The Complete Guide to Importing Photos into Lightroom

Rob Nightingale 31-08-2016

As an amateur or professional photographer, chances are you’ll have thousands of photos that you want to store and keep organized How to Make Google Photos Work for You with These Tips Google Photos could be the much-awaited solution to manage all your photos. But is it the best among all online photo sharing sites? Read More .


Lightroom is one of the leading ways to do this, though there are some free alternatives 15 Free Alternatives to Adobe Lightroom, Illustrator, and Photoshop Would you like to get Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, or Illustrator for free? Here are some of the best Creative Cloud alternatives. Read More . Adobe calls the platform a “complete solution for the digital photographer”. Translated, this means that directly from within Lightroom you can store, organize, manage, non-destructively edit (with less features than Photoshop Photoshop or Lightroom: Which One Should You Use? If you can gain access to both of them, we highly recommend it. But what if you could only choose one? Read More ), and share your entire photo library.

But before you can do any of that, you first need to import your photos. There are a couple of ways to do this, as well a few things you need to know first.

Understanding How Lightroom Works

The structure of Lightroom is based around “catalogs”. A Lightroom catalog is not where your photos are stored. This means that when using Lightroom, you can pretty much store your photos in any folder you like, whether on your internal or external hard drive. Lightroom will still be able to access them.


When you import photos, what you are doing is creating a catalog of location references, which point to where your photos are actually stored. The images you’re looking at in Lightroom are previews of the original.


Because Lightroom offers “non-destructive editing”, any edits you make within Lightroom do not alter the original image until you export those changes. Instead, those edits are stored within your Lightroom catalog (along with those location references). In other words, you can always go back to previous edits.

Do Not Move or Rename Your Photos

Because your Lightroom catalog uses the filename and location of your individual photos to create references to them, if you move or edit file names or locations, you break those references. This will cause your photos to go “missing” in your catalog.

Missing Photos Lightroom

So before importing your photos into Lightroom, figure out a location and folder structure that you can stick to. Changing this will only cause you hassle down the road.


Where To Store Your Photos

Ideally, if your photos are stored on the same hard drive as your Lightroom catalog, you should be storing your original photos in the same parent folder as your Lightroom catalog. This makes it easier to move your entire photo library and Lightroom catalog to another location together without breaking those references.

Lightroom Folder Structure

There are times when this isn’t feasible, though. For example, if you have too many photos to store on your internal hard drive, you may want to store them on an external hard drive. Once you’ve picked a location though, try not to change it.

Understanding Lightroom Backups

As mentioned, what’s stored in your Lightroom catalog are the references to the original images, as well as details of any edits you make to those images (including metadata, cataloging information, and tags).


When you backup your catalog then, this is all that’s being backed up, not your actual photos. Your photos should always be backed up independently NAS vs the Cloud: Which Remote Storage Is Right for You? Network Attached Storage (NAS) straddles the line between a local hard drive and cloud storage, and gives you the benefits of both. Read More . Likewise, if you delete your catalog (or images from your catalog), you are deleting that separate information, not the actual photos.

Now that you better understand how Lightroom works, assuming you’ve created your catalog(s), and chosen where to store you catalog(s), you’re ready to import your photos so you can start organizing, editing, and sharing them.

Importing Your Existing Photo Library

When you first start using Lightroom, your new catalog will be completely empty. Once you’ve stored your original photo library in the right place (ideally in the same parent folder as your catalog), and sorted your existing photos into a simple folder structure (I have one folder for each year, with a subfolder for each event), now’s the time to import your photos into that catalog.

To do this, open your Lightroom catalog, and click Import at the bottom left of the screen (or click File > Import). You’ll now see the main import window in Lightroom. We’ll work through this from left to right.


Lightroom IMport Screen

On the left, navigate to the folder in which the photos you want to import are stored. If you have an external drive connected, you’ll see this in the panel, too. You can either select an individual folder or hold cmd to select more than one folder.

If you’re importing a folder that contains subfolders, and you want to replicate that folder structure within your Lightroom catalog, ensure the Include Subfolders box at the top of the panel is selected.

You’ll now see thumbnails of all of the photos and videos that Lightroom is almost ready to import. Go through these and ensure all the photos you want to import are selected. Once that’s done, take a look at the top of the window, where you’ll see four different options: Copy as DNG, Copy, Move, and Add.

Lightroom Import options

Because you’re simply populating your catalog with photos that are already where you want them, choose Add. As you can see, this will add your photos without actually moving them. The other three options are for use in other situations.

The final thing to do is to check the settings in the right-hand panel. As mentioned earlier, the images you see in your catalog are just previews of the originals. In the Build Previews drop-down box, you can select the size of the previews you want Lightroom to create. Unless you’re very hard up for disk space, I would recommend going with Standard previews. If you choose small previews, it can take time for Lightroom to generate larger previews when you’re working on your photos. If you choose larger previews, your catalog could soon fill up your hard drive, but the resolution will be much higher.

Lightroom Import Settings

If your photos are stored on an external hard drive, and you want to edit these even when the hard drive isn’t connected to your computer, select Build Smart Previews. This will create an additional lightweight file that you can edit at any time. If your photos are on the same drive as your Lightroom catalog though, leave this unticked to save on disk space.

If you already have photos in your library, leaving Don’t import Suspected Duplicates selected will uncheck any photos that are already within your catalog.

The Add to Collection option allows you to add all photos during this import to a Lightroom Collection. This is a simple way of grouping photos together so you can easily see all relevant photos in the future. For example, you could group together photos showing the progress of your home renovation, or photos of sunsets. You can create collections within the panel, or add photos to collections later.

Finally, the Apply During Import section allows you to assign settings to all the photos you are currently importing. For example; color settings, keywords, and metadata. If you’re wanting to apply these changes to a large number of photos at once, this can save you a lot of time.

You can save all of these settings to use in future imports using the simple Import Presets panel which is half-hidden at the bottom of the screen.This is also where you select previously saved settings that you want to use.

Lightroom Import Presets

Once you’re happy with all of the settings, click Import at the bottom right, and the import will start. Depending on how many photos you’re importing, this could take some time. Once the process is finished, your catalog is finally populated and ready to use!

Importing Photos From a Camera or Phone

Most of the time, you will be importing your new photos directly from a camera or phone to your relevant Lightroom catalog. There are two ways you can do this.

First, you could manually move your photos from your memory card into the folder structure you set up previously, then follow the steps detailed above.

Second, you could have Lightroom move the photos from your memory card to the desired location and import them to your catalog for you. You can do all of this from within Lightroom. This is how to do that.

Plug your memory card or phone into your computer, and close any pop-ups that appear automatically. Open your Lightroom catalog, and click Import at the bottom left of the screen (or click File > Import). You’ll now see the main import window in Lightroom. We’ll again work through this from left to right.

Camera Import to Lightroom

In the left panel, locate your photos. Once you’ve found the correct location, you’ll see thumbnails of all of the photos that are available for export. Go through these photos and ensure only those you want to import are selected.

Now take a look at the top of the screen. Out of the four buttons there, only two will be available to you. Copy as DNG, and Copy.Import Options Lightroom

If you choose Copy as DNG, Lightroom will automatically convert any RAW files to Adobe’s own DNG format. It’s usually best just to select “Copy”. which will paste your photos to a location of your choosing, and add them to your catalog. You can always convert your files to DNG later if you need to.

Next, take a look at the right-hand panel. If you click the text next to the image of a hard drive, you’re able to choose the exact destination where the photos will be saved. This will usually be where you’re storing the rest of your photos within your catalog. You can even move these photos to an external drive if needed.

Photo Destination Lightroom

You now want to make sure that when the photos are moved to this destination, they mimic the file structure you’ve already set up. Go to the Destinations panel, and you’ll see some greyed-out folder names, which show you how Lightroom is going to store your photos unless you make some changes.

Lightroom FOlders Import

There are essentially two options here. By default, Lightroom sorts your photos based on date. The other option is to have a selection of photos added to a single folder. If you want to leave your photos sorted by date, you can leave the Destination folder as it is. If you want to add photos to a single folder, see below.

Adding Your Photos to a Folder

You can only add a selection of photos to one new folder at a time. If you want to sort your photos into a number of different folders, you can quickly repeat the following method until you’ve imported all of your photos into their respective folders. This may sound a little long winded, but once you’ve done this once or twice, it’s a piece of cake.

Click Uncheck All. After all, we don’t want to import all of these photos into one folder. Hold down cmd and click on all of the relevant photos to select all of the photos you want to add to this folder. When selected, the thumbnails will turn a lighter gray. Also, ensure the check boxes only on these selected photos are checked. These selected photos are now ready to be moved into a single folder. It should look something like this…

Import photos lightroom

Now take a look at the destination panel on the right hand side, and in the Organize dropdown, select into one folder, then select into subfolder, and enter a name for the folder as per your existing folder structure. Hit Enter.

Lightroom Subfolder

You’ll now be able to see a new greyed-out folder in the folder list that’s now in the right location, with the right name. Go through any of the other options in that right-hand panel, and change those you wish. Many of these are more advanced settings such as changing file names. Unless you’re a power user, you probably won’t need to touch many (if any) of these.

Hit Import and those selected photos will be added to your new subfolder (though they will not be deleted from your memory card). Repeat this step with any other photos you want to import from your camera or phone. As I said, it may sound a little long winded, but once you’ve done this once or twice, it’s a piece of cake.

Your Comprehensive Lightroom Catalog

Following these step by step instructions will help you populate your Lightroom catalog with both old and new photos. Adobe doesn’t make this as easy as it could be, but before you know it, it’ll be second nature.

By keeping your Lightroom catalog up to date and organized, you’ll be in a much better position to bulk edit images, organize your photos, easily publish them to Facebook and Flickr, create slideshows, and much more. This will leave you with plenty more time to try out some fun photography exercises 7 Skill-Building Photography Exercises That Really Work Anyone can take a photograph, but taking a great photograph? Difficult. These photography exercises actually work. Read More , and improve your photography skills 5 Simple Ways to Improve your Photography While there are plenty of ways to improve your photos, the best way is to improve the process by which you take them. Here are some awesome tips from one of MakeUseOf's professional photographers. Read More .

Is there anything else you would like to know about importing photos into Lightroom?

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  1. Rod
    August 23, 2018 at 6:14 am

    Your article was great but didn't help me. Could your assist with problem.

    12 months ago my computer's hard drive crashed. I lost my LR catalogue. Unknown to me my back ups ( on site and off site) had corrupted along the way so were useless when I got a new computer.

    All my photo files are safe as they are stored on an external drive, but I've had to resort and relocate them on the same external drive, due to complications I've now forgotten.

    I’m trying to build a new LR catalogue but LR won’t allow me to ‘add’ my photos to ‘collections’ that I’ve reconstructed in LR. I also con't copy them. LR shows all the photos but the 'import' button remains greyed out.

    Do you have an answer?

  2. Estra Strydom
    January 28, 2018 at 2:39 pm

    I have a new mac and copied all my photos to the iphoto app and the photos are stored on I-cloud. Is it possible to import into lightroom from i-cloud as it seems that Lighroom is looking at my hard drive on my computer.