Recently I backed up all my photos to an external hard drive, in doing this I accidentally cut and pasted the 'Lightroom' folder, which was in 'my pictures'. On realizing this I wasn't too dismayed, because I didn't think it would compromise my catalogue (I assumed it was only backups that I had moved).

However, when next I opened light room I found that the catalogue was not there. I tried to open the backups and reinstate the catalog into light room, which worked to an extent, the files look as if they are there, apart from a little question mark in the top right corner, when I click on them a dialogue box opens, stating that the file could not be located.

My question is, is it possible to restore the catalogue in all its former glory from the backups, or is it all gone for good?

  • \$\begingroup\$ What do you mean "the catalogue was not there"? And how did you "open the backups and reinstate the catalogue"? Did you leave the Lightroom folder on the external drive? Did you copy it back onto the internal drive? \$\endgroup\$
    – inkista
    Oct 15, 2016 at 2:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ you need to make sure you are moving everything back as you originally had it. everything in the exact folder locations and names and it should work just fine \$\endgroup\$ Oct 15, 2016 at 3:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @inkista after removing the backups folder I opened lightroom and it said something along the lines of 'lightroom couldn't locate the catalogue, would you like to make a new folder to act as that purpose' i went along with that thinking that I could then later go back to the old catalogue on the external hard drive if i needed to, how ever when i tried (which i did almost accidentally by clicking on a file in the backups), it showed all the folders and numbers of pictures and stuff inside lightroom but the actual images were still not there. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kiah
    Oct 15, 2016 at 4:20

3 Answers 3


Catalogs and the Backups Folder

The main concept you need to understand here is what a Lightroom catalog is. It's not all your image files in one big file. The Lightroom catalog is simply a database that Lightroom uses to tie together all the information about your images. Where the original image file lives, the edit history of each image, tagging, collections, sets, etc. This is all in the .lrcat file we call the catalog. Lightroom, by default, creates this catalog in the Lightroom folder with all your images. But you can put it wherever you want, and you can have multiple catalog files if you wish.

Whenever Lightroom backs up your catalog, it's making a backup copy of your .lrcat file, and compressing it with zip. You may also want to know that the .lrcat file is simply a SQLite database file.

Why you have ?s

In the database, each image has a path to where the original image file is on your system. If you move/add/delete files outside of the Lightroom application, as in using your operating system's file system, like when you did your "backup" to an external drive, the database will have a broken link in it, because that path is no longer up-to-date. If you plan on doing a massive file move, it's better to do it by dragging and dropping in the Library module of Lightroom. This will work for moving all your photos to an external drive, if you want.

Fixing the Issue

However. The only thing that's wrong with the catalog is that the paths for the files are out of date. All the other data--so long as you haven't edited or messed with the catalog, such as deleting the ?'d images--is still intact. All you have to do is fix the path. You can do this in two ways.

If you want things back the way they were, then simply close Lightroom, and copy the backup Lightroom folder back to where it was on your internal drive, so your external drive copy is actually a backup, and not a move. Then, when you open your original Lightroom catalog, everything should be back the way it was.

If, however, what you wanted to do was move all your images to the external drive, permanently, and you'd like to update your catalog to use the new path to the external drives, and so long as you haven't moved things inside the Lightroom folder itself, then you can simply update the paths:

  1. Go to the Library module in Lightroom.

  2. Right-click on the top-level of the folder where you keep all your Lightroom images.

  3. Select Update Folder Location...

  4. Navigate to the external drive, and select where the folder really is.

  5. Click Choose.

The ?s should now be gone.


I understand your concern. I must say that you don't need to worry about this, because nothing changed here. Now read this carefully and reply if you have any questions. Your time with lightroom can be classified into two:

1. Previously, before you accidentally removed your catalogue, you had some photographs, and all were added to your lightroom panel. Now some of those photographs, you removed from the original folder (not from the catalogue or back-ups, but from the original folder - say user/desktop/images/img-1230 - in which there was an image named img-1230). Now this image, you don't want to be crowded in the desktop, so you removed it to some other folder - say C:/photographs/images/img-1230, or perhaps may have deleted it - your call! In this case, you removed your photograph, but the catalogue contained the path, and hence everything looked glorious in your lightroom software panel.

2. Time after you accidentally removed your catalogue - Now, at this time, you removed your catalogue and it lost track of your changed path of the photographs whose location has been changed. Hence it shows a question mark to the photographs whose location cannot be tracked. And those that are in the original folder - from the the time when you added it to the Lightroom to till this date, seems to be okay.

I hope I am clear to you.

Solution: Just delete those with the question marks on your Lightroom panel because if you had the original photograph deleted, it was never there, but if you had changed its path, you wouldn't have able to access it either earlier (try it with any photograph you have now.) So delete those with question marks and if you had changed the path of a photograph, deleting its representation in the panel would open the chance for it to be opened again.

Happy Editing!

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ No! Do not delete photos with question marks because you will lost any editing history that you have might applied to these photos previously. Just change location to the correct one as I have proposed in my answer, than use "Library / Find All Missing Photos". Only now you can double check if the missing photos are really consciously deleted by you. Only now you can easily delete these and only these photos that you are sure are not needed any more. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 15, 2016 at 9:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ thank you! unfortunately a majority of my images were imported to lightroom and not put in another separate folder as well, and i'm guessing the reason that they now 'cannot be located' is because they're on my external hard drive not my computer. Does lightroom back up the raw file at all? because if i only imported them and then ejected my card without doing anything else, how else could lightroom be able to export full rez .tiffs or even .dngs? if it does back them up where would these backups be located? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kiah
    Oct 15, 2016 at 9:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ So there are several things I cannot put together right now. Maybe these information would be useful for you: 1. When you import photos from your computer hard disk or an external disk LR establishes only link to the location (so it does not make any copies of the photos) 2. When you import from camera card there is additional part of import dialog „Destination” where the photos are in fact COPIED from the card and it is the location it links to catalogue 3. LR does not do any backup during its backup operation (it backups only lrcat file) 4. LR needs original copies to make an export \$\endgroup\$ Oct 15, 2016 at 18:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ You can try two things. 1. For photos imported from an external disk - just connect the disk :) 2. For photos imported from a camera card - insert a camera card, choose „Import” in LR, find „Destination” part of the dialog (bottom right) and see what location is there - it is the location where your previously imported photos might happily wait for you or were there before some operation removed them :( \$\endgroup\$ Oct 15, 2016 at 18:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Another try is to take exact name of one of lost photos (for example IMG1020.JPG) and search for the photo on all of your disks, external disks, and cards using a file manager \$\endgroup\$ Oct 15, 2016 at 18:59

As far as I know the only important file for lightroom is "NAME.lrcat". All other data can be build from your original photos. Also backups are just copies of this single file. You have already found a backup file and opened it. I hope it was the latest one you have because as you cut/pasted the files you could move the latest file in some different location.

But I assume you have opened the latest one.

I guess you see previews of photos so you probably not only restored "lrcat" file but also previews of photos which are "lrdata" files or folders. As I have wrote these can be build from scratch but you have them already.

The only problem are the question marks. The question mark means that the location of the photo changed.

  1. Find "Folders" panel in Lightroom. You will see question marks also on folders.
  2. Choose the one with a question mark that is the highest in hierarchy.
  3. Rightclick it and choose "Find missing folder"
  4. Select the actual location of your photos on disk (don't worry, if you choose a wrong location you can try again and again - it is a safe operation)
  5. The question marks should disappear.

Look also here: http://blogs.adobe.com/phosphors/2011/10/missing-photos-in-lightroom.html

There is also a very useful operation in the menu "Library / Find All Missing Photos". The operation checks location of every single file in your catalogue and reports if some of them are not found.


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