Don’t panic.  Your images probably aren’t really gone, they are just missing from Lightroom.

It’s happened to just about all of us at one point.  We open Lightroom, start scrolling through our images and we get it.  The dreaded punctuation of despair.  That little symbol in the upper right-hand corner of our images (exclamation mark) or folders (question mark) that says you have missing Lightroom photos.

And we panic.  How are the files missing?  All the images?  The edits?  They’re gone?  Do you know how many hours and hours of work those files represent?!?!

Before you OMG and FML in a public forum, read our guide to finding and relinking missing Lightroom Photos.  Your photos can usually be reconnected simply and easily allowing you to breathe easy for another day.

How Lightroom Stores Files

If you need a quick fix to find your files, like NOW, skip down a few paragraphs.  We’ll show you how to relink your files and get back up and running.  But then come back here and read the entire article so you know how to prevent this panic-inducing problem in the future.

First, this tutorial covers how to relink files in Lightroom CC Classic, the standard desktop edition of Lightroom.  It doesn’t really apply to Lightroom CC, the cloud-based service, because they don’t handle files the same way.  But I’ll just refer to it as Lightroom, or LR, from here on out.

Want to know more about the differences between Lightroom CC Classic and Lightroom CC?  Click here!

Second, you need to understand how Lightroom stores and presents file.

Lightroom itself doesn’t store images.  There is no LR database on your computer or external hard drive.  Instead, Lightroom allows you to choose where to store your photos.  You can keep them on your camera, or put them on a USB drive, external hard drive or your computer’s hard drive.

Once you’ve told Lightroom where you’d like those files stored, Lightroom adds that information to a catalog.  The Lightroom catalog LINKS to where your photos are stored.  It doesn’t actually store another copy of the images.  The Lightroom catalog also keeps track of the edits you make to any image.  It doesn’t actually make those edits until export.

If this sounds weird, believe me, it’s for good reason.  Lightroom was designed to give you maximum flexibility as a photographer on how and where photos are stored.  It’s also designed to be a non-destructive editing program, meaning the original file is never touched or edited in any way.  You can’t accidentally edit someone’s skin tone to purple and then be stuck with it in perpetuity.

My Lightroom Photos are missing

So what happened to my missing Lightroom photos?

Okay, back to the problem.  You opened Lightroom and when you went to work on an image, you saw a little question mark in the upper right-hand corner of your image.  If you tried to open the file, Lightroom probably gave you a nasty gram pop up saying the original image couldn’t be found.

So what happened?

Somehow, you moved or renamed the photos outside of Lightroom.  Now Lightroom can’t find them and you’re getting the dreaded punctuation mark of despair.  The actual images aren’t usually lost…just their connection to Lightroom.

If you did in fact move or rename the files recently, it’s a quick fix.  See below.

If you didn’t touch the files, check to see that the device you store your images on is connected to your computer correctly.  Sometimes a connection comes loose or we forget to plug in external hard drive if we’ve been out traveling.

Click here for other great Lightroom tips and tricks!

How to relink missing Lightroom Photos

How to fix missing Lightroom photos?

If the entire folder of images is missing:

  1. Make sure you are in the Library module in Lightroom.
  2. In the left-hand panel, choose “Folders.”
  3. Right click on the question mark of the missing folder.
  4. Choose find missing folder. Lightroom will bring up a dialog box showing your comptuer’s file system.
  5. Find the folder that Lightroom lost track of and click on it. Then click “Choose” in the lower right hand corner.  Lightroom will reconnect that folder and the images.

If you’re just missing a single image:

  1. Click on the exclamation mark in the upper right-hand corner of your image. Lightroom brings up a dialog box.  Click on Locate.
  2. Lightroom brings up your computer’s file system. Using the file system, find the image you moved or renamed and click on it.
  3. If you’re missing more than one image, check the box that says “Find nearby missing photos.” That tells Lightroom to look around and see what else we mucked up and help us fix it.
  4. Lightroom should reconnect the image and related images and you can resume your regularly scheduled editing.
  5. After you’ve reconnected your images, Lightroom may give you a blank gray screen that says “There are no files in the selected folder.” That’s just LR’s way of telling you the old folder is empty.  Don’t worry.  In the Library module, click on the Folders section and find the new folder you just added to the Lightroom catalog and click on it.  Your images are there, ready for you.

How to relink missing Lightroom Photos

How to prevent missing Lightroom photos in the future?

Preventing the question marks and exclamation marks of despair is simple.  Don’t change your image storage structure outside of Lightroom.  Instead, rename, delete, move or otherwise restructure your images and folder from inside of Lightroom.

In the Library module, click on the Folders section.  Here is where Lightroom shows you where and how all of your files are connected.  You can rename, move or delete folders here.

Worst case scenario

The only time your images are really truly lost to Lightroom is if you deleted them off your computer or storage device or your drive has failed or been damaged.  If you’ve deleted the images off your hard drive or storage device and don’t have a backup, there’s nothing to be done in Lightroom to help.  You’ll need to contact a computer technician to see if the original files can be recovered from your drive.

Here are a few quick strategies to prevent this worst-case scenario:

  1. Never use a memory card as your only means of storage. Download those images to your computer or an external hard drive.
  2. Don’t reformat your memory card or use it again until you have your images safely stored on two other devices.
  3. Use the 3-2-1 rule. Keep 3 copies of your images, stored on 2 separate drives with 1 copy off-site.

For more tips on photo storage and backup, see our tutorial “Photo Storage Solutions to Prevent Catastrophe.”  We break photo storage down for you and give you the pros and cons of different backup solutions!

Missing images and folders can be scary.  We’ve all felt that panic and fear of losing edits or losing client files.  But 99 times out of 100, it’s a simple fix in Lightroom to point the application in the right direction of your files.  Follow the steps above or watch the video below and you’ll be back to editing and wowing clients in no time.

Subscribe to my YouTube Channel