How to organize photos for Lightroom

How to Organize Photos For Lightroom

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You will find using Lightroom much simpler if you organize your photos before you import them.

My recommended folder structure is simple. Keep all your Raw files on an external hard drive in a master folder called Raw, in subfolders organised by year, month and subject matter.

The folder structure looks like this.

Folder structure for saving photos

Above: The Raw master folder. It contains a folder for each year.

Folder structure for saving photos

Above: Inside each of these folders there are 12 more folders, one for each month.

Folder structure for saving photos

Above: Inside each monthly folder there’s another folder for each shoot.

The reason I recommend this folder structure is because it makes it easy for you to back your Raw files up to another external hard drive. If you keep photos organized by date it means you can see at a glance which folders need to be copied over.

Some photographers use RAID systems, or Drobo hard drives, but for me this way of doing things is less expensive and easier to implement.

Treat this folder structure as a suggestion. You don’t have to follow it, especially if you are happy with the way you are doing things now. The important thing is to have a reliable system in place for backing up your files.

Organizing JPEG photo files in Lightroom

When I originally created this system I worked on the basis that my readers would use the Raw format all the time. The reality is somewhat different. Some photographers shoot a mixture of JPEG and Raw. Others have JPEG files from smart phones or compact cameras. Many start off shooting JPEG when they first buy a digital camera and then make the transition to using Raw as they learn more about photography.

So what approach should you take if your photo files are a mixture of JPEG and Raw format?

There is no reason why you can’t keep JPEG and Raw files in the same master folder, as long as the JPEGs are originals and not generated from Raw files. The key is to avoid clutter and keep the master folder as streamlined as possible so that making backups is easy. Only essential files should be in there.

Organizing messy files

Some of you may like the idea of organizing photos this way, but your files are in bit of a disorganized mess. You have some decisions to make. The solution depends on how disorganized your photos are, how many you have and how much time you have to address it.

The priority is to get all your Raw and original JPEG files into a master folder as this simplifies the task of making backups. All other photo files, such as JPEGs generated from Raw files, should be kept in different folders.

If your files aren’t organized like this already, then you have some moving around to do. The simplest approach is to create a master folder, move all your Raw and original JPEG files to it, then forget about what you did in the past and use a more organized system from this point forwards.

If you want to go further and organize all those photo files by year and month you can, it’s up to you to judge how much work that will take and whether it’s worth the effort.

Remember that once you have imported photos into Lightroom that folder structure isn’t really important as you should be organizing your photos in Collections. This is covered in detail in my ebook Mastering Lightroom Classic: The Library Module.

Moving photos inside Lightroom

The easiest way to move files around on your hard drive is to use Finder (if you have a Mac) or Windows Explorer (PC users). This is fine if you are organizing photos that you haven’t imported into Lightroom yet.

But if you have already imported them you shouldn’t do this as Lightroom will lose track of where they are located. It won’t corrupt the Catalog, and you won’t lose any edits you have already carried out, but it does mean that you have to go into Lightroom and tell it where to find the files.

Missing file exclamation mark icon in Lightroom Library module

Above: If Lightroom doesn’t know where to find a photo file then it displays an exclamation mark icon next to the thumbnail. Note – it could simply mean that the hard drive containing the photo isn’t connected to your computer.

Show in Finder menu option in Lightroom Library module

Above: Right-click on the thumbnail and select Show in Finder (PC: Show in Windows Explorer)

File not found error message in Lightroom

Above: A message appears to tell you that the file is not in the folder where Lightroom thinks it is. Click Locate to find the file. Navigate through your folders until you find the one containing the photo.

It’s a time consuming process, so you don’t want to do it unless you really have to.

Folder contextual menu in Lightroom Library module

The alternative is to move files around within the Folders panel in Lightroom’s Library module.

Click and drag to move folders or individual photos from one folder to another.

Right-click on any folder in the Folders panel to bring up the contextual menu (above). The options let you carry out tasks such as renaming folders, creating new folders and moving selected photos from one folder to another.

When you do this, Lightroom keeps track and knows where to find photos in their new location.

How to find out how many missing photos you have in Lightroom

Want to find out how many missing photos there are in your Catalog? Go to Library > Find All Missing Photos (above). Lightroom scans all your photos and places any missing ones in a folder called Missing Photographs in the Catalog panel.

Find all missing files menu option in Lightroom Library module

If you have an alternative way of organising your photo files, and it works for you, I’d be curious to hear about. Feel free to leave a remark in the comments.

Further reading

Introducing Lightroom Classic free email course

Learn more about Lightroom Classic by signing up to our Introducing Lightroom Classic free email course. We’ll send you five lessons by email to get you started in your Lightroom Classic journey.

Mastering Lightroom Classic: The Library Module

Our new ebook Mastering Lightroom Classic: The Library Module is available now. This massive 283 page ebook is the ultimate guide to Lightroom’s Library module. It covers everything you need to know, from import to export to organizing and searching your photos.

Click here to buy or learn more about Mastering Lightroom Classic: The Library module

Mastering Lightroom Classic Library module ebook

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, publisher, traveler, workshop leader and photographer based in the UK. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.


  1. Hi Andrew. I have always been meticulous at backing up but within the last month or so when I launched Lightroom many of my photos were marked as ‘missing’. They can be found in Bridge. More worryingly some of the backup are now seen as originals, with my edits and keywords on those files. Any attempt to move these would be futile as Lightroom won’t accept two of the same image in the catalog. After some thought I might remove the files from the Master Catalog and then import the corrected copies. I really have no idea what is going on. Could I open a very early catalog before the siesmic change and just add the folders since then?

    1. Author

      Hi Allan, this is a difficult question to answer because I don’t know exactly why this has happened. But I can give you some suggestions to try and find the cause.

      1. If photos are marked as missing it means that Lightroom doesn’t know where to find them. This happens if you move photos to a new folder outside of Lightroom, or if the hard drive containing those photos isn’t connected to your computer. So this makes me wonder if something went wrong during your backup process? Did you move files from one folder to another, rather than copying them, without realizing?

      2. If a photo is missing, you can find it by clicking on the exclamation mark icon clicking Locate in the window that pops up. Then you can go to the folder where the photo is saved and select it so Lightroom knows where to find it.

      3. I’m a bit puzzled when you say your backups are seen as originals. What do you mean by this? For example, if you have a Raw file called 0001.dng and you back it up, then that file is now saved in two locations. It’s the same file and one version is the same as the other. Lightroom saves all metadata including file location, keywords and edits in the Catalog. So it doesn’t really matter which of the two files has been added to the Lightroom Catalog.

      4. You can certainly open a backed up Catalog and see what is happening with it, although I suspect it won’t solve your problem as it sounds like the location of your photos is part of the cause.

      5. If you remove photos from the Catalog you will lose all keywords and edits, unless you have set Lightroom to save those edits in a sidecar file along with the photos.

      Hope those suggestions help. Once you’ve found the cause of the problem it should be easy to work out what to do next. Let us know how you get on.

  2. Hi Andrew, the images I work on in Lightroom are stored on an external hard drive and then I backup to another external drive that Lightroom doesn’t know exists. I am wanting to switch to using the backup hardrive as my main hardrive. How do I do this seamlessly? Also what if I don’t want all my images on this newer drive, can I leave behind older images on the older hardrive and use it only as needed? Will Lightroom recognize more than one hardrive? Thanks for your help! Love your articles, I’ve learned so much. Elle

    1. Author

      Hi Elle, if you’ve saved all your photos in a hierarchical folder structure inside a single top level folder then it’s easy to switch from one hard drive to another. It’s best to save all your photos on the newer hard drive, otherwise the older ones won’t be backed up. Lightroom can work with as many hard drives as you like, but in your situation as you have the same photos on both drives it’s best to use one or the other, not both.

      This article has more detail and explains how to switch drives:

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