Lightroom users often ask me about how to find missing photos in Lightroom.  I bet you’ve seen it before – either photos or files in the LR Library module that are grayed out and have question marks next to them.

Let’s take a step back and figure out why this happens before we talk about fixing it.

This article is one of a few I’ve written lately about Lightroom’s catalog.  You might be interested in:

Lightroom is a catalog, just like a card catalog in an old fashioned library.  Remember those?  You would go to a specific drawer to look up where books about photography are, for instance.  And you would learn that there is a photography section of books on a specific shelf in the library.

LR can tell you where specific photos, or groups of photos are on your computer, just like a card catalog tells you where to find books.  Rather than directing you to the photography book shelf, LR will direct you to all the photos you took in your photography shoot last week.

So, let’s go back to the old fashioned library.  You want to read Scott Kelby’s Lightroom for Digital Photographers, which is a great book for learning the basics.    You go to the card catalog, and it tells you to look on a specific shelf for the book.  You go, find the book, and everything is good.

But what happens if the last photographer to read this book was a mom who was trying to take her toddler to storytime and read her LR book at the same time?  And her toddler had a meltdown and the book ended up behind the water fountain?  Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.

So, now you go to the card catalog and it tells you to go to a specific shelf.  You go there, but the book is gone.  And you end up wandering around the library with gray question marks swirling above your head.  Unbeknownst to you, if you’d just look behind the water fountain on the 2nd floor, you’d find your book!

The thing is, even when the library book is lost, the card catalog doesn’t know it.  You can look at the card for the book, and it still tells you lots about the book – the author, publication date, number of pages.  It might even have a small photo of the book on it just so that you know what you’re looking for.

Lightroom is the same way.  It doesn’t store your photos, just like a card catalog doesn’t store books.  However, Lightroom does store lots of info about photos – it stores their location, first off.  For instance, the photo lives in My Photos/2012/June/Smith Family Shoot.  That’s a photo’s address.  

And when you move or delete a photo on your hard drive, but you don’t do it from within Lightroom, it gets confused.  It says, “I know there is a photo that should live at this address, but I can’t find it.”  Hence the question marks.

How to Find Missing Photos in Lightroom

Ok, so now you understand why this is happening.  Let’s fix it.

If you want to reconnect an entire folder to Lightroom, as in the screen shot above, right click on the folder in the Folders Panel of the Library module.

Click on Find Missing Folder, and then navigate in the next window to the location that you relocated the folder to.

If it’s just a photo that you’ve lost, you’ll see the gray question mark in its upper right corner in the grid view.  Or if you are looking at the Loupe view (expanded photo) rather than the grid view, you might see this message:

To reconnect the photo, double click on the question mark, click Locate, and then navigate to the photo’s new location.


What if You Deleted Your Photos from the Hard Drive?

Deleting your photos and then regretting it is bad enough.  Lightroom makes it a bit worse because it tempts you into thinking that it has magically saved them in a secret location.  IT HASN’T.  Remember how I said that a card catalog holds lots of info about your book?  It might even show you a tiny photo of the book so that you know what to look for.  Lightroom is the same way – it still stores a tiny thumbnail sized preview of your photo, even after you’ve deleted it.  

You’ll find that even though you can see the preview, you can’t edit it, export it, print it or anything else that you might like to do.  So don’t let Lightroom tricking you into thinking it can help you restore photos that you’ve deleted.  You can’t.

How to Avoid the Dreaded Gray Question Mark

If you need to move or delete photos, do so from within Lightroom.  For instance, click on a photo to highlight it.  Then, right click on the folder you’d like to move it to in the Folders Panel. Select “Move Selected Photo to this Folder.”  

To delete a photo, right click on it and select Delete.  You’ll see this message:

Click Delete from Disk to take the photo both off your Hard Drive and out of Lightroom.  Or click Remove if you just want to take it out of Lightroom’s catalog, but not delete it forever.

So that’s how to find Missing Photos in Lightroom. Did it help?