Where Do Images Go When You Import Them to Lightroom?
In order to work on images in Adobe Lightroom, you first have to import them. But for many new users, it's not entirely clear just what "importing" does.
The Import dialog can be accessed either directly from the Library module, or via the Lightroom menus from within any module. The dialog fills your entire screen but has only a few basic parts. When importing photos, you generally access these parts from left to right, so this is the order in which I'll describe them.
Down the left hand side of the screen is the source selection consisting primarily of a tree structure representing the folders and subfolders on your computer. If the images you want to import are a network drive instead, you can add it to the source tree by clicking on the plus sign icon at the top right of the Source panel. Folders in the tree can be expanded to reveal any contained subfolders. When you get to the folder you want, click on it in the tree.
This takes us to the second major portion of the Import dialog. The central section of the window is filled with the preview area where you can pick and choose among the images in your selected folder. Each image that has not been previously imported has an associated checkmark that can be turned on or off as desired.
On the right hand side of the screen you'll find the third major section, the place where you select your destination and other options. The exact list of options available depends on upon your choices elsewhere in the dialog.
Directly above the preview area is the section of the Import dialog most relevant to the topic at hand. It's here that you choose the action that will occur when you actually click the "Import" button. Regardless of your choice of action, the Import process will add information about the imported images to your Lightroom catalog so you can access them later.
There are four possible action choices. "Copy as DNG" will convert each source image to Adobe's DNG format, placing the result in your destination folder. "Copy" will copy each selected image without converting it. "Move" will do the same as "copy" but will delete the original source image after copying it. "Add" will keep the file in the original location. If you choose the "Add" action, the destination will automatically show simply as "My Catalog" since the images themselves won't move, but any other choice of action requires the choice of a destination folder using right hand pane.
As such, the location of your images depends on how you import them. If you're unsure of where a specific image actually is, you can always right-click on it and select "Show in Explorer" (or "Show in Finder" on OS X). This will open the folder containing the actual image file using your operating system browser.
But if you now open that image file using another program you may be in for a bit of a surprise. If you've previously done work to optimize that image in Lightroom, the truth of the matter is that your optimized image isn't really anywhere. The image file shown by your operating system looks like it did when you imported it, not as is now does after optimizing it. Along with the camera metadata and other information added to the Lightroom catalog during the import process, the catalog also contains all the metadata associated with your optimizations. This is the same information usually maintained in sidecar XMP files for users of Adobe Camera Raw. When you view an image in Lightroom, your optimizations are layered on top of the original image pixels to create the modified appearance you intended but all the while the image pixels themselves remain unaltered. Remember, Adobe Lightroom is a nondestructive editing program.
If you do need to access a copy of a modified image in another application, you have two choices, depending on what that other application is. Installing some applications will add entries to the Lightroom Export dialog while others require you to register them as an external editing application via the Lightroom preferences dialog. The Export dialog will also let you simply save the resulting image file to a hard drive folder if you prefer. Regardless, what you end up with will have your Lightroom optimizations baked in. While this will allow the target application to see the same thing you see inside Lightroom, it means that your edits are no longer nondestructive. Your unaltered Lightroom image is still safe and sound of course with your edits living separately in the Lightroom catalog, but the exported copy now has a life of its own with those same edits now actually applied. After editing in your selected application, the modified image will need added back to Lightroom as an additional file.
The various tools within the Lightroom environment are well integrated, but bridging the gap between what is within Lightroom and what is outside it can be a bit confusing until you get used to it.