Import/ Export Tips for Lightroom

Hi Folks:

One thing I see frequently on Twitter is that someone has decided to import or export a large number of images and is then distraught about how long this particular process is taking.  There can be many reasons for this; some of them you can change, and some you can’t but I thought I’d put together a few tips.  These have been cobbled together from both my own experience and from a number of other sites, so my thanks to those others!

Update, February 19, 2014.  We’ve added a new post called ‘Getting Images Out of Lightroom‘ that covers exporting images in great detail.  This post is still valuable for tips for importing images.  Also, remember to check out our ‘The Many Faces of Lightroom Presets: The Import and Library Modules‘ for more tips on setting up import presets.

1) Your computer.  This one’s pretty obvious, but Lightroom is a memory-intensive program, both for RAM and for video memory.  More RAM, a faster hard drive or SSD drive, and an up-to-date video card will obviously make things go faster.  My one complaint about my current laptop is that I didn’t check before I purchased it to see if it has separate video memory.  It doesn’t, and so a portion of RAM is going to that and that cuts down on how much is available to the processor.  If you’re trying to run other memory-intensive programs at the same time, well, there’s only so much RAM to go around.  If you’re on Windows, be aware that if you have more than 4GB of RAM you need to be running a 64-bit version of Windows and you need to run Lightroom in 64-bit mode in order to make proper use of that extra memory.  Oh, one more thing to check is to see how much available space you have on your hard drive and when was the last time you optimized it.  This can also slow things down.

2) Lightroom itself.  Some people want Lightroom to work more like Adobe Bridge, but there’s a fundamental difference between the two programs.  Bridge is a file browser – more advanced but not much different than Mac Finder or My Computer on Windows.  It does have direct connections to other Adobe programs like ACR or Photoshop.  Lightroom on the other hand is a database management program.  Yes, it does RAW conversion, post-processing, slideshows, printing and more, but at it’s heart Lightroom is a program that handles ‘digital asset management’ – keeping track of and organizing your files.  The core of the Lightroom program is the database or catalog.  Everything related to every file connected to Lightroom is stored in the catalog file, and that information needs to be created, distributed and marked.  Julieanne Kost has a great video tutorial on this and you can also read our “Should I Get Lightroom or Photoshop or…?” post.  While I’m talking about the Lightroom program, keep the ‘File/Optimize Catalog’ command in mind.  It’s a reasonably quick way of going through your catalog, straightening the shelves, dusting things off and making the catalog more efficient.

3) Multiple Processes.  Based on this article: Optimizing Adobe Lightroom, breaking up your imports/exports into two or three simultaneous processes can be faster and more efficient, depending on what you’re importing/exporting.  In other words, if you have 1000 images to import/export, try doing 500, then while Lightroom is chewing on that, import/export the other half.   NB: This article was written for Lightroom 2; I’m assuming the folks at Adobe have made the process more efficient for Lightroom 3 but I have no numbers to verify that.

4) Import Strategies.  There are several ways to associate your images with the Lightroom catalog, and two main ways of dealing with your images once they are.  Your workflow decisions impact a number of parameters.  To start with, you can either import the images directly from the card on which they were captured, or you synchronize them with Lightroom once they’re already stored in their destination.  NB: never import your images from the card by connecting your camera to your computer.  Yes, this is possible.  It’s also abysmally slow.  Get a good card reader.  Whether you use USB2, USB3 or Firewire to connect your card reader depends on what hardware you have available, but all are faster than connecting and transferring from your camera.  If you have more than one card reader you can connect them both (all) and transfer more than one card at a time.  Depending on your computer this MAY cause a bottleneck but there are too many variables to say.  Now, as I said, you can either Copy your images directly from the card into Lightroom and have them stored somewhere on an internal or external drive, or you can copy them to their destination(s) first and then Add them to Lightroom from their existing locations.  There are pros and cons to both.  The other factor is how you handle your images once they’ve been imported.  Some people keep every image they import, bar none.  They find it faster to deal with the images they want to work with and simply ignore the rest.  Coming from the film days, I tend to be very scrupulous about weeding out and deleting images I don’t want to keep.  Again, pros and cons to both, but this decision impacts several others.  For example, see the next 3 categories.

UPDATE: A few people have asked me how, as mentioned above, one does simultaneous imports of multiple cards.  It’s pretty simple really.  We’ll start with the image below:

Importing from a single drive source

In this example, there are three external drives  connected to Lightroom, and we want to import from only one of them (H:).  As can be seen from Lightroom’s import window, under ‘Source’ there are ‘Drives’ and ‘Files’.  To import images from a single card or drive, simply click on the drive, set your import parameters and click Import.

Import from Multiple Locations

To import images from specific folders on one or multiple drives, move down to the drop arrows under the ‘Files’ section for the different drives.  In this example we’re importing from the DCIM/Camera folder on drive G: and from the DCIM/137_Fuji folder on drive H:  Select the first folder then hold down the Cmd/Ctrl key and click on the second folder to add those images to the import selection.  If there are more than two locations, other folders may be selected as long as the Cmd/Ctrl key is held down.  Set the import parameters and click Import.

5) Previews. Every image associated with Lightroom, whether RAW, .JPG, .TIF or whatever has two preview images associated with it, one for the Library Module and one for the Develop Module.  It’s also possible to generate previews of different size and quality, up to 1:1.  Now, it’s obvious that generating 1:1 previews will create bigger files and take longer, and so this is something you’ll want to consider when importing.  If you generate 1:1 previews on Import, it will take longer initially but Lightroom won’t have to take time to build a larger preview later when you zoom into an image.  On the other hand, if you’re going to do an immediate cull of images after importing, there’s no point in generating previews for images you’re only going to trash.  Under Edit/Catalog Settings (Windows) or Lightroom/Catalog Settings (Mac) under the File Handling tab you can set the Standard Preview size and quality, and in the Import Window under File Handling (top right tab) you tell Lightroom whether to create Minimal, Embedded and Sidecar, Standard or 1:1 previews.  If you choose to make smaller previews on import, in the Library module you can select an image or images and go to Library/Previews to render Standard or 1:1 previews after importing.

6) To DNG or Not to DNG?  .DNG is Adobe’s open-source (i.e. free) RAW file standard.  A few camera manufacturers use it as a RAW file format on capture; some people like it and some people don’t.  On the plus side is the fact that proprietary RAW file formats are getting more and more diverse, and as software gets updated, older file formats become unsupported.  Think of it as a language that nobody can read.  Somewhere in a box I have a couple of CDs of images that were scanned using Kodak’s .PCD format, and no current software that I know of can read a .PCD file.  I keep an old copy of Corel Photopaint for just such a purpose.  Imagine ‘losing’ your images simply because they can no longer be opened.  On the other hand, camera manufacturers are putting more and more metadata and other information into their proprietary files (to be opened, preferably with their proprietary software) and a .DNG file is more general than that.  One alternative is to embed the original RAW file within the .DNG, at a cost of disk space (Edit/Preferences/File Handling – Windows or Lightroom/Preferences/File Handling – Mac).  Again, however, if you’re going to go through and purge files from Lightroom after importing, rather than ‘Copy as DNG’ on Import you might want to select files from the Library module and use Library/ Convert Photo to DNG afterward.

7) Backups.  In our Help! I Deleted My Lightroom Images!! post I talked some about backups.  All computer data is ephemeral, and prone not only to equipment failure but also to various kinds of damage such as fire, theft, etc.  Backups are vital.  As to how/when, etc. there are a number of strategies, but the essential question remains, “How much can you afford to lose?”  When importing images into Lightroom, you have the option of backing them up to a secondary location on import.  Again, your workflow decisions determine whether it’s worth backing up every file immediately or whether you want to cull some images first, but AT LEAST back them up before reformatting the card on which the images were stored.

8) Exports.  Okay, that should give you a few ideas on optimizing imports… that leaves Export strategies.  Since Lightroom uses a completely non-destructive workflow, none of the editing changes in Lightroom are made to the image itself until you export it.  Depending on how and where the exported image is going to be used, you have some choices to make.  From the perspective of speeding up exports, the trade-offs are finished file size vs. quality.  Remember step #3 above – Multiple Processes as well.  There are several options for export settings, and the first one is file type.  Whether you export as .JPG, .TIF, .DNG or .PSD depends on where and how the image is going to be used, and different options open up depending on file type.  JPG files for example are ‘lossy’ files, and the quality slider in the export module determines overall quality and thus file size.  These options have been covered well by others before me, so rather than reiterating them here I’ll just point you to those articles:

Adobe Help Resource Center: Export file settings
Jeffrey Friedl: An Analysis of Lightroom JPEG Export Quality Settings

Okay, that’s it for now.  Go out and make some photographs!!


P.S. You can find more of our Lightroom and photography tutorials here, and links to over 200 other sites with Lightroom tips, tutorials and videos here.

2 Replies to “Import/ Export Tips for Lightroom”

  1. arjunkarthaphotography

    Unless I’m mistaken – this process (though helpful) does not concurrently import from multiple cards / drives – it does them serially, therefore taking just as long! Thank you 🙂

    1. wolfnowl Post author

      It\’s not concurrent in the sense that LR is all of a sudden importing more images at a time than it would from one card (that\’s dependent on memory, etc), but concurrent in that one can import from more than one card in one batch. This can be useful for a large shoot where one is specifying an import folder, keywords, etc. as the import process only needs to be started once rather than once for each card. If a large number of images are being imported, as mentioned it\’s best to break the import down into halves. Importing is a two-stage process of adding the images to the catalogue and then generating previews. One can import half of the images, and then while LR is generating previews for those images one can import the other half. This makes more efficient use of LR\’s memory use.


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