1. Photo
  2. Editing & Post-Processing

Learn Lightroom in a Week - Day 2: Import and Viewing

Scroll to top
Read Time: 28 min

In today's tutorial we'll continue our in-depth introduction to Lightroom! The guide will be taking you through the (often confusing) process of correctly importing your images, understanding how catalogs work, and clearly explaining the different ways to view your images in Lightroom. By the end of the tutorial, you should have a fully-stocked library of imported images!

Step 1: Import Basics

You can only work with images in Lightroom after importing them. So the first thing you need to know is what actually happens when you perform an import. Lightroom imports images in a special database file called a "catalog".

During an import, records are created for each photo and stored in the currently opened catalog file. These records contains data about the images - like file names, folder locations, meta data and so on.

The important thing here is to understand that the images themselves are not contained inside the catalog. The catalog contains only data about the image files, and when you work with the photographs you actually change that data and not the actual images.

Also, Lightroom builds previews for all the photos in the import. The other thing is that the folder that contains the imported images is also imported into the catalog and listed in the Folders panel in your Library.

At the moment, this might sound a little unfamiliar to you, but at the end of this tutorial you should have a clearer understanding of what it's all about. So, let's continue!

Lightroom supports the following file formats:

  • Native Camera RAW formats from nearly all modern camera models. These files contains unprocessed data from a digital camera's sensor and when import them you can work with this data and change it as you like.
  • Digital Negative (DNG) - An open-source file format for RAW files with great flexibility and many output options.
  • JPG - The standard compressed format for photographs
  • TIFF - A widely supported format for file exchanging
  • PSD - The standard format for Photoshop. To work with a multi-layered PSD file in Lightroom, the file must be saved with the "Maximize PSD and PSB Compatibility" preference turned on in Photoshop. You can find this option in file handling preferences in Photoshop.
  • Video files from digital still cameras (but without the ability to edit them). You can only preview video files, and get some basic metadata.

You can also import files in the above image formats that use CMYK color mode, but all the processing work and the output will be done in RGB color space.

You can import files with dimensions up to 65,000 pixels on the longest side and with a size of up to 512 megapixels. That should be more than enough!

Step 2: Import Workflow In Brief

The import process is very important, and you should plan it carefully. When you perform a batch process such as importing images in Lightroom, you need to have an idea of what to do and the right way to do it.

That's why before we get deep into the import process, I will give you an overview of the steps involved. There are eight major steps:

  1. Choosing the source from which the photos will be imported - this can be a hard drive, your digital camera, your card reader, or also another catalog. We will go through all of them later.
  2. Set the method of importing (copying, moving or adding) - here you have to decide what you want to do with your files. To copy them, to move them in new location, or just add them to the currently opened catalog.
  3. Preview and select photos to import - after choosing the source you can explore all the images contained in that source in the view area at the center of the screen. In order to import an image, it must be selected (by default all photos are selected).
  4. Set the size of the previews - as I said earlier, Lightroom builds previews for each imported photo. In this step, you specify what kind of preview you want to be created. As always, the small previews are fast but with low quality and the big ones have high quality but they render slowly.
  5. Make backups of the files (optional) - you can make backup of your files right now in the import window but as you will see that is not always the right choice.
  6. Rename the files (optional) - this step is totally optional but I think that you will save yourself a lot of extra work by giving meaningful names of your files here rather then renaming them later in the Library. As I said it's all up to you!
  7. Apply metadata and develop adjustments (optional) - this one is useful too. You can tag common metadata like copyright information to all of your photos.
  8. Set the destination for the images - in this step you have to choose the destination for your files.

All this is done inside the Import Screen. Let's see how it looks visually:

So, now you are ready to dive into the real process of importing from start to finish.

Step 3: Import Workflow In Depth

To start, choose File > Import Photos or click the big Import button in the Library module. The Import Window will appear. You can also use the shortcut Ctrl + Shift + I or just drag a folder with photos or individual photos into the Grid view.

The first thing you need to do is to specify the location of the images you want to import. This can be done from the menu in the upper-left corner or from the Source panel. Just navigate to desired folder and choose it.

For each hard drive or device attached to your computer you see a separate Volume Browser with the name of the volume. To expand a volume, just click on it and then navigate to the folder with your images.

If you want to see the images in subfolders then check the Include Subfolders at the right side of Files label. When you right-click on the folder name you can choose Dock Folder option which hides the subfolders above the chosen folder making it easier to navigate within the panel.

You can also double-click on folder name to activate/deactivate this feature.

Now you must choose what to do with your photos. There are four options available to you. When you choose one below you will get a short description of what that option does:

  • Copy as DNG - this will copy your photos to a new location and convert them to DNG files
  • Copy - this will copy your photos to a new location
  • Move - this will move your photos to a new location
  • Add - this will add your photos to a catalog without moving them

In the View Area you have two view modes available: Grid and Loupe View. We will talk about these and the other two view modes a little bit later, but for now I will show you the important things.

In order to import an image, first you have to select it by checking the little square box in the upper-left corner of the image thumbnail. In the toolbar you can Check All or Uncheck All images. Also you may wish to sort them, or to change the thumbnail size.

When you click on an image, the box around it becomes light grey which means that this particular image is selected and will be shown alone in the View Area if you switch to Loupe view. Also in this view mode you can explore the images one by one.

For every image you want to import, just check the box with label "Include in Import". Of course this will be a slow process so the better way is to use keyboard shortcuts. Just press P to check, X to uncheck an image or even easier ` to toggle between them.

And guess what - you can access all this information just by hovering over the check box. In the tooltip are shown exactly the same shortcuts. As I said in the previous tutorial, tooltips can be extremely useful. So take advantage and use them.

If you change your mind, you can always cancel the import by clicking on the Cancel button or by pressing Esc key.

File Handling - the first thing here is to decide how Lightroom will render the image previews during import. These are initial previews, and can be changed later. There are four options available to you:

  • Minimal - with this option selected, the images will be displayed using the smallest previews embedded in the photos. Select this option if you need your import to complete fast. Later on - when you working with the images - larger previews will be generated on-the-fly when needed.
  • Embedded and Sidecar - this is intended for RAW and DNG files and will display the largest possible previews available from the camera.
  • Standard - this will display previews as Lightroom renders them.
  • 1:1 - this will display the largest previews. 1:1 means one screen pixel per one image pixel. Selecting this option will slow down the import process significantly but working with the images in Lightroom later will be more faster.

It's a good habit to make a back up of your photos right now when importing them. Just check "Make a Second Copy To" and choose the destination.

I don't know how many of you realise this, but to make a copy on the same drive or device is not a real back up. Always make your backups in completely different places - another hard drive, a CD/DVD, another computer, and so on.

As I said before, this option is not always the right choice. If you selected Copy as DNG and make a back up here, this will actually copy your original files and not the new DNG copies. If you like this scenario - perfect - but if not, it might be worth backing up later.

If you want more meaningful names for your files, you can rename them in the File Renaming panel. Check the box "Rename Files" and choose the file naming template from the menu.

The Custom Text, Shoot Name and Start Number become available when you select appropriate options. For extensions you may choose Uppercase, Lowercase or just Leave as-is.

At the bottom of the panel you will get a sample of how the name will appear. If you choose Edit in the Filename menu, you can specify your own file naming template and save it for later use. I will show you how a bit later.

During an import, you have the ability to apply keywords and other metadata and to make some image adjustments in advance before you get to the real "develop" process. If you want to apply some develop settings then choose one from the fly-out menu - otherwise leave it as None.

The most common metadata you may wish to add to your images is copyright information. Here is the perfect place to do it. But first you have to create a preset for this, and you will see how in Step 5.

Also, it's good to add some keywords to your photos in order to make your workflow simple when begin the organization and filtering of your photos. Just click in the text area and start typing your keywords, separating them with commas.

From the menu in upper-right corner (or the Destination panel) choose the new location for your photos. You can choose an existing folder or you can create a new folder by clicking the plus button on the panel header.

If you want to create a subfolder inside a specific folder in the list, then first select a folder, check "Into Subfolder" and type a name in the text field.

Then, from the "Organize" menu, choose how you want to group your images - into one single folder or into folders organized by date. If you choose the second one then you can specify the Date Format too.

When you are done, just press the "Import" button and relax while your photos are imported. When the import begins, the Import Screen closes, the Library module loads, and photo thumbnails begin appearing in Grid view immediately as each file is imported.

In the process indicator (aka Activity Viewer) you can see a message describing the current operation in progress. If you for some reason decide to stop an import in progress then just click the little x icon next to the progress indicator.

In reality, the better thing to do is to let the import finish and then to clean up afterward. This is because stopping an import in progress increases the likelihood of data corruption in the Lightroom catalog.

Step 4: Other Import Workflows

Of course there are many other methods and scenarios for importing photos in Lightroom, and we will explore some of them right now.

From Camera or Card Reader - you can use Lightroom to handle the transfer of the photos you've shot from your camera to your hard disk and automatically import them into the catalog file. Keep in mind that using a card reader instead of your camera is usually faster, and a safer way to do it.

When you insert the memory card into a card reader you can start the import as usual by choosing Import, or you may use the memory card detecting feature to launch the Import Screen automatically.

To do that you need to set some import preferences. Go to General Preferences and under the Import Options check the first one "Show import dialog when a memory card is detected". This can be overridden by your operating system if other programs may also intend to start.

There are also two more options you may wish to turn on. To not use the folder names that your camera creates, select "Ignore camera-generated folder names when naming folders". If you shoot RAW + JPEG photos on your camera then select "Treat JPEG files next to RAW files as separate photos".

That way the JPEGs will be imported as a standalone photos. Otherwise, Lightroom will treat the JPEG duplicates as sidecar files. When this option is selected, both the RAW and the JPEG files are visible and editable in Lightroom.

When the memory card is inserted, the Import Dialog will appear and in the source panel under Devices label you can see that the volume for it is added. Check "Eject after import". From now on the process is pretty much the same as the main import workflow. After transferring your files from the card to a hard drive reformat your memory card in the camera. Don't use your computer to manipulate the files on the card as this may increase the risk of data corruption.

From Catalog - you can import photos from one catalog to another if need to. Choose File > Import From Catalog. Navigate to the catalog you want to import and click Open. Under the Catalog Contents area, check the folders you want to import. If you need to choose individual files check Show Preview in the bottom-left corner and in the Preview area choose the desired files in the same way as in Import Window.

In the New Photos area select an option from File Handling menu. In the Changed Existing Photos choose "Nothing" to import only new photos. Choose "Metadata and develop settings only" to leave the negative files unchanged.

Additionally you can check "Preserve old settings as a virtual copy" to make a back up. Choose "Metadata, develop settings and negative files" to override all the settings in the current catalog. If you don't want to replace the RAW negatives then check "Replace non-raw files only". Click Import.

Auto Import - this feature automatically imports photos into a Lightroom catalog by monitoring a watched folder for photos and then moving them into a managed folder in the catalog. Choose File > Auto Import > Auto Import Settings. Now click the Choose button next to Watched Folder.

Navigate to existing folder or create a new one and click OK. Note that you can't choose an existing folder that contains photos as a watched folder. After that, in the Destination area, choose the managed folder in the same manner. Then under the File Naming area choose a template from the menu.

Next in the Information area set Develop Settings, choose metadata template and add keywords if needed. And finally select an option for the Initial Previews. Now check Enable Auto Import, click OK, and you are done!

Step 5: Using Templates and Presets

In the Import Screen you have ability to choose templates or presets. Here's how each of these work!

Filenaming Templates - In the "File Renaming" panel when you choose Edit from the Template menu, the Filename Template Editor appears for you to change the existing presets or create your own.

Choose a preset you want to modify and you will see the text strings (tokens) assigned to it. Every token is surrounded by curly brackets and you can select it by clicking on it. When a token is selected you can change it by clicking the Insert button next to any of the given information blocks.

If you want to insert a token between other two tokens just put your mouse cursor between them and click Insert. If you want to delete a token just select it and press Delete key. For every option you can select variations from the corresponding menus. From the Preset menu at the top of window you can update a modified preset or save the current settings as new preset.

Metadata Presets - In the "Apply During Import" panel choose New from Metadata menu. Type a name in the text field next to Preset Name label. Now you can add whatever information you want in the matadata blocks below. When you are done, click Create to save the settings as a new preset.

Import Presets - If you have common import settings that you use frequently, you can store them for quick access later. First set all settings in the Import Window as you wish and then at the bottom of the screen click next to Import Preset to open pop-up menu and select Save Current Settings As New Preset. From the same menu you can load saved presets and rename or delete them.

Step 6: Understanding Lightroom Catalogs

A Lightroom catalog is just a database file used to manage your files, and to store all the work you perform on them. As was mentioned before, image files must be imported into a Lightroom catalog before you can work with them. This creates records of the photos within the catalog, but these records are not the files themselves. They keep only information about the files.

When Lightroom is first installed, it creates a new (empty) catalog file in the following defaults locations:

  • Mac OS X - User/Pictures/Lightroom 3 Catalog/Lightroom 3 Catalog.lrca
  • Windows XP - User\My Documents\My Pictures\Lightroom 3 Catalog\Lightroom 3 Catalog.lrcat
  • Windows Vista and 7 - User\Pictures\Lightroom\Lightroom 3 Catalog\Lightroom 3 Catalog.lrcat

If you haven't created a new one yet, you will be working within the default catalog

When you create a catalog, Lightroom puts it inside a folder with the same name. And when you import images, a new subfolder is created to store the JPEG image previews. For example, If you want to create new catalog called "Buildings" then Lightroom will make a new folder with that name and will place the catalog file inside with .lrcat extension (Buildings.lrcat).

Later on when you import images, a new subfolder with .lrdata extension will be created for the image previews (Buildings Previews.lrdata).

Step 7: Create and Manage Catalogs

To create new catalog, just choose File > New Catalog and specify the location and the name of the folder in which the catalog will be placed. When you click Save, Lightroom will reset and displays an empty Library module.

To open an existing catalog choose File > Open Catalog and navigate to the catalog file. Select it and click Open. You can also load a recently opened catalog by choosing it from the File > Open Recent menu. Lightroom will close the current catalog and will relaunch. If a prompt box appears, just click Relaunch.

By default, Lightroom opens the most current catalog at startup. If you want to change this, go to General Preferences and under Default Catalog area choose another option. "Prompt me when starting Lightroom" will open the Select Catalog dialog box at startup. If you want a specific catalog to be opened, then choose one from the list or select Other and navigate to your catalog.

To delete a catalog just delete its folder. This will erase all the work you've done in Lightroom that isn't saved in the photo files.

Importing and removing files from the catalog can slow down Lightroom performance. To fix that you need to optimize it regularly. Choose File > Optimize Catalog.

To access the catalog settings choose Edit > Catalog Settings. In the General panel you can see information about your catalog. Also here you can specify when to back up your catalog by choosing an option from the menu.

In the File Handling panel, Preview Cache area determines how Lightroom renders preview images. The first option specifies the maximum pixel dimension for the rendered preview and the second determines how previews appear.

Use the size and quality that accommodates the display size you are working with. 1:1 previews can make the catalog preview file large, so here you can choose when 1:1 previews to be discarded based on the most recent access to the previews.

The Import Sequence Numbers area specifies starting sequence numbers for imports and photos.

Lightroom allows you to schedule regular backups when exiting the application. To specify the backup frequency go to Edit > Catalog Settings and in the Back Up area of the General tab choose an option from the pop-up menu. Now when you exit Lightroom, the Back Up Catalog dialog box will appear allowing you to choose a location for the backup files (if you don't want to use the default).

Leave the "Test integrity before backing up" and "Optimize catalog after backing up" checked and click Backup.

To restore previously backed up catalog file choose File > Open Catalog and navigate to the location of the catalog file. Select it and click Open.

Step 8: Create and Manage Folders

The folders that contain your photos are displayed in the Folders panel of the Library module. When you import photos, the folders in which they are located are added automatically to the Folders panel.

The folders appear in alphanumeric order and reflect the folder structure on the volume itself. This means that the changes you make to folders in Lightroom are applied to the folders themselves on the hard drive.

The Volume Browser displays the name of each volume that contains photos in the catalog and additional information such as how much disk space is available. You can change that information by right-clicking on the volume and choosing an option for Volume Info.

To add an existing or new folder, click on plus button in the right side of Folders panel header and select Add Folder. If you choose an existing folder the Import Window will appear when you click OK. If necessary specify options and click Import.

To add a parent folder, select the folder and right-click and choose Add Parent Folder. If you want to create subfolder then with the folder selected, click the plus sign and choose Add Subfolder or right-click and choose Create Folder Inside "Folder Name". If you have photos selected then checking the Include selected photos will add them to the new folder.

To delete a folder, select it and click on the minus sign (or right-click on its name and choose Remove). This only removes the folder and its photos from the catalog and the Folders panel. The original folder and files are not deleted from the hard drive.

If you move a folder outside of Lightroom in Windows Explorer/Finder then the link between the catalog and the folder breaks. A question-mark icon appear son the folder in the Folders panel and to restore the link just right-click on the folder and choose Find Missing Folder from the context menu. Locate the folder and click OK.

If the contents of a folder in the catalog don't match the contents of the same folder on the volume, you can synchronize the folders. To do it, right-click on the folder you want to synchronize and choose Synchronize Folder.

To import photos that are added in the folder but have not been imported in the catalog select "Import new photos". To remove photos deleted from the folder but not from the catalog choose "Remove missing photos from catalog".

If you want to see which photos are missing, click on the "Show Missing Photos" button. The missing photos will be displayed in the Grid view with question-mark icons in the upper-right corner.

Finally choose "Scan for metadata updates" to scan for any metadata changes made to the files in another application.

Step 9: Using Navigator/Preview Panel

The Navigator panel shows a preview of the currently selected photo. The various zoom levels are available in the upper-right corner.

The first three are fixed, and the last can be changed from the pop-up menu.

When a photo is zoomed in, the Navigator panel shows frame representing the edges of the visible area. You can move this frame by dragging it, or you can click whatever you want outside the frame to change its position.

In Slideshow, Print and Web modules the Navigator panel is swapped with Preview panel.

Step 10: Using Filmstrip Panel

In the Filmstrip panel, you'll see all files in the currently selected source. When you hover over an image thumbnail you get live preview in the Navigator panel. You can change the thumbnail size by placing your cursor over the top edge of the Filmstrip and, when the cursor changes to a double arrow, drag the edge up or down.

You can choose what to be visible in the panel from the Filmstrip area in the Interface Preferences.

Step 11: Understanding View Modes

Before we start exploring the view modes in Lightroom let's see a cool feature. It's called "Lights Out", and it dims or hides all the interface elements, showing only the selected photographs (or all of them if nothing is selected). To access this feature go to Window > Lights Out. As you can see there are three states available:

  • Lights On - This is the default state. All interface elements and photographs are visible.
  • Lights Dim (Ctrl + Shift + L) - The interface is dimmed and only selected photographs are shown. In the Interface Preferences you can choose the percentage for the Dim Level.
  • Lights Off - In this state all interface elements are hidden by a solid color specified in the Interface Preferences.

To cycle through the different states press L

Lightroom provides you with four different view modes for easy viewing, organizing and image development. Here I will give you a quick overview of them, and a little bit later I will show you how to work with each of them.

  • Grid View (G) - in this mode the images are displayed in the cells of a grid. It is useful when you work with many images at a time.
  • Loupe View (E) - in this mode you can explore the photos one by one.
  • Compare View (C) - in this mode you can compare two photos side-by-side.
  • Survey View (N) - in this mode you can compare two or more photos in a tiled preview.

Use the icons in the toolbar to switch between the different modes.

Step 12: View Settings

To access the specific settings for Grid and Loupe View choose View > View Options or right-click on a photo in Grid View and select View Options at the bottom of the menu.

In the Grid View panel you can choose between Compact or Expanded Cells, or you can turn this feature off altogether. In the options below, just specify what information you want to be shown. When you check or uncheck different options, Lightroom will give you a live preview (which is really helpful!)

In Loupe View panel, turn on "Show Info Overlay" and choose Info 1 or Info 2. These are two sets of information that you can easily customize to suit your needs. Just select what you want to be shown from the pop-up menus (you'll see a live preview here as well).

Step 13: Working in Grid View

To select a photo in Grid view, click on its thumbnail. You'll see that the photo is also selected in the Filmstrip panel and vice versa. You may have many photos selected, but only one can be the active photo. Selected photos in the grid are marked with a thin white border and a cell color lighter than unselected photos. The cell color of the active photo is the lightest.

With several photos selected, you can click any selected photo to make it active without deselecting the others photos. If you click on photo outside the selection it becomes the active photo and all other are deselected. You can find other commands for making photo selections under the Edit menu.

To change the size of the thumbnails, drag the Thumbnails slider in the Toolbar.

A quick aside: If you don't see any of the controls that I mention here (and in the next three view modes) they are probably unchecked in the Toolbar menu at the far right of the toolbar. So to make them visible you need to select them in the menu.

Step 14: Working in Loupe View

In this view mode you use the Navigator panel to choose a zoom level. Lightroom saves the last level you used and lets you switch between that level and the current level when you click the photo with the pointer.

To use this feature in the Navigator panel, select Fit or Fill for the first zoom level and for the second select either 1:1 or choose another option from the pop-up menu.

Now to switch between the selected zoom levels, click the photo or press the Spacebar. To switch between all four levels press Ctrl-+ or -. This will cycle through Fit, Fill, 1:1 and the option chosen from the menu.

If you prefer to zoom the photo to the center of the screen, you can head into the Interface Preferences and select "Zoom Clicked Point To Center".

To temporarily zoom in and pan, press and hold the Spacebar and drag to pan the image. Also you can press and hold the mouse button with pointer over the photo - either in Navigator panel or in the View Area - and then drag to pan the image.

To navigate between photos in Loupe view, use the left and right arrow keys or click on the arrow icons in the Toolbar.

Step 15: Working in Compare View

In this mode you can compare two images and pick the better one. In the Grid view or Filmstrip, select two photos and then switch to Compare view. The first photo is the Select (active) and the other is the Candidate. To reverse them click Swap icon in the toolbar.

To select another photo for the Candidate, click the arrow icons or use the arrow keys - left for the previous photo in the sequence and right for the next one. Take a look at the Filmstrip to see how it works and what photo becomes selected.

When you click the "Make Select" icon, the Candidate photo becomes Select and the Candidate photo changes to the nearest photo in the sequence.

To scale both photos simultaneously, make sure the Link Focus icon is displayed in the toolbar and then drag the Zoom slider. To scale them separately make sure the Unlink Focus icon is displayed in the toolbar before dragging the Zoom slider.

Click the Sync button to synchronize the scaling of the Candidate and the Select photos.

Step 16: Working in Survey View

To compare more then two photos, after selecting them switch to Survey View. To add another photo select it in the Filmstrip. To remove the photo from selection click the Deselect Photo icon which appears in the bottom-right corner of the image when you hover over it.

Step 17: Using a Secondary Display

In Lightroom you have the ability to use a secondary display or second window. The main window and the second one may show different views - for example in the main window Grid View, and Loupe View in the second.

To open the second window, click the secondary display button in the upper-left corner of the Filmstrip panel - the monitor icon with number two inside. Now you can see that at the top of the second window are the same view modes as in the main window, plus one for slideshow which shows only in full screen mode.


And that concludes our introduction to importing and viewing your photos in Lightroom! I hope you've found it useful, and I'll see you again for the next instalment of the series, looking at organising and filtering your images...

Did you find this post useful?
Want a weekly email summary?
Subscribe below and we’ll send you a weekly email summary of all new Photo tutorials. Never miss out on learning about the next big thing.
Looking for something to help kick start your next project?
Envato Market has a range of items for sale to help get you started.