Importing – Where do they go?

When I am asked to troubleshoot a problem with Lightroom I often hear, “I don’t know where Lightroom put my images” or “it made all these folders”. It seems that some people are a little confused, not only about what Lightroom is, but also about what Lightroom is not. When I hear, “I opened my image in (or with) Lightroom” then thats a pretty big clue that the user is probably new to the concept of Asset Management. Ooh, a fancy term.

Well, we should probably get used to it but not be confused by it. Simply put, it means that all your image files are now known as Assets and Lightroom is one those programs that will Manage the location of them.

In order for Lightroom to effectively manage those assets it needs to be told what to do with them, yes you still have to make decisions about how you want your file system to be organized. Once you have done that, Lightroom will be happy to take care of everything next time. Lightroom will not put your files anywhere you don’t instruct it, nor will it duplicate files or create folders without instructions. What Im saying here is much like I say to dog owners – its not the dog that needs training.

Now, to Lightrooms credit and many peoples confusion there are several options offered. And for many experienced users it seems there is always an option or two that are not offered, so we can expect the import process to offer more in the future. Getting a handle on it in the first place would really help.

The Import Dialog

When you first use the Import Dialog – File > Import Photos… it will probably look similar to the one pictured here.

A small dialog that doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of options. Choosing to Import at this point could be a cause of many peoples problems as we haven’t specified where the files should go and how they should get there (move or copy). I recommend clicking the arrow button in the lower left corner until you are sure you know how you want Lightroom to handle your files. The Tab button will also expand or reduce the dialog. This will reveal a much larger dialog with all the options available to you.

Navigating this dialog is much like reading a book, top left to bottom right. Ok, so its a book written in English.

Source – The Left Panel

This is where you specify to Lightroom where your files are coming FROM. Your options can be

  • CD
  • DVD
  • Internal Hard Drive
  • External Hard Drive
  • Flash Memory Card
  • A Camera

By clicking on the triangles you can drill down to your images. If you prefer, you can double click the name or the triangle to hide the remaining folders. Checking the “Include Subfolders” box will of course show any image files located in a nested set of folders. This way you can import all or any images from several folders without the need to repeat the import process.

Clicking on the Arrow Buttons between the left, center, and right panels will give you options to go to a specific location or will show a list of recent locations.

Previews – The Center Panel

This is where you specify to Lightroom which files to import and what to do with them

Starting at the top of the center panel you will notice you have a few options of how to handle the incoming files along with a brief description of what they do.

  • Copy as DNG – Convert to DNG in a new location and add to catalog
  • Copy – Copy Photos to a new location and add to catalog
  • Move – Move photos to a new location and add to catalog
  • Add – Add photos to catalog without moving them

Notice that all of them have one common function; they will add the photos to the catalog. Adding images to a catalog simply means that Lightroom will make a reference thumbnail of the file, pull whatever Metadata it can from the file, and create a link to the file should you wish to open it in another application. One option will not be available if the images reside on a flash card from your camera. Thats the “Add” function. This is a good thing since your flash card is almost certainly going to be used again and any information on it will be removed so the recommended practice is to Move or Copy those images to a new location.

We are not concerned at this stage where the images are going. That will be handled in the Right Panel. Just below the options of what to do with the images we have a few options of what we want to see.

  • All Photos
  • New Photos
  • Destination Folders

The majority of the time I’ll bet you have it set on All Photos, probably because the majority of the time you will be importing from a flash card. Thats fairly simple, you will see all the images Lightroom can import. If you choose New Photos, Lightroom will only show you images that are not already included in the current Catalog. All others will be grayed out and remain unchecked.

Caution: Lightroom cannot determine if an image is already in the catalog if you have changed its original name by any means outside of Lightroom, nor can it determine if the image has been imported into another catalog.

If you choose the Destination Folders option, Lightroom will display the structure of the folder the images will be in plus the first parent folder. These are of course determined by what you choose in the Destination Pane of the right side panel. Perhaps useful as a double check but as I said, more often than not, you will leave you option set to All Photos.

Some things you might find useful in the center panel are the ability to sort the thumbnails, change the size of them, and even preview the image before importing. Most photographers I know will not be concerned with previewing the images though. If you want to work that way then these keyboard shortcuts will no doubt be useful.

  • E – Brings you to preview mode
  • X – Uncheck the “Include in Import” box
  • P – Checks the “Include in Import” box
  • G – Gets you back to the Grid

And just for good measure, the “plus” and “minus” keys will change the size of the thumbnails or the preview.

Destination – The Right Panel

This is where you specify to Lightroom where your files are going TO

There are four separate sections here

  • File Handling
  • File Renaming
  • Apply During Import
  • Destination

In File Handling you can select the kind of previews you want Lightroom to build as it imports the files. Personally I have never seen any reason to change from Minimal. Just know that if you change it to anything larger than Minimal the import time will be increased, especially if you select 1:1. Larger previews will save time later when viewing your images but in my experience the time taken to build a 1:1 preview in Lightroom is not significant enough to warrant building all the 1:1 previews ahead of time. Besides they do take up space and for a large volume shooter, it will be a lot of space.

Checking the “Don’t Import Suspected Duplicates” box will ensure that you don’t accidentally import the same images from a card or Hard Drive location. With this checked you may notice some of your images in the center panel are grayed out, indicating that they will not be imported. I recommend you leave this checked.

Now for those of you who are super organized and slightly paranoid, there is an option to backup your files to a separate location at the time of import.
There are two things to note here.
1 – if you are converting to DNG then the files that are backed up will not be converted as well, they will remain the original raw data from your camera.
2 – There may be a significant change in the amount of time it takes for importing to be completed.

File Renaming does just that. It renames your files as they are imported. This can be a huge time saver if it is your practice to rename files. The drop down menu will give you plenty of choices for naming conventions.

Apply During Import is another potential time saver, especially when it comes to keywording. Whether this section is useful to you or not will depend on your particular workflow. Don’t feel you have to use it just because its there. Both Keywording and Develop settings can be controlled very effectively after the import process. One area I recommend selecting is Metadata.

At the very least you might want to create a Metadata Template that contains your basic copyright data.

The last step (almost) is the Destination panel. This is where you can determine the final location of the files you are importing. More often than not the location will be the same each time, or at least will follow the same structure. I like to organize my images in dated folders ( 2011/04/30).

It just seems more visually pleasing in the Folders Panel inside Lightroom and I don’t shoot enough of a specific subject type to warrant naming folder with descriptive terms like fish or plane or a models name. In fact I use Lightroom to organize other peoples images so the dated structure works well for me combined with honoring their existing structure if they have one. When looking at which structure to choose its important to note that the “/” character indicates a new folder. So in my case Lightroom will create a folder for 2011, a folder for 04, and a folder for 30. I don’t have to name the folders myself, they are created for me based on the metadata within the file so if your cameras date is wrong, your folder structure will also be wrong.

I should also point out that if I import images from a different source and they were taken on the same day, Lightroom will not create additional folders. It will instead recognize the existence of the folders and use those.

While you are getting used to the import process it is worth taking an extra moment to look at the structure in the Destination panel. A check mark in the boxes indicates that images will be placed in the respective folder and the number indicates how many will be placed in the folder.

After all this you are ready to press the import button, but wait, there’s more! At the very bottom of the Center panel you will see an opportunity to save all of these settings as a preset.

Whats more, you can have multiple presets. Perhaps one dictates no DNG conversion, another doesn’t add any metadata or a different set of metadata. Others can control the size of the previews and any develop settings. Its all your choice.

Once you have created a preset you may never need to see the previews ever again when you import. If thats the case then simply collapse the dialog to the size it was at the beginning of this post with the TAB key. Now you can see at a glance what will happen to the files and still have access to any presets you have created.

So now you should be more comfortable with where your images are going and how they got there. If you get unexpected results then its very likely a setting got changed without you noticing or remembering the change you made last time for that one “special” import.

As for the statement – “I opened my image with Lightroom…” Lets just say, Lightroom is not Bridge, Lightroom is not Photoshop or Camera Raw, each of which have the ability to “open” a file for processing and nothing more. Lightroom is designed to catalog the whereabouts of your files first. Thats is what the import dialog is all about. After that you are free to “open” or EDIT the file in an application of your choice ( meaning Photoshop, right?)

If you have any questions about the import process please feel free to use the comments below.