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Importing Photos into Lightroom

If you're a Photoshop user just starting to use Lightroom, one of the first differences you'll run into is the fact that Lightroom is built around a database while Photoshop is not. In order to do anything with a photo in Lightroom, you first have to import it into a Lightroom catalog. It's here that your Lightroom workflow has to start.

Photoshop and Adobe Bridge can navigate to any folder on your computer as well as those accessible on your local network. If you can get at an image file through your operating system, you can open it in Photoshop and Bridge. Not so with Lightroom.

The architecture of Lightroom is built around the concept of "modules," with each module serving a different function. When you open the program, you can see them listed across the top of the screen as Library, Develop, Slideshow, Print and Web. It's from the Library module that you can import new photos. If you go into any other than Library, you'll find that the only images you have access to are those that have already been imported.

When you install Lightroom, it will create a catalog for you, but can create a new one if you feel a need to later by going to the File >> New Catalog dialog and giving your new catalog a name. There's also File >> Open Catalog if you have more than one and you need to switch between them. You can only have one catalog active at a time and switching forces you to close and reopen Lightroom, so most users simply put everything in a single catalog.

A brand new catalog is a rather uninteresting thing since it's just an empty container. You have to import images to it before you can do much. To begin the process, click in the "Import..." button in the lower left of the Library module, or use File >> Import Photos to get to the same place. You can also just drag a folder full of images onto the open Library window. Once you've already imported some images, you can also select "Import to this Folder..." from the right click context menu of any existing folder in the "Folders" section of the Library module. You can even tell Lightroom to automatically import your images by turning on File >> Auto Import >> Enable Auto Import. If you enable auto-import you'll want to also go to File >> Auto Import >> Auto Import Settings to specify which folder you want Lightroom to monitor and other default settings.

More Import options at the bottom of the dialog window

Import options at the bottom of the dialog windowThe basic Import dialog is straightforward enough with guided steps listed across the top. You can also click on the small downward arrow in the lower left to expand this small window to a full screen version. Both versions are basically the same, but the full screen window lets you see the individual images available for import so you can pick and choose, and also provides additional options. I'll talk mainly about the full window dialog here but either way, there are some basic steps necessary to import images. First, select a source, then select an action, and then a destination. When you choose the source, there's a checkbox to automatically include any subfolders. Above the previews in the full dialog you'll find a filter option to either see "All Images" or just "New Images." Obviously there will only be a difference between these two if you importing additional images from a folder you have previously imported from.

Importing an image into Lightroom doesn't necessarily make a copy of the original files. The dialog gives you a choice. "Add" keeps the photos in their original location and merely adds a reference to them to your Lightroom catalog. "Copy" leaves the original files alone, but makes a copy in the selected destination folder. "Move" copies your imported images to a folder you specify and deletes the originals. "Copy as DNG" is the same as "Copy" but converts your original camera raw files to Adobe's DNG raw format. With the action set to "Add" the destination automatically shows as "My Catalog." With another action selected you'll need to tell Lightroom where to copy or move the images you import. If you are importing directly from a USB attached camera your only choices will be Copy and Copy as DNG.

Which action you choose depends on how you want to manage your files. If you copy your image files to a directory structure where you want to store them before importing them into Lightroom, you should stick with "Add." If you want Lightroom to handle this for you, choose one of the other options. If you enable auto-import, you'll probably want to go with "Move" so the monitored folder gets cleared.

If you want to take a closer look at your source images before importing them, you can increase the preview size with the Thumbnails slider in the lower right. If that's not enough, you can also utilize the Loupe view using the icon in the lower left corner. By default, all images Lightroom finds in your source folder will be selected for import. If you decide you don't want to import any, just uncheck the box next to them.

That covers the basics, but before you actually begin the Import process, you should make sure a few other options are set the way you want them. You can tell Lightroom to look for duplicates and not import any that it determines you already have. The import process will consider files as duplicates if they have the same original filename, the same file size, and the same capture date and time in the EXIF metadata. If you are copying or moving, you'll be given the option to create a one-time backup of the imported files, a good idea just in case something unexpected happens. As a performance tradeoff, there are also options for telling Lightroom how it should render initial preview thumbnails. "Minimal" previews will immediately make use of the smallest camera preview present in each image and is generally a good choice. "Embedded and Sidecar" will use the largest available camera preview which will take longer but could result in a better preview. "Standard" tells Lightroom to immediately start rendering previews equivalent to what you would see in the Fit zoom level of the Loupe tool. "1:1" displays previews that are full sized images using actual image pixels. Preview jpegs embedded by cameras generally aren't color managed but should be sufficient in most cases. Regardless of your choice, Lightroom will start rendering standard previews via a background process. There's also robust support for renaming your imported images if you desire.

During Import, you can automatically apply a Develop setting preset. Since Lightroom is non-destructive, this will become merely the starting point for your future work in the Develop module. It doesn't actually alter your source images so if applying a preset during import gets you closer to where you ultimately want to end up, it can be a big time saver with no loss of quality in the final result. You can also apply a metadata preset to add copyright and other data you want to include in all of your imported images. I have a standard preset with copyright, contact information and so on. If all the images you are importing should share common keywords, you can add them during import as well.

When you've ready, click on the "Import" button in the lower right, or click on "Cancel" if you change your mind about importing. When you click on "Import," you'll start to see your images show up in the Library module as a progress bar moves its way along in the upper left. If you have a number of folders to import, you'll have to import them one at a time, or else organize them ahead of time so that all are under a single parent folder and use it as your Import dialog source. You can only have one Import task running at a time.

More Import options at the bottom of the dialog window

After you've spent some time setting all the Import options the way you want them, you can save these choices as a preset so you can more easily use them next time. Even the small Import dialog gives you access to select an Import options preset.

The Import dialog is incredibly flexible and feature rich. To fully master them, you might consider creating a "test" catalog and import images to it in a number of ways. After you've spent some time experimenting, you'll be in a better position to set up your real catalog and begin importing images to it.

Date posted: July 24, 2011


Copyright © 2011 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
Backing up the Adobe Lightroom Catalog
Lightroom versus Photoshop versus Camera Raw versus Bridge
Moving Images in Adobe Lightroom
Where Do Images Go When You Import Them to Lightroom?

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