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Backups are an important aspect of file management and while we’ve already discussed catalogue backups in another article, there is still the question of what should be done with regard to the actual master photos. Remember that the catalogue backup only saves the work you’ve done to your photos and not the photos themselves—so what Lightroom backup strategy should you use for your photo files?

The Safest Lightroom Backup Strategy

When you back up your Lightroom photos, make regular copies of your photo files onto different drive types and media.

There isn’t a single backup storage system that’s 100% reliable. CDs and DVDs will delaminate, solid state drives will fail, and conventional hard drives will suffer from bad sectors or even sudden catastrophic crashes.

Fortunately, since the photos are digital, we can make unlimited copies of them without any degradation provided we make bit-for-bit copies.

Lightroom backup: Illustrative image of external hard drive connected to USB

Some people employ a stack of external hard drives, called a RAID, (Redundant Array of Independent Drives) that are designed to mirror each other such that a faulty drive can be swapped for a new one and automatically updated from the remaining good drives in the stack.

Although this type of system has obvious built-in redundancy and should be more reliable than a single external drive, I’ve had personal experience of one RAID device failing such that all the drives were corrupted at the same time (making it a ‘Rubbished And In Dustbin’ device!)

At the end of the day, there’s no substitute for completely independent copies on different devices and how far you take your own Lightroom backup is entirely up to you. Check the internet for recommendations for file backup systems.

Solving Common Filing System Problems

If you only ever use a single Lightroom catalogue and only make changes to your filing system from within Lightroom, then provided all the drives that catalogue knows about are online, Lightroom should have no trouble locating the master photos.

There are, however, a number of situations where Lightroom can lose track of some photos, folders or even whole drives.

Finding Missing Photos

The most common problem is losing some photos as a result of file system changes made without using Lightroom.

If you change a photo’s filename, move it to a different folder or rename the folder it’s in from your computer’s operating system, Lightroom will know nothing about those changes.

It will still show you the thumbnail (as this is part of the catalogue) but it won’t be able to find the master photo from which that thumbnail was made.

Photos affected by this often unintentional change appear much the same as they did before in Grid View and so it’s possible for more accidental filing system faux pas to be committed until, one day, your attempt to edit a photo is met with an error message telling you that ‘The file could not be found’.

In order to see if your system has been afflicted by this insidious problem, you can use the rather optimistically named ‘Find All Missing Photos’ command.

It would be nice if this command actually initiated a scan of your computer in an attempt to locate the whereabouts of the master photos that have been misplaced but all it actually does is to find those photos in the catalogue whose master photo locations are unknown.

It’s up to you to use your computer’s search tools to locate the missing master photos.

Here’s the procedure to check for and fix missing photos:

  1. From the main menu, select Library > Find All Missing Photos
  2. If Lightroom finds any thumbnails that are missing their master images, they will be displayed in Grid View and tagged with a small exclamation mark in their top right corner:

In addition, the total number of missing photographs will be displayed in the Catalog panel.

  1. Click the exclamation mark icon (shown circled) to pop open the location dialogue box:

This box tells you that the original file could not be found (something we already know by now) but then more helpfully tells you where it was last seen.

In this case, Lightroom is looking for a raw image file called ‘_MG_2075.CR2’ in a folder called ‘Corf’ which was on a drive called ‘OLDDRIVE’.

Something has changed, but unfortunately, clicking the ‘Locate’ button won’t find it for us. Instead, it will open a standard file navigation dialogue box to enable us to identify the missing master photo (if we can find it).

In this case, the missing master photo had been moved to a different drive and into a similarly named folder but the actual filename was still unchanged making the identity of the master photo fairly certain.

In such situations, it’s likely that there will be other misplaced master photos in the same folder so click the Options button and make sure the ‘Find nearby missing photos’ box is ticked.

Now click ‘Select’ and Lightroom will re-link the orphaned thumbnail to its master photo again and any other master images in the same folder that can be reunited with their catalogue entries will also be processed.

A Note About Renaming

In the previous example, note that if the missing master photo had been completely renamed, finding it again may have been very difficult to do with certainty.

Lightroom is expecting you to find a photo whose filename is the same as the one it’s telling you is missing. If you select another filename, it will flag that the names are different and ask if you want to proceed.

If you do, Lightroom will check that the file you’ve chosen is not already in the catalogue and if it isn’t, the association will be made—whether it’s really the correct photo or not.

Most times, it will be the correct one but it is still possible to get this wrong if you only use the camera supplied filename such as _MG_2075.CR2.

This is because the counter in the camera will eventually roll around to give exactly the same filename as an existing photo or you may be using several cameras that are producing similar filenames.

One day, you may find that there are two _MG_2075.CR2 files in different locations on your computer and when you try to locate a missing file, it’s not clear which is the correct file. Although it’s unlikely, it is possible to reconnect the wrong master photo in extreme cases.

Tip: When importing photos, rename them in such a way that they retain their original file number but have attached to them some unique text such as a shoot name or date. This will make the filename longer but it will make it much easier to manage.

Finding Missing Folders

The exclamation mark icon on a grid view thumbnail is not the most eye-catching indicator of a missing master photo but often it’s indicative of a more obvious fault in the guise of a missing folder.

This condition is indicated in the Folders panel using a folder with a question mark against it:

Here, the Astro folder has a small question mark next to it. This indicates that Lightroom cannot find this folder and its photos.

Here, the thumbnails in the Astro folder each have the ‘!’ icon so we could click this as before, locate the missing master photo and tick ‘Find nearby missing photos’.

This would work but in this case, the folder name ‘Astro’ had been changed to ‘Astronomical’ and locating the master photos by navigating to them in a newly renamed folder would only result in the addition of a new ‘Astronomical’ folder and an old and empty ‘Astro’ folder

We’d then have to remove by selecting it and then pressing the ‘-‘ button at the top of the Folders panel.

A more direct way would be to right-click the ‘Astro’ folder and select ‘Find Missing Folder…’

This will open a navigation dialogue from which you can locate the folder that contains the missing master photos.

Click ‘Choose’ and Lightroom will update the folder name and re-make the links in one operation without leaving an empty misnamed folder.

Updating Photo Locations in Other Catalogues

You may not ever be guilty of moving or renaming your files outside Lightroom and still encounter the type of problems outlined above.

A common cause of apparently missing master photos is that more than one catalogue is being used to manage the same pool of photos.

Some people like to have several small catalogues each managing a subset of their photo library and also a comprehensive master catalogue that’s used for searching across all their photos.

The problem is that catalogues don’t communicate with each other and so moving or renaming in one catalogue can break the links in another catalogue that uses the same master photos.

This is an unlikely scenario but, if it happens, you now know what to do.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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David Baxter

Dave is a photographer and writer based in Oxfordshire, England. He has a science and engineering background and has been taking photographs for over 40 years. His broad experience includes computer graphics, image processing, studio, landscape, macro, architectural, and panoramic photography. He is an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop Lightroom and has published numerous technical articles for a Canon based photography magazine. He now runs photography workshops in Oxfordshire and is currently working on a new Lightroom book.