Where should you store your photos? And why does it matter? Because Lightroom doesn’t hide your photos away from you, they’re kept as normal image files in folders on your hard drive. It’s one of the common misunderstandings we discussed here.
The benefit? You have complete control over where they’re stored, you’re not locked in to using Lightroom forever, and you can access the photos using other software.
The downside? That makes you responsible. You need to know where they’re stored, how to back them up, and you need to understand how what you do in Lightroom affects these files on the hard drive.
Starting on the Right Foot – Import
When you import your photos, YOU make the decision on where to store the photos (even if that decision is to accept Lightroom’s defaults). It’s possibly the most important decision you’ll make in Lightroom, so it’s worth taking the time to pay attention to the choice you make.
At the top of the dialog, you’re given three main choices: will you copy the photos to a new location, move them to a new location or just add links to the catalog, leaving the image files where they are.
Stop and think about these options for a moment, because your choice will depend on whether you’re copying new photos from a memory card or adding existing photos.
If your photos are currently on a memory card, and you tell Lightroom to “add” them at their existing location, Lightroom will record their location as being on the memory card. What will happen when you eject the card? Lightroom will look for the memory card but won’t be able to find them any more, so you won’t be able to edit and export them. And when you format that memory card? Gone forever. There won’t be a copy on your computer’s hard drive, because you didn’t tell Lightroom to copy them. So when you’re importing photos from a memory card, it’s ESSENTIAL that you select Copy at the top of the Import dialog.
But what if you’re adding photos that are already on your hard drive? Your choice will depend on how organized your photos are:
If your photos are beautifully organized into an existing folder structure, you’ll want to select Add. This simply adds the information describing the photos to Lightroom’s catalog, but the photos remain in their current location. Remember, though, if you then rename, move or delete the photos outside of Lightroom, Lightroom will no longer be able to find them.
If your photos aren’t quite so organized – or if they’re spread haphazardly across your computer’s hard drives – then you might want to consolidate them in a single location. While importing, Lightroom can copy them to a new location, leaving the originals scattered across your computer (and therefore taking up twice the hard drive space), or it can move them to a new location.
Whether you’re copying or moving photos, you pick the location in the Destination panel.
Where will you store your photos?
In order to pick a location in the Destination panel, you have to make a decision… where will you store your photos?
The default location is the Pictures folder in your user account. This is a perfectly good location, as long as you don’t have too many photos and you have a big hard drive. But what if your hard drive is too small?
Lightroom doesn’t mind where you choose to store the photos. They can be on an internal drive, an external drive, a network drive, or even a mix of different drives. The important detail is that YOU know where they are.
You can make life easier for yourself by keeping your folders of photos under a single parent folder (or one for each drive), rather than scattering them in random locations. Why?
- If the folders of photos are stored in folder called “Lightroom Photos” or another easily identifiable name, it reminds you not to rename, move or delete these photos.
- If you need to move them to another drive or another computer, it’s far easier to copy/move a single folder with its subfolders than it is to hunt around 300 different folders on your computer.
- If the drive letter changes, it’s easier to relink a single parent folder than a large number of folders.
- It’s easier to back them up when they’re all stored under a single parent folder.
As your collection of photos grows, you may need to expand onto additional hard drives, which isn’t a problem for Lightroom.
Selecting your chosen location in the Destination panel
In the Destination panel, you’ll see a volume bar for each drive that’s attached to your computer. When you click on the bar, the drive opens to show the enclosed folders. To see hidden subfolders, click the small triangles.
The Pictures folder is selected by default. On most computers, this is on the C drive (Windows) or Macintosh HD drive (Mac). But what if you want another location?
Let’s imagine you want to put your photos inside a Lightroom Photos folder inside your Pictures folder. It’s possible to create folders from within the Import dialog, but for simplicity, use Windows Explorer (Windows) / Finder (Mac) to create the Lightroom Photos folder in the Pictures folder. Now open the Import dialog and we’ll navigate to that Lightroom Photos folder. If the triangle next to the Pictures folder is pointing to the right, so the subfolders are hidden, click on the triangle. Now click on the Lightroom Photos folder so it’s highlighted in white.
But what if you want to put your photos inside a Lightroom Photos folder on another drive? The same principles apply. Create the folder, then navigate to it in the Destination panel. The external drive might be collapsed, so you may need to click on the drive to show the contents. Again, click on the Lightroom Photos folder so it’s highlighted in white.
The folder you select doesn’t have to be called Lightroom Photos, but you do need to check the correct folder is selected every time you import, so giving it a name you’ll recognize at a glance will help. Lightroom will place the photos inside the highlighted folder.
The Destination panel may be set to automatically create subfolders, which show in italic. We’ll come back to this level of organization in other posts.
How do you find existing photos?
Learning how to import correctly is great for new photos, but what about all of the photos you’ve already imported? How do you know where they’re stored on the hard drive? Simply right-click on a photo or on a folder, and select Show in Explorer (Windows) / Show in Finder (Mac). Lightroom opens an Explorer/Finder window directly to the location of the photo.
You can go a step further, and make the Folders panel reflect the folder hierarchy on your hard drive, using the Show Parent Folder command. We’ve previously written about displaying your folder hierarchy here.
If your photos and folders are in a mess, don’t worry. We’ll tidy up existing photos later in the series. First, though, we’ll discuss the best ways of organizing your photos into subfolders in the next post.
For more information on Lightroom Classic, see Adobe Lightroom Classic – The Missing FAQ.
Originally posted 12 December 2016, updated for Lightroom Classic in 2019.