How to Relink Missing or Offline Files in Lightroom

I don’t know a single Lightroom user (me included) who hasn’t noticed alarming exclamation point or question mark icons sullying their Lightroom Library. It can be downright scary to get a warning message on the screen that files are offline or missing, but the truth of the matter is usually no cause for panic. The warnings mean that Lightroom can’t locate the files at their last known location, which is typically the result of using the Finder (Mac) or Explorer (PC) to move, rename, or delete the files, instead of using the Lightroom interface to accomplish the same tasks. It can also mean that the external or network drive housing the files is unplugged, has had its drive letter changed (PC), or that you’ve moved to a new computer.

I often equate Lightroom with a marriage. If all the action happens in plain view of Lightroom, then everyone’s happy, but if you cheat on Lightroom by using other software outside of Lightroom’s interface to change things up, you can bet there’ll be question marks and exclamation points aplenty. Remember – your photos are never stored IN Lightroom. Lightroom links to the originals based on their last known name and location. Changing that information behind Lightroom’s back breaks the links and the files go missing.

How to tell that files are missing

  1. Offline Drives will have the volume name and the small rectangular icon to the left of the name grayed out.
  2. Missing Folders are grayed out, with a question mark on the folder icon.
  3. Missing Photos display an exclamation point or a smart preview icon in the upper right corner of the thumbnail, depending on whether or not a smart preview was built for that image.
  4. When you go to the Develop module, the sliders are unavailable. You can only edit a missing photo if you’ve built a smart preview.
  5. In the Library module, go to Library>Find All Missing Photos. This will generate a collection called Missing Photographs in the Catalog panel. I do this weekly as an ordinary housekeeping measure – it’s a lot easier to fix something that’s gone awry if not too much time has passed.

How to troubleshoot missing files

Don’t freak out. Stop, think, and solve the worst problem first. Evaluate the cause and extent of the issue, and get going on a fix, soon. Organizational snafus quickly snowball if left untended. It’s also important to approach the fix in a specific order. If you start trying to relink individual photos before relinking missing drives and folders, you’ll make the job much harder.

  1. Are drives offline?

Look in the Folders panel. Is the entire drive offline and grayed out? If no, skip to step 2. If yes, remedy the issue. Is the drive disconnected or turned off? Has the drive name (Mac) or drive letter (PC) changed? If the name/letter has changed, change it back using Finder (Mac), or Computer Management (PC), or move on to Step 2.

  1. Are folders missing?

Are there missing, grayed out folders in the Folders panel? If no, skip to Step 5. If yes, remedy the issue. If you deleted folders, restore them from the Trash/Recycle Bin, or from a backup. If you moved or renamed folders, either move/rename them back using Finder/Explorer, or move to Steps 3 and 4 to relink Lightroom to their new location/name.

  1. Is an entire folder hierarchy missing?

Look in the Folders panel. If an entire folder hierarchy is missing – that is to say both “parent” folder and “child” subfolders inside – then Command-click or right-click on the parent folder and select “Find Missing Folder” from the ensuing contextual menu. Navigate to the desired parent folder and select it. As long as the names and structure of the subfolders haven’t changed, everything gets relinked at once. If only single folders are missing, move to Step 4.

  1. Are just single folders missing?

If it’s a single missing folder, Command-click or right-click on it and select Find Missing Folder from the ensuing contextual menu. Navigate to the targeted folder and select it. Lightroom will update, the folder will come online, and question marks will vanish.

  1. Are individual images missing?

If the answer’s no, then you’re done! If the answer’s yes, then either move/rename the photos back to their original state using Finder/Explorer, or relink Lightroom to their new name/location. If you’re having trouble tracking them down, use Mac Spotlight or Windows Search to search for filenames.

To relink Lightroom to a missing photo, click on the exclamation point in the upper right corner of the image thumbnail. Lightroom displays the last known location of the photo. Click Locate, and navigate to the targeted photo.

If you moved but did not rename the photos, tick on the “Find nearby missing photos” checkbox to locate other missing images in the same folder. If the images have been renamed, each photo has to be relinked individually.



Pro Tip

Don’t be quick to synchronize or re-import missing photos from their new location as an easy fix. If you do, you’ll probably lose any work you’ve previously done to the photos in Lightroom.