A Computer Darkroom Tutorial

From time to time questions arise on the Adobe User to User Lightroom forum that often require a more comprehensive answer than forum participants have time. This tutorial was written to address one such question, but I have since expanded  it to include details of at least one hidden feature.


Question - My thumbnails have a ? symbol on the top right corner – what does this mean and how do I remove it?

Short Answer  - The ? symbol is used to identify a file or files that Adobe Lightroom can no longer access; probably because it has been moved using one of the Operating System tools such as drag/drop or possibly the Move command. Unfortunately,  Lightroom 1 has no way of tracking such changes, so the ? symbol is displayed to warn the user that the file or folder containing the file can no longer be accessed.

Tip: A more recent version of this tutorial  for Lightroom 2 and 3 is available from here

Long Answer - Locating Missing Files and Folders

Even though Lightroom uses the Folder paradigm it doesn't display the full disk/folder hierarchy in the tree form that most users would be familiar with. This means that moving folders from disk to disk or even to a section of the hard disk not shown on the Lightroom Folders panel very often needs to be done using OS level tools such as Drag/Drop or even the Move command. The problem with this approach is that Lightroom can easily lose track of your files, and this results in the ? symbol being displayed.

Note: The screenshots used below are based on Adobe Lightroom v1.1 for the Mac but should be very similar in appearance to the Windows version. Nevertheless, I will identify those areas where the Windows version differs either in appearance or functionality.

Clicking the ? symbol will cause a small navigational dialog (Figure 1) to appear. This dialog will provide information as to where the file was originally located along with an option to find (Locate) it again.



Figure 1

When the files displaying the ? symbol all lie within the same folder then it's probably reasonable to use the above method to find them, especially since Lightroom will automatically re-establish the link with any other missing files within that folder. However, as you'll quickly realise, clicking the ? symbol is slow and laborious for finding files when multiple folders have been relocated or disconnected. There must be a better way…

There is! Look at the Folders panel (left side of Library module) and you should find that the folder/subfolder containing the files that Lightroom can no longer find are shown in red text (Figure 2). It is the red text that Lightroom uses to help you identify a folder/subfolder that contains files that it has lost track off.


Figure 2 - Missing Files and Folders

On the screenshot shown above I have highlighted the missing subfolder in yellow and also shown how the Library panel also displays the problem. In this example I have a subfolder containing 110 files that Lightroom can no longer find, which means they cannot be edited in the Develop module. Finding these files is relatively straight forward, but I should also point out that there may be a perfectly good reasons why they are being flagged as missing. For example, they are stored off-line on a portable disk drive, file-server or a DVD. Typically, when such devices are reconnected Lightroom will automatically find the files and the ?  symbol will disappear.

Tip: - Lightroom may well take a few minutes to find files and folders when a connection to an off-line disk drive or file-server is re-established. In such cases, Lightroom will probably scan the entire folder hierarchy of the disk drive/ server. Fortunately, this only occurs on rare occasions such as a server storing 10's of thousands of files. Ideally, you should plan to have this type of device connected before launching Lightroom. [Authors note - the Lightroom Library or Catalog (as it's called in version 1.1) folder should not be placed on a file-server.]


Figure 3

On the Mac you should Control-click (right-click when using two button mouse) the folder/subfolder, a pop-up menu will appear (Figure 3). From the pop-up menu choose the command Locate Missing Folder, a dialog should appear (Figure 4 below).


Figure 4 - Locate Missing Folder Dialog (Mac)

The dialog shown in Figure 4 above gives you access to every hard disk connected to your computer or CD/DVDs if they're in the tray. Use this dialog to navigate to the location where the folder is now located, then select this folder (not the files). Finally, press the Choose button and allow Lightroom to do its stuff.

The method described above also applies to the PC version although the dialog is called Browse for Folder and the Choose button is replaced by OK (shown as Figure 5 for information).


Figure 5 - Browse for Folder (Windows XP/Vista)

Figure 6 below shows the final result of the steps described above. Note that the folder that was originally shown red and located with the Render Tiff and PSD Photo Library is no longer red, the associated thumbnails no longer show the ? symbol and the Missing Files item is gone from the Library panel.


Figure 6 - All's well again...

This example has concentrated on a single missing subfolder. However, if  you are dealing with a situation where multiple subfolders are missing, then use the Locate Missing Folder/Browse for Folder dialog to navigate to the top level folder (i.e. DNG Photo Library in Figure 7). Select the folder and click Choose/OK. Lightroom will re-establish the link to all of the nested subfolders.


Figure 7 - Multiple Missing Folders

Tip: - If at the end of this exercise you still have thumbnails that show the ? symbol it's probably because the original files have been deleted from your hard disk. Again, doing so using the OS commands means that Lightroom has no way of knowing that the file was deleted. If this is the case then simply select all of the offending files then choose Delete Photos from the Library>Photo menu.

Be Smart and Beat the System

You can avoid getting into a situation where Lightroom loses track of  moved folders/subfolders by using a variation of above. Actually, it's a hidden feature. Basically, you "push" the folders/subfolders from their original location using OS tools such Drag/Drop, Copy/Paste or Move commands to their new location (eg a second internal disk, portable disk drive or DVD). Then from the Lightroom Folders panel press Control+Option-click (Mac) or Ctrl+right-click (PC) to expose the additional folder action command Locate Missing Folders (remember that this command is normally only available when you have missing files/folders) - see Figure 8 below.


Figure 8

The Missing Folder/Browse Folder dialog (exactly the same dialog as shown in 4/5) will appear, and the steps described above can again be used to select the folder in its new location. Once satisfied that Lightroom is now referencing the files/folders in their new location you can delete the files from their original location.


Remember Rule 5 - Enjoy!

Adobe Community Professional


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