Help! I Deleted My Lightroom Images!!

Hi Folks:

I received the following question this morning and provided some information that helped, but I thought I’d take the time to write a longer response as well. First, the problem:

Hi there Mike, Thanks for offering to help me! I just did a real stupid thing! Processed images in Lightroom (2.7). By accident I deleted the images in the orig. folder – AND emptied the bin (do not ask) but I am still seeing the images in my Lightroom Library tray! However it does not let me export them obviously – as it cannot find the original files. So I was wondering if I can retrieve the images from Lightroom? I hope you can help me!

Now then…  If this happens to you, all is not (necessarily) lost but there are a few things to understand about Lightroom and about your computer’s hard drive.  I’ll begin by saying that I work in Windows and my knowledge of Macs is somewhat limited, but they work in essentially the same way.

Okay, first the computer.  The hard drive(s) in your computer is somewhat akin to an electronic filing cabinet.  Keep in mind that it’s not storing ‘files’ as you think of them, but bits of binary data – 1s and 0s – because that’s all computers work with and understand.  To visualize it, you could think of your computer’s hard drive as being a grid of boxes, and each box holds all or part of the information related to a particular file – whether it’s a document, a program or whatever.  If you want to study machine code or Assembly programming to understand how this information is shuffled around between the boxes, I’ll leave that up to you!  My training in Assembly programming is over 30 years old…

Now in the ‘old days’, Unix for example, there were no error messages.  Unix always goes on the basis that you know what you’re doing, so if you tell Unix to delete everything on your hard drive it says, ‘Okay‘, and does it.  In DOS, we had the beginnings of ‘Are you sure you want to do this?‘ and if you said yes, it went ahead and did it.  With Windows, we have the Recycle Bin, which is even more of a fail-safe device.  With the Recycle Bin you can put files in there, then take them out again and you’re fine.  Basically what the Recycle Bin does is it sets a checkmark beside the file that says ‘To be deleted at some point‘.  So, then you empty the Recycle Bin.  Poof, your file is now gone, right?  Not necessarily.  See, going back to the grid of little ‘boxes’ with information, when you delete a file from your computer what you’re really doing is telling the computer that it’s now safe to put other information in those ‘boxes’.  Depending on what you do after you tell the computer that it’s now safe to put other information in those ‘boxes’, it may simply say, “Okay, good to know, but I’m fine for the moment.“  In that case it’s still possible to tell the computer “Wait!  I’ve made a mistake!“  There are various software programs that will allow you to recover the deleted files from your computer; a search I just did on Google for ‘Windows File Recovery Software‘ returned 57,600,000 hits.  Even after formatting a disk (say the SD card from your camera) you may still be able to recover all or some of the information from the drive.  Digital information is harder to get rid of than most people imagine.  If a military aircraft is forced to land in a, shall we say less than friendly country for example, those on board will reformat the hard drives twice and then physically mangle the drives to prevent the information on them from being retrieved.  While I’ve never had to use data recovery software and therefore can’t recommend any particular package, some that other photographers have recommended (i.e. use at your own risk!) are:

Now, these packages are for files that the user has deleted.  It’s also important to remember that hard drives (and SSD drives, CF cards, SD cards, CDs, DVDs, etc.) are physical devices and will fail eventually.  It’s not an ‘if‘, it’s a ‘when‘.  All digital information is ephemeral. Therefore, ALWAYS back up your data.  Where, when, and how you back up your data depends on two questions – how much can you afford, and how much can you afford to lose?  Some people back up to a RAID system, some to off-site services, some to CDs/DVDs or to an external drive connected to their computer.  All systems have their own pros, cons and costs, but anything is better than nothing.

Since this started out as a Lightroom post, when you import your images into Lightroom there’s an option (under File Handling) to save the images to a second place or device as you import them.  Think about it.  There used to be an auto repair commercial on TV that said, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.

NB:  If your hard drive does fail, it may still be possible to recover the information on the drive.  However, it’s important to be aware that doing so involves completely disassembling and rebuilding the drive and this must be done in a ‘cleanroom‘ environment.  Costs usually begin at around $2000 and go up from there.  The same $2000 will buy a lot of backup drives these days.

Okay, that’s enough about backups and drives.  Onto Lightroom.  When you import your images into Lightroom, one thing it does is create preview image files for each file you import.  For more information on Lightroom’s file organization and structure, try this post.  There are different sizes of preview files (standard previews, 1:1 previews, etc.) and there are different preview files for the Library module and the Develop module, but we’ll keep things simple for the moment.  These previews are .jpg files that are stored with the Lightroom catalog and not in the folder where your image files are stored.  If you delete all of your Lightroom previews, Lightroom will generate new ones the next time you look at that image.  When you look at the grid of images in Lightroom’s Library module for example what you’re seeing are the preview images associated with the image files you’ve linked to the Lightroom catalog.  If you move or delete an image outside of Lightroom, what you’ll see is a preview image with a ? in the upper right corner; Lightroom is telling you that it has lost the link to the image file.

How this relates to this post is that if you delete your image files, it’s possible to extract a .jpg file of that image from the preview files that Lightroom has generated.  If you’re using Lightroom 4.x or 2.x (only) you can use Jeffrey Friedl’s “Extract Cached Image Previews” Lightroom Plugin and for Lightroom 3.x you can try LRViewer.  These programs will not give you back your RAW files, but they may give you a .jpg image.  Just remember that a proper backup strategy will make the use of these programs unnecessary.

Now go out and make some photographs! (but set up your computer backup first!!)


P.S. You can find more of our posts on photography and Lightroom tutorials here, and you can find links to over 200 other sites that have Lightroom tips, tutorials and videos here.

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