Learn Lightroom (part 2) – Importing Workflow

This is part 2 in the Learn Lightroom series. If you haven’t read the first post yet, you can read it here. It covers the basic interface and how to set up Lightroom preferences.

In this post we’re going in-depth into the importing workflow. We’re also going to cover creating and managing catalogs, and how to create custom import presets, file templates, and custom metadata.

The Basics

Before we can get started editing images, we first have to import the files we want to work with and set up our first catalog. Until a catalog is created and files are imported to it, Lightroom doesn’t display any images. What happens when files are imported?

When files are imported, Lightroom reads the file and creates a database entry for it in the current catalog. Catalogs keep all the information about files like filename, location, and metadata, but they do not contain the files themselves. When you edit photos in Lightroom, you only change the catalog data, never the actual image.

As you work on your photos, Lightroom is constantly accessing the files to create previews and then rendering new previews when edits are made. Lightroom never displays the actual file from disk, rather it shows you a rendered real-time preview based on the current settings applied. Since the original files are never altered, the only way to apply permanent changes to an image is to export it.

Before Importing

Before you begin importing photos into Lightroom, you should come up with a plan for naming and organizing your files. Try and organize your files as much as possible before importing them.

After photos have been imported to Lightroom, you should always do organizing from within Lightroom. If you delete files or move them outside of Lightroom, it won’t be able to find the images the next time you open that catalog.

Outline of the Import Workflow

There are seven steps involved in the import process. Before we get started, lets go over the workflow briefly. Importing your files correctly the first time can save a lot of time and frustration later.

Step 1: Choose the source where the photos will be imported from. This can be a memory card, digital camera, hard drive, or even another catalog.

Step 2: Choose an import method. Lightroom offers four choices – copy, move, add, or copy as DNG. We will go through these in detail later.

Step 3: If the images are being copied or moved, decide on the destination folder.

Step 4: Select which photos to import. After you select the source for the images, previews of available images will appear in the main preview area. By default, all of the images are selected.

Step 5: Select the size of the image previews. As the photos are imported, Lightroom builds previews for them. Choosing smaller previews during import is faster, but will require Lightroom to build larger previews individually when you’re working on that photo later.

Step 6:Rename the files. Depending on whether or not you’re happy with the filename system already in use, Lightroom offers the option of renaming all the files as they are imported.

Step 7:Apply batch processing or metadata presets. This is another optional step, but it can be useful. You can apply basic develop settings that apply to all the images in the import and/or attach copyright information.

Lets take a look at the Import Screen. The image below has the location of settings for each step of the import process.

Lightroom Import Screen

In-Depth Import Workflow

When Lightroom opens, the Library module opens. Click the “Import” button in the bottom left corner of the window. Alternatively, you can select File > Import Photos and Video or use the Ctrl/Cmd + Shift + I keyboard shortcut. Any of these methods will open up the Import Screen.

Step 1

The first task is to select the location of the files we want to import. The “Source” panel is located in the top of the left panel group. Navigate to the appropriate drive or device and navigate to the folder with your images and select it.

If you want to include the images in the selected folder and also include images in subfolders, check the “Include Subfolders” box at the top of the Source panel.

To keep the Source panel uncluttered, double click on the folder name to hide all the folders above the selected one. You can also select this option by right clicking on any of the folder names.

The Source panel

Step 2

Step two is deciding on an import method. Import method options are listed in the center of the top panel. If you click on each of the four options a short description will appear below it.

import methods

  • Copy as DNG – Copies the photos to a new location and converts them to DNG files.
  • Copy – Copies the photos to a new location.
  • Move – Moves the photos to a new location.
  • Add – Adds the photos to the catalog without moving or copying them.

Step 3

If you chose any of the three import methods other than Add, we need to select a destination folder to put the copied images into.

The last panel on the right side of the window is the Destination panel. Navigate to the drive and folder where you want to copy your images to. There is also a check box at the top of the panel for putting the images in a subfolder. The text area to the right of the box allows you to enter a name for creating a new folder.

destination panel

Alternatively, there is a large box in the very top right corner of the Import window labeled TO. You can click on the TO button to open a menu with a list of folder locations. Clicking the “Other Destination…” option opens a window where you can navigate to the folder easily.

TO button

Step 4

Now that we’ve selected the source and how to import the photos, we need to select which photos to import. By default all the photos in the preview area are selected and displayed as thumbnails.

Across the bottom of the image preview area is a toolbar. There are two large buttons for selecting all or deselecting all of the images. The two square icons on the far left toggle between Grid View (G) and Loupe View (E). Loupe View provides a larger preview of individual images. You can also access the Loupe View by double clicking on an image in the Grid View. On the right side of the toolbar you have the option so sort the images and adjust the size of the thumbnails.

image preview toolbar

Clicking on individual images highlights the box around it, turning it light grey. If you want to import that photo, click the checkbox above the thumbnail preview. A much faster alternative is to use the keyboard shortcuts. “P” checks the box, “X” unchecks the box, and ” ‘ ” toggles between the two.

Image preview area - grid view

Step 5

Now we decide how to render image previews and decide if we need to make a duplicate copy of our files.

The File Handling panel is at the top of the right panel group. The options in this panel decide how Lightroom will render image previews during the import. These are just import previews so they can be changed and will be updated to 1:1 previews as you’re working on the photos later. Click on the “Build Previews” box to open a menu with four options available.

  • Minimal – Uses the smallest preview embedded in the photo or renders a small thumbnail if no preview is available. Use this option for the quickest import speed.
  • Embedded & Sidecar – Typically used for RAW or DNG files. It will display the largest preview embedded in the file or create a new preview if one isn’t available.
  • Standard – Generates thumbnails and standard sized image previews. You can change the size and quality of standard previews in the menu options (Catalog Settings > File Handling).
  • 1:1 – Renders full-size 1:1 previews, thumbnails and standard previews during the import process. Takes the longest amount of time while importing, but keeps Lightroom from having to render previews while you’re trying to edit the photo.

preview panel and menu

If you want to make a duplicate backup of your files, select the “Make a Second Copy To:” option and select a destination. Be careful if you are importing using the Copy as DNG import format – the second copy will be of the original files and not the DNG files.

Step 6

If you already have a good system in place for naming your files, you can skip this step. If you would like to change the names of your files, the File Renaming panel is the second panel on the right side. Note that it is only available if you’re using one of the first three import methods. If you choose to simply “Add” files to the catalog this panel is not available.

First, check the “Rename Files” check box and the options below it will open up. Clicking on the template section opens up a menu with several options. Depending on what type of template you choose, the Custom Name, Shoot Name, and Start Number boxes will be available. You also have an option to make the filename uppercase, lowercase, or leave it as-is.

File Renaming Panel

When you’re finished setting up the filename options, a sample will show up in the bottom of the panel. If you want to make your own custom templates to save for later, choose “Edit…” in the Template drop down menu.

Step 7

The final step before we start the import process is done in the “Apply During Import” Panel. None of these options are required, but if you would like to apply keywords or metadata this is where its done.

The Develop Settings option opens a drop down menu with a long list of Lightroom presets. If you would like to apply a specific preset to everything being imported select it here. This is basically just here to save time later in the Develop module if there is a preset that can apply to all the images.

The main use of the Metadata option is to add copyright information to your images. Before you can apply a copyright, you have to create your own preset. We’ll cover that later.

Adding keywords to your photos in the import process is good practice to get into. Make sure that the keywords apply to all the photos being imported. Separate individual keywords with commas and use < or > to define parent/child keywords. Keywords don’t have to be one word – you can use keyword phrases.

metadata and presets

Start Importing!

Press the “Import” button in the lower right corner of the window. When the importing process starts, the Import Screen will close and you’ll be taken to the Library Module. As the images get processed, their thumbnails will start to appear in the preview area.

You can look in the top left corner of the window at the activity viewer to see how far along the progress is. If you ever realize that you made a mistake, there is an “X” at the end of the progress bar. Click that and the process will stop.

Congratulations on importing your first set of images!

Catalogs In-Depth

We briefly talked about the catalog system that Lightroom uses in the beginning of the post, but now we’re going to cover the catalog system in-depth.

Since Lightroom only references the original image files and never edits them, what’s stored in the catalog? The catalog stores information about the files including metadata, develop settings, previews, and any other data that relates to the files. The Lightroom catalog has the filename extension .lrcat.

When you install Lightroom on your system it creates an empty default catalog. If you did not create a new catalog before we did the import process, your images will be in the default folder. The location of the catalog is different depending on the operation system you are using. Below are the OS specific folders where the catalog is located:

When Lightroom creates a new catalog, it creates a new folder with the name of the catalog. When you add images to that catalog, it creates a subfolder with all of the image previews in it.

To create a new catalog go to File>New Catalog. Pick a name for the catalog and designate a location to save it. When you are finished hit the Save button. Lightroom will restart and open displaying the Library module. There won’t be any images, because new catalogs are always empty until you add files.

Lightroom’s default setting is to open the most recent catalog. If you want to change that go to the Preferences menu and under the General tab there is a Default Catalog option. Personally, I use the option “Prompt me when starting Lightroom.” That way you can choose the catalog from a list.

default catalog settings

If you want to open a catalog that already exists, select File>Open Catalog, then navigate to the catalog and click the Open button. If the catalog you want to open is one that you recently accessed, it will be in the menu File>Open Recent.

To delete a catalog, you simply have to delete the catalog folder. Erasing the folder won’t erase the original image files, but it will erase any work you’ve done to them. Make sure that you’ve exported images to save any work you want to keep before deleting the catalog.

In order to keep Lightroom running smoothly adding and removing files, you should optimize the catalog. This is done in the catalog settings which you can access in the File>Catalog Settings menu. When the window opens, the general tab is selected. At the bottom of the window is an option where you can select how often to back up the catalog. I back up most of my catalogs with the “Once a week, when exiting Lightroom” option.

Edit>Catalog Settings>General

If you click over to the second tab, File Handling, you can select how Lightroom builds image previews. The standard preview size option determines the pixel dimensions of previews and the Preview Quality option determines how they will be displayed. The last option determines how long Lightroom keeps the 1:1 previews stored. If Lightroom deletes them it will always render new ones as soon as you edit that photo again, so it’s not a big deal.

Edit>Catalog Settings>File Handling

Custom File Templates

The File Renaming panel has quite a few pre-made template options available, but if you want to create your own custom templates, here’s how:

Choose Edit from the template menu and the Template Editor window will open. First, choose one of the pre-made templates to modify. The text window below the example filename will show the components (tokens) that make up the template. Tokens are always surrounded by curly brackets. The date token, for example, uses the capture date stored in the image metadata and inserts it into the filename.

custom filename presets

You can select any of the tokens by clicking on them. To delete a token, select it and hit the delete key. If you would like to insert a token in between two existing tokens, just place the cursor between them and insert the new one. Using the preset menu in the top of the window you can elect to save the settings to modify an existing preset, or create an entirely new preset.

filename preset save options

Custom Import Presets

If you tend to use the same import settings frequently, you can create a custom import preset. Open the Import Screen and make sure all of the settings are set the way you want. You don’t have the ability to pick and choose which settings are applied, so make sure all settings are correct.

Centered at the bottom of the window is the Import Preset setting. Click where it says None to open the menu. Select Save Current Settings As New Preset from the options and give the new preset a name. Next time you import images, just click on the None button again and select your custom preset from the list.

Import preset

Import preset menu

Metadata Presets

You can use the Apply During Import panel to add contact information, a copyright, and other metadata to your files. To create a custom metadata preset, click New in the Metadata menu options. Enter a title for the preset in the Preset Name text box, and add any relevant information in the text fields below. When finished, click the create button, and your settings will be saved as a new preset.

custom metadata preset window


That’s it for the importing workflow! I hope that you’re finding the Learn Lightroom series helpful so far. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.