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Importing Photographs into Lightroom – a Practical Guide

July 3 2012

by Philip Northeast

Adobe Lightroom is a powerful software application for managing digital photographs. Lightroom’s management functions start with  importing digital photos from a memory card to the computer’s hard drive.

The during the import process Lightroom automatically performs general management tasks so photographers can  concentrate on decisions that are specific to the current batch of new photos. The routine items  include adding the photographer’s contact details and copyright information to the metadata for each photograph.  This means all the digital photos are treated the same, whether they are from a large photo shoot or a one off shot.

This  allows photographers to focus on strategies for finding individual or related photos later on, such as  file renaming, destination folders, and adding keywords. This merits a bit of planning before this stage of the digital workflow. Lightroom offers a range of options for photographers to customise the process to suit their own needs, not someone else’s.

Adobe Lightroom Import screen

Adobe Lightroom Import screen with a mixture of new and previously imported photos on the memory card


Choosing the Source

A camera’s memory card  is the most common source of photos added to a Lightroom catalog on a computer’s hard disk. Adobe recognised this and included an option in the general preferences for Lightroom to automatically open the import dialog box when it detects a memory card in the card reader. Lightroom selects the card as the default source and loads photo previews from the card.

On the left side of the import screen a check box near the top  enables automatic ejection of the memory card from the computer’s card reader at the end of the import operation. This does not physically eject the card, but tells the computer’s operating system to properly close any files and operations related to the memory card.

When I have groups of photos on the memory card with  different subjects and locations I disable the automatic ejection operation. Then I can import photos in related groups  and treat each group differently in the import process.

However, there are occasions when I need to add digital photos from a hard disk, either the internal disk or an external unit,  to my Lightroom catalog.  Clicking on the Import button and Lightroom opens the Import dialog box and shows the range of connected drives. Simply navigate down the file structure to the folder where the photos are located. There is a small check box for including digital photos stored in sub folders in the import operation.

The sub folders option does not apply to camera memory cards where Lightroom presents all the photos for importing.

choosing the source

Choosing the source for Adobe Lightroom import operation


Copy, Add or Move

After selecting the source of the digital photo file the next step is choosing the method from the options at the top of the import screen.  The availability of the options and their use varies depending on the source of the digital photos.

Lightroom’s  Move and Add options really only apply to file operations where the source is a type of hard disk. These options do not make sense for removable media such as memory cards or CD/DVDs.

Selecting Photos to Import

Apart from the option of importing all the files from a location Lightroom has powerful tools for selecting groups of digital photos from memory cards to import. The simple method is to use a grid view of image thumbnails from the card. Each thumbnail has a check box, ticked by default, to indicate photos to be imported.

Selecting Photos

Selecting photos to import

To import only some of the photos in an import operation remove the tick on the unwanted images by clicking on the check box on the top left of each thumbnail.  More than one can be done at a time using standard highlighting techniques and then unchecking one of the highlighted set of thumbnails.

There is a tool in the file handling panel to tell Lightroom not to import suspected duplicate images and only import new photos.  This makes it easier to import separate groups of photos from the one memory card.

File handling Panel

Adobe Lightroom file handling panel for importing photos

 File Handling

This is a simple Lightroom panel with few options.  Set the Render Previews to minimal for fastest loading of image previews.

Smart previews is a new option introduced in Lightroom 5. This option builds a more complete preview file in Lightroom’s catalog that allows editing of photos stored external drives even when they are offline. This facility is most useful for laptop users who store their image libraries on external drives . Naturally this extra information should increase the size of the Lightroom catalog file so there are tools to add and delete smart previews for photos after they are imported.

A handy option in the file handling section is the  option not to import  photos if they are already in a Lightroom catalog. This stops cluttering the catalog with multiple appearances of the same photo.

The final option is to decide if you want to store backup copies of the original photos as part of the import process. This is a good idea as there should be at least two copies of any digital photo for long term security. The backup location needs to be  a different storage drive from where the main copies are kept. I have a separate external hard drive to hold the backups created during the import process. However, there is still only reference to the main photo location in Lightroom’s catalog so the backup is not a  duplicate entry.

File Renaming

The photo file names produced by  digital cameras are rather cryptic numbers, with no guarantee of uniqueness for prolific photographers.  In the import process Lightroom can rename the  files with something more meaningful than a number. Photographers have a range of fixed and custom options such as incorporating the shooting date  or custom text  into the filename to help identify related photos. These names apply outside the lightroom environment in the normal file system.

Apply During Import

This is  a form of batch processing  that applies develop settings during import into Adobe Lightroom from a choice of standard presets, or your own custom develop settings. These are only applied to the preview and provide a starting point for  adjustments, or for quick proofing.

Settingss to apply during import

Settings to apply during import into Adobe Lightroom


This is another batch processing option for photographers to add their contact details and copyright notices to the EXIF data.

There  is text box for photographers to attach keywords to the group of image files being imported  into  the Lightroom catalog. Assigning  keywords for each photo plays an important part in managing photos, allowing Lightroom to search and filter for photos with specific keywords. So at this stage it is important to add meaningful keywords.  They can be added at any time but  where  you are importing a related  group of photos then this is the place to add general keywords that are common to al the photos.

This is where planning and a consistent keyword scheme is an advantage. Include a variety of keywords describing the major attributes of the image, ranging from general to specific. The aim is to include keywords that you might use to find photos.  These searches could be based on name and type of subject, weather or season, the name of an event or general location.


The lightroom import process not only includes the photo files into Lightroom’s catalog but the Copy, and Move options apply to the normal computer file structure. Therefore the setting in the Destination panel has implications beyond Lightroom’s file management and affects other operating system file management functions.

It is  worth organising images in the basic file structure, even though Lightroom offers a range of sophisticated photo management features. An organised file structure is worthwhile when using other applications to access or manage photo files.

setting the destination

Setting the destination for the imported digital photos in Adobe Lightroom

There are a number of options for a digital photo file strategy. The one I use most isa master folder for photos and then Lightroom creates a year folder with sub-folders for the months when the photo was taken, if they do not already exist.  Lightroom automatically retrieves these dates  from the EXIF data in the photo file.

This works well for the general collection, but there is always the option of creating a separate folder for specific projects such a large photo shoot for a client.

The only trap is you have to point to an appropriate root folder, as Lightroom  creates additional folders if you indicate the  wrong master folder. The good thing is that Lightroom retains the last master folder used, so for routine  import operations this is not normally a problem.


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