As an amateur or professional photographer, chances are you’ll have thousands of photos that you want to store and keep organized.
Lightroom is one of the leading ways to do this, though there are some free alternatives. 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), 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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, and improve your photography skills.
Is there anything else you would like to know about importing photos into Lightroom?