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Avoiding a Lightroom Folder Mess — Lightroom Import Basics


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Are your folders in Lightroom a mess because you don’t know how to take charge of where Lightroom puts them?  Are you not sure where they are going?  Do you have date folders that are meaningless to you because you don’t remember what you shot on any given date?  If you answered yes to any of these, you are not alone — they are very common issues.

Here’s how to take charge and avoid frustrations:

1.  Take Control of Where Lightroom Puts Your Photos

When you import new photos from memory cards, it’s up to you to tell Lightroom where to copy them to.

For a lot of people, including myself, a simple folder structure that works well is shoot folders within year folders within a master folder.  This master folder can be your Pictures/My Pictures folder, or any other folder  you create.

simple_folder_structure Avoiding a Lightroom Folder Mess -- Lightroom Import Basics Guest Bloggers Lightroom Tutorials


The good news is that Lightroom has functionality in the Import dialog to help you accomplish this:

  • When you are ready to import new photos from a memory card, plug your card reader or camera into your computer and click on Import in the bottom left of the Library module.
  • Select your memory card or camera in the Source section on the left.  It may be named differently than mine:

Lightroom-import-source Avoiding a Lightroom Folder Mess -- Lightroom Import Basics Guest Bloggers Lightroom Tutorials

  • Choose Copy in the top center (or Copy as DNG to convert to Adobe’s raw file format), to indicate that you want to copy your photos from your memory card to your hard drive.

Import_Lightroom_Copy Avoiding a Lightroom Folder Mess -- Lightroom Import Basics Guest Bloggers Lightroom Tutorials

  • On the right side, scroll all the way down to the Destination panel.  If it is collapsed, click on the sideways triangle to the right of the word Destination.
  • Click on your master folder (My Pictures in this example) in the Destination panel to highlight it.  Make sure it is expanded so that you can see what is in it — click on the sideways triangle to the left of the folder name.
  • At the top of the Destination panel, choose Organize: By date.
  • For Date Format, choose one of the top three — year/date.  I choose yyyy/mm-dd.

organize_by_date1 Avoiding a Lightroom Folder Mess -- Lightroom Import Basics Guest Bloggers Lightroom Tutorials

  • You have just told Lightroom to put your photos in a folder called mm-dd within a folder called yyyy within your master folder (My Pictures).  The actual date used will be the date the photos were taken.  Once you are done with the Import, you will rename the folder to include a shoot description.
  • Check the folder in italics — this is where your photos are going to go.  Is it in the correct place?  If not, you have highlighted the wrong folder.
  • If so, hit Import in the bottom right.  (There is more useful but non-critical functionality in the Import dialog that I won’t be discussing in this post.)

What if instead of clicking on your master folder to highlight it, you had clicked on your 2011 folder?  Then Lightroom would put another 2011 folder within this one, with your date-shoot folder within that.  This is how folder nesting nightmares begin!

One of the nice things about Organize by Date is that if you have multiple dates on one memory card, Lightroom will split them out into separate folders.  But what if you don’t want them all in separate folders?  Here’s how to put them all in one folder:

organize_into_one_folder Avoiding a Lightroom Folder Mess -- Lightroom Import Basics Guest Bloggers Lightroom Tutorials

2.  If You Chose Organize by Date, Rename Your Folder

When the Import is done, right-click (Ctl-click on a one button mouse) on the date folder in the Folders panel in the Library module, choose Rename, and add a description to the folder name.

3.  Reveal Your Entire Folder Structure So You Can See Where Your Photos Really Are

Unfortunately, by default the Folders panel in the Library module only shows you the folders you imported, not also the folders that they live in.  Therefore you can’t see where your photos really live on your hard drive.    I want to see not only my 2011 folder and shoot folder, but also the folder that 2011 lives in (My Pictures), and even the folder that My Pictures lives in.  Right-click on your highest level  folder and choose Add Parent Folder.  Right-click on the one that gets added, and choose Add Parent Folder again.  Do this as many times as necessary to see your complete folder hierarchy.

4.  Clean Up Your Folder Mess

Once you reveal your folder structure, you can move your folders by clicking and dragging them to other folders in the Folders panel, and you can move photos from one folder to another by selecting them in the grid, and clicking inside one of the photo thumbnails and dragging them to a different folder.

Note that when you rename or move using the Folders panel, you are making changes to your hard drive — you are just using Lightroom to do it.

If you have a real organizational mess and want to use Lightroom to clean it up automatically, you may want to check out this post on my blog: “Help, My Photos are Completely Unorganized and Lightroom is a Mess.  How Can I Just Start All Over?”  It’s not an easy process, but it may be easier than manually rearranging everything.

Once you take charge of the Import dialog, I think you will find that you will be a lot happier with Lightroom!

Laura-Shoe-small-214x200 Avoiding a Lightroom Folder Mess -- Lightroom Import Basics Guest Bloggers Lightroom Tutorials Laura Shoe is an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop Lightroom, author of the popular Digital Daily Dose Lightroom (and Occasionally Photoshop) blog, and author of the widely-acclaimed Lightroom Fundamentals and Beyond: A Workshop on DVD.   MCP Actions readers can save 10% on Laura’s DVD with discount code MCPACTIONS10.


No Comments

  1. jann on November 28, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    Thank you so much. I have exactly the kind of Lightroom “mess” you mention above, so these tips are super valuable!

  2. Phyllis on November 28, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Love LR but am dealing with the same thing from my less than stellar importing and placement from years ago. * rubs temples *Now to find those two thousand missing linked images. ;o)Thanks for the insight!

  3. Julie on November 28, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    I have a mess also. This was a huge help. I just started the clean up and noticed that when I open a moved file is says “The file name “untitled shoot-023.dng” is offline or missing. I am guessing that I did not move it correctly. Any help would be great!Thanks!

  4. Laura Shoe on November 28, 2011 at 10:50 pm

    Hi Julie, you have to resolve the question marks first. See this post:

  5. Alan on November 30, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Currently, I use Downloader Pro to do most of these things. Can Lightroom make copies and put into two backup locations?

  6. Laura Shoe on November 30, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    From within the Import dialog, one backup location, Alan. But as you do your downloads from outside of Lightroom, I do my backups from outside of Lightroom.

  7. Alan on November 30, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Could you be more specific? Do you use third party software? If it helps any, I recently purchased your DVD ( Is it mentioned there?

  8. Laura Shoe on November 30, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    Hi Alan, I keep things pretty simple — I use Acronis True Image on my PC to back up to a couple hard drives, one of which I keep offsite. (I am also looking at backing up the cloud.) (If I were a pro, I would probably use a couple Drobo’s plus the cloud or some other offsite solution.)Here is my article on backing up the different components of your photo library — people often back up one component but not everything, and many sad stories result.

  9. Janet Slusser on November 30, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    I subscribed to your RSS feed

  10. John Hayes on December 2, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    Nice article. I would like to get your opinion on something. In my experience with LR, I find that an effective key wording structure and strategy is more important than the folder structure I use. With the key word capabilities I can find any image I need regardless of the folder the image is in. Granted I do use the date file configuration so all my images are in one master file with year, month and day files. I enjoy the content you create and like I said curious as to your thoughts.ThanksJohn

  11. Nubia on December 10, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    Laura,this is heaven sent, I sopped using LR, which I love, because of not knowing how to organize my files, eventually I lost or can’t find most of them. Even though I have a tutorial DVD, it was difficult to sit and watch and follow afterwards. With your tutorial, I’ll have the copy in my hand.THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!All your tutorials are really practical and detailed

  12. Heinrich on December 13, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    Hi Laura – thanks for this useful article. I’m a newbie to Lightroom (just installed v3.5) but have been using mostly manual processes to manage my images over the past 10+ years – I have a lot of existing images to import, but would like to start the “right way”.My current process saves all images in a YYYY/YYYY_MM_DD_description folder structure – I know the _description part cannot be done by Lightroom at import (I’ll have to rename the folders afterwards), but the YYYY_MM_DD format doesn’t seem doable – it seems LR doesn’t provide the underscore option – but can this be changed in config somewhere? I couldn’t find somewhere but hope you can help!And to respond to Alan’s question – I do see a “Make a Second Copy To:” check box with an option to specificy a folder in the “File Handling section” – not sure if this is new in 3.5 and whetehr it answers his question?RegardsHeinrich

  13. Steve on March 10, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    My Lightroom mess is also as you described, but with an added headache: When using a ten year old computer with a relatively small hard drive I started using an external hard drive and then two more. Now I prefer to edit on my new laptop on my dining room table and have three hard drives connected via USB cables to my laptop. All was fine until I unplugged everything and took my laptop with me. Upon returning and replugging (apparently not each drive into the same slots) my 15,000 or so images all went missing. I did find a way to get any response from Adobe (their support system in India was bad) so I posted a 1 star bad rating on a major retail site and stated LR had many features but most people should save their money and use the free and easy to use Picass and other editing systems. That got a response. One person agreed and said the problem was that Adobe LR apparently does not track the serial number of the hard drive and hence loses track of everything. An Adobe customer relations manage soon posted an acknowledgement that it was a problem with LR 3.2 in a Windows environment. I had spent most of a Saturday relinking everything and then it happened again. LR is an amazing program, but the frustration of losing all files negates 80% of the goodness.So do you think I should buy something like a 4 terabyte drive and move everything to it and use it exclusively in the future?

  14. Melinda on March 17, 2012 at 9:42 pm

    Hello, I have a problem. I have disconnected my external hard drive and when I reconnected after a trip, it shows all the folders (under “Folder” on the left) by dates, not by the names that I have them on my hard drive. How can I change it back? This has happened before, but my friend fixed it of me. He cannot remember how he fixed it. I need to write it down cause this is the 3rd time its happened.

  15. Noelia on August 6, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    I just imported thousands of pictures from iPhoto. Before using iPhoto, I had my pics beautifully organized in folders by dates on a PC. Now my pictures are in LR$ in a disorganized mess with several year folders within year folders. My month folders are under the years with the months alphabetized instead of ordered chronologically. Any ideas on what happened and how to get out of this mess?Thanks!!

  16. Carol on August 10, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Perhaps I should import to LR3 right from my memory card. But I have been importing files onto my hard drive and organizing them in folders and sub folders there. When I go to import the folder LR doesn’t seem to recognize the sub folder organization and imports by file number. Do I have to import each sub folder separately or is there an easier way?

  17. Denis Morel on January 18, 2014 at 9:17 am

    I followed your laptop to desktop procedure (tried to, anyway), but must have done something wrong because now I’ve got a “folder nesting nightmare”. Is there any way to un-nest the folders? I’m guessing not, because I can’t find anything about it and if there were a reasonably simple way to un-nest, then it wouldn’t be a nightmare, would it? I tried to move stuff around and trick Lightroom by renaming a folder, but Lightroom wasn’t having it and now it won’t let me change the name back! Am I gonna have to trash the whole import and try again? And if I do, since I don’t know what I did wrong (in the destination panel, all the italicized folders looked pretty, no nesting), how am I gonna avoid doing the same thing again?

  18. Jim on March 30, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    Thanks for this VERY clear and logical explanation. I believe it’s the best I’ve seen.

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