Finding missing pictures and folders in Lightroom

Missing Folders Missing Icon One the issues that comes up  most frequently in my Lightroom workshops is the “mysterious case of missing pictures”.

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 Picture Now click the “Locate” button and navigate to the new location where you put the file. Click “Choose” and Lightroom will be happy again.

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”.

Find-MissingNow 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!



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This entry was posted in Lightroom Tips.


  1. Peter Pernet November 26, 2009 at 10:35 am #

    Thanks for the tutorial.

    Export as catalog in LR is no option for me.
    And replacing all missing folders or search for missing ones. pfew. lotta work.

    This is what i did.

    For fresh installation.
    First backup your lightroom catalog file.
    I copied the latest backup from lightroom. (look at the date) mypictures/lightroom/catalog*.lrcat
    This is the file that stores all image paths and modifications to your files.
    Then copy it back to the new my pictures/lightroom directory.
    Your could also copy the preview dirs. but its not that important. it rebuilds it anyway.

    Assuming all your pictures are in the same place, just one directory.
    I shared this one directory with the only Administrator rights for this computer.
    Then in network options I mapped this folder to a network drive. drive Z: e.a.
    And all the pictures i import into LR can be copied or tranfered to this folder.

    The next time you move your picture folder, you only have to share it again,
    map it to drive z: over your network for that computer and voila.



  2. phoenix firestarter January 3, 2010 at 2:54 pm #

    But what happens when the files are mistakenly located to the wrong source file? Is there a way to undo this action and/or redirect it to the correct source file?

  3. albert January 4, 2010 at 3:56 pm #

    To Phoenix Firestarter,

    Are you saying that the thumbnail shows something, but the actual image is something else?
    I’ve never seen that and can only imagine this happening when there is something seriously corrupt. In this case, I can only suggest you remove them it from the LR catalog (database) and re-importing them.

    Or are you saying, you have multiple copies of the same image (in different folders) and you imported the wrong copy? In that case, I would suggest your workflow is somewhat mixed up. By all means have copies of your images, but keep one set away from Lightroom else you’ll get mightily confused. You may want to read my “Lightroom Backup Strategies” (see ) article too for further reference on how to set this up.

    However, if you have this scenario, then here too I would recommend you remove the images you consider to be “wrong” and re-import the ones you want.

    To remove from the database, do the following:
    First of all check to make sure you have the original files somewhere safe and that they DO exist for import.
    1. Open Lightroom and go to the Library function
    2. Select the images that are wrong
    3. Go to the PHOTO menu and down towards the bottom you’ll find “Remove Photos from Catalog”.
    4. Select that and the selected photos will be removed. This does NOT delete the images from disk, it just undoes the import.
    5. Now go to IMPORT and import the images you want.

    If you have edited the images you want to remove, then the process becomes a bit more complicated. If you open the folder with the “wrong” images, you’ll find a bunch of files with the .xmp extention. Copy those files to the folder with the “correct” images and then do an import.

    Good luck.
    PS. Please, PLEASE!, before you go deleting or removing, make sure you have backups and copies. Just in case . . . . .

  4. Kate Warburton January 16, 2010 at 6:08 pm #

    Thanks for this- but when I do this- select on folder, right click and locate the source file on the hard drive where the images now are, it says that lightroom already contains the image….but not as an editable version. It is not connecting and the annoying question mark is still there? How do you get rid of the question mark to connect the thumbnail to the real source file so any editing doesnt have to be re-done. OOOh, lightroom is getting on my nerves today 🙂

    Many thanks!!!


  5. Human Rights April 17, 2011 at 8:21 pm #

    Hello thanks lots,I have to comment that your site is amazing!

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