Getting Started: What does “Import” mean in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom?

November 19, 2011 | | Comments 20

Understanding “Import” in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

The words “Import,” “Export,” and “Catalog” have very specific meanings inside of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. Understanding these terms within the Photoshop Lightroom lexicon can help you avoid some of the common pitfalls that snare many new Photoshop Lightroom users. To explain what the word “Import” means in this context, we must first discuss how the Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Catalog functions. The easiest way to do this is with an analogy, so please bare with me for a minute.

In the real world–the world that exists far away from our glowing computer screens–we all love libraries. They are wonderful buildings full of books and magazines where you can wander around for hours, browsing and exploring row after row of books. This exploration can be rewarding, but the library is also a place where an experienced researcher can track down a single important book in no time. Locating a single book that is included in the library’s vast holdings is easy, thanks to the library’s card catalog. The card catalog is the organizational tool that makes an enormous academic library useful, working as a searchable index with reference points that lead to every book that the library owns.

Before the digital age, the library’s card catalog was an enormous collection of index cards inside of a giant wooden box. These days everything is electronic, but the principals of the card catalog remain the same. Each index card inside the wooden box references a single item that the library owns and contains information including the book’s title, author, and subject. It also includes a very precise map to its exact location somewhere within the building, which is the book’s “Dewey Decimal number.”

Old Fashion Library Card Catalog

In modern words, the card catalog is a “database” and each book is an “object.” Each index card acts as a “reference point” or “placeholder” for a particular object that the library owns. When the librarians add new books into the library’s holdings, they must also add new index cards into the card catalog so that every item that the library owns is included in the database. A book that is not listed in the card catalog is very difficult to find in a timely manner.

The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Catalog functions like a card catalog at a research library. Your Photoshop Lightroom Catalog is a database, and a search tool, for your photography. It is an index much like the physical library’s card catalog that holds reference points. The very first time that you launch the Adobe Photoshop Lightroom application you are creating an empty database file. To carry on with this analogy, you are creating a new “wooden box” to hold your “index cards” the very first time you start up this program. Your database starts as an empty box because it does not yet contain any reference points.

“Import” in Photoshop Lightroom means to add new reference points into the Lightroom Catalog database file. Clicking on the Import button tells Photoshop Lightroom that you are ready to add new “index cards”–new reference points–into your Lightroom Catalog to keep track of another group of digital images. Each digital image is a personal, or professional, asset worth indexing because images are unsearchable using Photoshop Lightroom’s image search tools until they have a valid reference point within the database.

Importing creates a one-to-one relationship between the Lightroom Catalog’s reference point and one of the images on your hard drive. Lightroom’s reference point records the image’s filename, metadata, and the exact path through the computer that leads to this particular file. Lightroom writes all of this information onto a new “index card” for each image that gets imported into your Catalog. In addition, Photoshop Lightroom also creates a thumbnail which acts a visual placeholder so that you can see a tiny copy of your digital image while browsing through your Lightroom Catalog.

Pressing the Import button in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom brings up a dialog full of possibilities. Every Import adds new reference points into the Lightroom Catalog database, but the Import Dialog needs additional guidance and direction every time that it is summoned. The Import Dialog already knows that it must create new reference points, but it is also a photographer’s workflow tool. This dialog box often needs specific instructions about where to find the new group of images that you would like it to connect to in your index. It also offers additional actions that might enhance your productivity.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom v3 Import Dialog

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom v3 Import Dialog

The Import Dialog, for example, can assist you in renaming your files as it creates new reference points. Batch renaming images on Import can be a big time-saver for the busy professional photographer. Likewise, Photoshop Lightroom’s Import Dialog can speed up your workflow by inserting a personalized metadata template into your images on import. The Import Dialog may be able to dramatically improve your productivity by automating tedious repetitive tasks, but this box cannot magically read your mind. You must give it precise instructions every time you use it.

Novice Lightroom users often mistake Photoshop Lightroom’s thumbnails, and its previews, for their actual photos. The thumbnails and the previews that Lightroom generates on import are just visual placeholders that make the database more colorful. The thumbnails and previews that you see inside of the Lightroom Catalog are actually reference points and while they are nice to look at, they are not replacements for the much larger digital file that is stored elsewhere on your hard drive.

Confusing the Lightroom Catalog’s reference point for the much larger digital image often leads to a classic Photoshop Lightroom mistake. Sometimes novice Lightroom users will import a group of images into their Lightroom Catalog and then they will delete the actual photos from their hard drive using their computer’s operating system. This mistake, deleting the digital image at the operating system level, can have dire consequences. These users often learn the hard way that the Lightroom Catalog’s thumbnail and previews are not a replacement for the millions of pixels that they tragically deleted!

Failure to understand what “Import” really means in this context often contributes to another common Lightroom frustration. On import, Lightroom records the precise trail that leads to images named “X,” in folder named “Y,” on hard drive named “Z.” Like the Dewey Decimal System, Photoshop Lightroom records the exact location of each image when it is imported into the Catalog and the program assumes that this precise route will remain fixed once the image has been imported.

Here’s where the trouble starts. If the path changes after the file has been imported, then the reference point that the Lightroom Catalog database holds no longer leads to the actual object. As far as the Lightroom Catalog knows, this file has gone “missing.” Photoshop Lightroom marks files and folders with a question mark symbol if the path that it recorded is broken. Sadly, many new Lightroom users also learn this lesson the hard way.

Free Advice: Once an image has been imported into your Photoshop Lightroom Catalog do not delete, move, or rename this file using your computer’s operating system. Moving photos around at the operating system level, post-import, breaks the connection between the Lightroom Catalog’s reference point and the actual object. If you want to perform any of these organizational activities, learn how to do them from within the Lightroom application. Performing any of these actions using Lightroom’s tools ensures that the relationship between your Catalog’s reference point and the real object is never broken. While broken paths are repairable within the Lightroom Catalog, fixing these problems requires additional work.

For full functionality, the one-to-one relationship between reference point and the actual object must be valid. Most of Lightroom’s features are disabled if the path between the Catalog’s reference point and the actual image is broken. All of the image enhancement tools in Photoshop Lightroom’s Develop Module, for example, are disabled for “missing files.”

Finally, many Photoshop Lightroom users get frustrated when their Import Dialog “refuses” to import a group of images. Usually this frustration occurs when the images in question are already connected to the users Lightroom index. The Import Dialog automatically “grey’s out” the thumbnails for any image that the Catalog already referenced and it refuses to import these files a second time. The Import Dialog will not create new reference points for these images because the Lightroom’s database cannot hold multiple reference points that lead to the same object.

It would be nice if the Import Dialog explained this behavior using words, but it is actually doing you a favor by keeping your database file from becoming an enormous mess full of duplicate entries. Unfortunately, many novice users assume that there is something wrong with the application when this occurs. Multiple reference points that lead to the same object would create needless repetition, mass confusion, and eventually bring total chaos to your index.

Once you understand what “Import” really means in this context you can explore all of the time-saving features of the Import Dialog. You may find that some of this Dialog’s features improve your workflow. Other features may not appeal to you but, no matter what options you enable or disable, its core behavior–adding new reference points to the Catalog–remains the same.

Related tutorials:


Filed Under: (03) Importing Images Into LightroomAdobe Photoshop Lightroom Tutorials


About the Author: David Marx is a digital photography instructor whose engaging teaching style inspires photographers of all skill levels. David is an Adobe Certified Lightroom Expert. To learn more about David's Adobe Photoshop Lightroom software training seminars and digital photography field workshops please visit or follow David Marx on Google+.