panels) and set Build Previews to 1:1.

Importing photos into Lightroom

3. Open the Apply During Import panel and set Develop Settings and Metadata to None. The idea is to keep your first import simple – you can learn how to use Develop Presets and Metadata presets later (this article How to Create Your Own Lightroom Presets will get you started).

Importing photos into Lightroom

4. Click the Import button (bottom right). Lightroom returns to the Library module and starts the import process. It takes Lightroom a while to build the 1:1 previews, but the wait is worth it, as it makes viewing them in the Library module much quicker.

Importing photos into Lightroom

Once Lightroom has imported your photos, you can view them in the Library module. These articles Making Sense of Lightroom’s Grid View and The Hidden Secrets of Lightroom 5’s Loupe View (yes it applies to Lightroom 6 and Lightroom CC too) will get you started.

Importing photos from a memory card

Once you’ve carried out your first import, at some stage you will want to import photos directly from a memory card into Lightroom. There are a couple of extra steps in this process. Start by selecting Copy (instead of Add) at the top of the Import window.

Importing photos into Lightroom

Set the File Handling and Apply During Import panel settings as above. Ignore the File Renaming panel (another advanced topic).

In the Destination panel, select the folder where you would like to save the imported images (you can create a new folder by right-clicking on an existing one and selecting Create New Folder). The selected destination folder is marked in white.

Importing photos into Lightroom

Click the Import button when you’re ready.

After the import

It’s important to understand that the import process doesn’t physically add your photo files to the Lightroom Catalog. The Catalog contains previews of your photos, plus information about them, including the location where they are saved. The photo files themselves remain on your hard drive.

The next task is to organize your newly imported photos. I’ll show you how to do that in a future article.

Do you have any questions regarding this process? Please let me know in the comments.


Mastering Lightroom Book One: The Library Module

Mastering Lightroom ebookMy latest ebook Mastering Lightroom Book One: The Library Module (second edition) is a complete guide to using Lightroom’s Library module to import, organise and search your photo files. You’ll learn how to tame your growing photo collection using Collections and Collection Sets, and how to save time so you can spend more time in the Develop module processing your photos.

Read more from our Post Production category

Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom and his written over 25 popular photography ebooks. Enroll in his new Lightroom course for free, or get $4 off his latest book Mastering Composition Book Two with the code december4.

  • Remco

    Well written and very clear. Thank you! A question….
    You say “It’s important to understand that the import process doesn’t physically add your photo files to the Lightroom Catalog.”
    I take it you mean the Catalogue is just a pointer – the import process does physically create a new folder (somewhere) with a new set of files.
    Also…you said “Add: Lightroom imports your photos into the Catalog” this means it doesnt important photos, but the reference, not the image.

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  • Good question. It depends on what option you select when you import photos. If you select Add, Lightroom doesn’t move or copy the photo files. It adds them to the Catalog by making a note of where they are saved, building previews and adding their metadata to the database.

    If you select Copy, Copy as DNG or Move then Lightroom physically copies or moves the photos files to a new location (selected by you), then once again adds them to the Catalog by recording where they are saved, building previews and importing metadata.

    Lightroom never alters your original files (unless you count making making metadata changes) – the edits you make are recorded in the Catalog and applied to the photo when you view it in Lightroom. The edits are only finalised when you export the images.

  • Remco

    Ah thank you Andrew (and so well written too). So to get back to your statement ….”….the import process doesn’t physically add your photo files to the Lightroom Catalog.” It does add but only in one case, when you select the option “Copy as DNG”.
    The so-called “Copy” is just making Lightroom aware of the existence of the images (be they jpg, png etc) and that awareness is shown up in the Catalog.

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  • Hi Remco, I think I haven’t been precise enough with my definitions.

    To recap, this is what happens in the import process:

    1. Lightroom makes a note of where the imported files are saved. This is true regardless of whether you select Copy as DNG, Add, Move or Copy. This information is saved in the Lightroom Catalog.

    2. Lightroom imports the metadata associated with each photo and saves that in the Catalog. This includes camera settings, file name and so on.

    3. Lightroom creates a preview of each imported photo and saves that on your computer’s hard drive. It may also create a Smart Preview if you tell it to do so.

    The metadata and file location are saved in a Lightroom Catalog (.lrcat) file on your computer’s hard drive (on my Mac, in a folder called Lightroom that is in the Pictures folder).

    The previews are saved in a previews (.lrdata) file.

    Any Smart Previews are saved in another .lrdata file.

    The .lrcat and .lrdata files are your Lightroom Catalog. In fact, you don’t even need the .lrdata files as Lightroom can regenerate previews if it needs to. As long as you have the .lrcat folder, your Lightroom Catalog is intact.

    But – the photos themselves are not stored in the .lrcat file. They are saved on your hard drive. Backing up your .lrcat file does not back up your photos. It only backs up your Lightroom Catalog. But some people think their photos are in the .lrcat file, which is why we point out that they are not.

    Is that clearer? It’s probably what I should have said in the first place!

  • Joyce M

    What happens in Lightroom when you move a picture from one folder to another on your hard drive?

  • Remco

    That is very clear and unambiguous thank you and, as you say, could be included in your original description.

  • It depends on how you do it. If you do it within your operating system (ie with Explorer in Windows or Finder on Mac OS X) then Lightroom won’t know where the photo is. You will have to go into Lightroom and point it at the new location (easily done).

    You can also move photos from folder to folder in Lightroom. If you do this then Lightroom keeps track of where they are.

  • Joyce M

    Thank you.

  • Well luckily for you both I am the editor and can make that happen – so done!

  • Thank you Darlene!

  • Cliff Coulter

    Can a Apple Photos picture library be transferred with folders to Lightroom

  • Michele

    You just made my Lightroom life much better! Thank you for the clear explanation. Signed up for your free class and bookmarked your site with the tutorials as well. Thanks so much!

  • Glad it was helpful – enjoy the course!

  • tina

    when i pull up lightroom on my pc, theres only about 40 pictures that come up to import . i have thousands on my pc . why isnt lightroom showing all my photos???

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