You know you have this issue when you see what is shown in the two pictures on the left:
A folder list with question marks and pictures that show the icon which also contains a question mark and a little icon that sort of looks like a computer chip.
When this happens, Lightroom has lost the connection between its database and the physical file that is your picture. In other words, Lightroom is expecting to see you pictures in a particular location, but the files are no longer there. Lightroom, not knowing what to do, will display the “?” indicating it is confused.
What is going on here? How did this happen, how do we prevent it from happening again and, most importantly, how do we fix it? Let’s look at all those questions.
What’s going on?
Most people have been used to using Adobe Bridge. Bridge is a “file browser”, you point it at a folder and it dutifully shows the contents of that folder. Lightroom does not quite work like that. To better understand how Lightroom works, think of your disk drive full of photos as being a large public library. Your pictures are the equivalent of books on shelves. The shelves would be equivalent to your folders and are labeled, just as your folders have names.
Now, in this environment, to find a book, you could walk the isles, looking for a shelf with the right label and when you find that, browse all the books on those shelves until you found the one you want. This would be the equivalent of opening Bridge, navigating to a folder of a particular name, opening that folder and browsing through all the photos until you find the one you want.
Another way of finding that book in the public library, is to go to the index, these days it is often a PC, and in the old days it would be a card system. You can search the index by title, by author, by publisher, by genre, etc. When you find the reference to the book you are looking for, the index will tell you what shelf that book is stored on.
This is exactly how Lightroom functions. The Lightroom Library Module is the equivalent of that in index. You look up your picture by keyword, or by camera, by date, etc and Lightroom knows where in your computer that photo is located.
So, now we can see what can go wrong. Imagine for a moment that someone in the public library wants to play a prank and moves books from one shelf to another shelf. You can imagine the havoc that can create when someone uses the index to find a book only to mystified when they cannot find the book on the designated shelf . . . because it is no longer there.
THIS is what has happened in your Lightroom setup when you see the two scenarios depicted in the screenshots at the start of this article! The images that Lightroom is referring to are no longer there. They have been moved. This typically happens when you go rearranging your folders within the Windows or Mac Finder environment. When you do that, you are the prankster that is confusing Lightroom. Usually, this happens when people purchase a new disk drive and move their folders full of picture onto that disk drive, believing that Lightroom will figure that out. Sadly, Lightroom is not that smart.
How to locate missing pictures and folders
Thankfully, there is a way of re-synchronizing Lightroom with your folders and images. You can do this on two levels: Individual pictures (one at a time) or whole folders (synchronizes all images in a folder in one hit). Which option you pick is up to you and depends somewhat on what you did when moving pictures. For example, if you moved a whole folder from your local drive to an external drive, you would re-sync using the “folder” option. If you moved a few individual images from one folder to another folder, you would choose the “individual picture” option.
Locating missing pictures
Make sure you are in the Library module. You should see thumbnails that display the icon representing missing images. As stated earlier, it looks like a little computer chip with a “?”.
Right-click the image that you want to re-locate and select the “Show in Explorer” Mac users will see “Show in Finder”.
This will bring up essentially an error message, but it offers the options to go locate the missing image. See the screenshot below.
Locate missing folders
If you moved a whole folder, don’t waste your time re-synching image-by-image as you can do this folder-by-folder which is much quicker.
This time we use the folder list, found on the left panel of the Library module. It will show a list of folders and the missing ones will be “grayed out” and will have that dreaded “?”. Simply right-click on the folder name you want to locate and select “Find Missing Folder”.
Now navigate to the new location you moved the folder to and select “choose”. Lightroom will ripple through the entire contents of that folder and re-synchronize its contents with its database, making everything work smoothly again. Do this for all missing folders.
That’s all there is to it!