Basic File/Folder Structure in Lightroom

Hi Folks:

I originally wrote this for something else, but thought I’d add it in here as well.  As with many of our tutorial posts, this one’s targeted toward beginners but I thought it might be of use to some…

Part of the challenge of Lightroom file management is understanding that Lightroom is working with your operating system folder structure, so basically Lightroom is showing you a subset of the folders you have on your hard drive – those that you have associated with Lightroom.  Now, Lightroom serves many purposes but it is essentially a database program, and a database is an ‘organized system of information’.  If you have an address book with people’s names, addresses and phone numbers in it on your desk or in your pocket, that’s a database.  So is a phone book, a postal code directory or a library coding system for books. 

The term ‘folder’ goes back to the days of filing cabinets where we had physical cabinets and each cabinet had drawers and each drawer had file folders, and each file folder held various pieces of paper.  You would think of the folder as being within the drawer and the drawer as being within the cabinet, so if you were to write those out with some sort of hierarchy it might look like this:

Cabinet 1
….Drawer 1
……..Folder 1
……..Folder 2
……..Folder 3, etc.
….Drawer 2
……..Folder 1
……..Folder 2
……..Folder 3, etc.

Cabinet 2
….Drawer 1
……..Folder 1
……..Folder 2
……..Folder 3, etc.
….Drawer 2
……..Folder 1
……..Folder 2
……..Folder 3, etc.

and so on.

So, we can replace ‘cabinet’ with ‘drive’, and no, we won’t bother with why it’s called the ‘C:\’ drive, and so on, but even though there’s no physical arrangement in that sense on a hard drive the virtual layout is basically the same.  With a filing cabinet one could consider ‘Drawer’ to be the ‘parent’ or higher level of organization than a folder as it contains several folders, and one could consider Cabinet to be the ‘parent’ or higher level of organization than a drawer.  Now hard drives are virtual things as well as physical, and so while it is possible to subdivide a single physical drive into multiple virtual drives or ‘drawers’, that gets too complicated.  We’ll simplify it by saying that we have ‘cabinets’ or in this case ‘drives’ and we have ‘folders’.  Rather than having four levels of organization: cabinet->drawer->folder->files we can have virtually any number of levels – folders within folders within folders and each folder can hold files, other folders, or both.

If a folder is within another folder, it’s considered a subfolder.  If a folder contains other folders, it’s considered (in Lightroom terms) a ‘parent’ folder. Parent folders can also be subfolders just as we have children, parents, grandparents, great grandparents, etc.  Not so complicated.

In essence, then, rather than having cabinet->drawer->folder->files we have something like this:

….Folder 1
….Folder 2
……..Folder A
…………Folder *
…………….File 1
…………….File 2
……..Folder B
…………File 1
…………File 2
……..File 1
……..File 2

and so on.  If you think of the drive as being the trunk of a tree, then each level of folder is like the branches of that tree and the files are the leaves.  This is why it’s sometimes called a directory tree.

So, that’s essentially how your computer’s hard drive is mapped out.  Physically it doesn’t look like that at all, but this is a convention that puts things in terms that we can use.  Now, some folders can also have what are essentially ‘shortcut’ descriptions, so a path like:

C: drive
….Users Folder
……..Mike Folder
…………Desktop Folder
…………….Libraries Folder
………………..Pictures Folder
or C:\Users\Mike\Desktop\Libraries\Pictures is just known as the Pictures folder.

In Lightroom, what you’re seeing is the same sort of layout, but as I mentioned, it’s only showing you a subset of what’s on your drive(s) because the Lightroom database (catalogue) doesn’t care about Word documents, PDF files, emails, or programs.  All Lightroom cares about are image files/ videos.

When you ‘import’ an image, a group of images or a folder into Lightroom, all you’re really doing is creating a dynamic link within the Lightroom catalogue (database) to that portion of the hard drive.  You’re telling Lightroom to pay attention/ be aware of those folders/files and to ignore everything else – i.e. non-related files and folders that are of no interest to Lightroom.  You’re not actually creating any new file structure within the Lightroom catalogue (database) itself, you’re just highlighting a portion of what’s already there.  If you create a new folder from within Lightroom you’re creating a new folder in your hard drive structure, just using Lightroom to do it for you.  The effect is the same as going to Windows Explorer or Mac Finder and choosing ‘add New Folder’ and calling it whatever name you give it. When you import images into Lightroom from the card from your camera for example, you’re both copying the images from the card onto your hard drive and putting them into the folder you’ve selected while simultaneously creating links to those new files within the Lightroom catalogue. Lightroom creates a line in its database that says, “IMG0001.DNG is located at C:\Users\Mike\Desktop\Pictures\Mike’s Images” or wherever you’ve chosen.  It’s because of these ‘pointers’ that it’s very important to always do your file management from within Lightroom after importing images.  If you move an image, images or folder(s) using Mac Finder/ Windows Explorer or another program after importing those files/folders into Lightroom then the link in the Lightroom catalogue gets broken and Lightroom tells you that “C:\Users\Mike\Desktop\Pictures\Mike’s Images\IMG0001.DNG is no longer where it’s supposed to be.”  If you have images on an external drive, say at E:\Users\Mike\Desktop\Pictures\Mike’s Images\IMG0001.DNG and you disconnect the drive, Lightroom tells you, “But I don’t see an E: drive.”  When you reconnect the drive Lightroom goes, “Oh, there it is!” and it’s all happy again.

Every nested level of drives/folders in Lightroom’s Library module has an arrow beside it. If the arrow is pointing to the right > then the subfolders/files are hidden from view to keep things a little more organized.  You can expand or collapse/contract each level of the directory tree by pressing on the arrow, and you can expand or collapse the entire nest of subfolders in any specific branch by holding down the Alt/Opt key and pressing on an arrow.

Now, because Lightroom is working with a subset of your operating system’s file structure, what you can do within Lightroom is somewhat less than than what you can do within the operating system itself.  By right-clicking on a folder you can rename an existing folder, you can create a new subfolder by selecting “create folder inside…”, you can display a parent folder not currently displayed by selecting “add parent folder” and you can remove a folder from its association with the Lightroom catalogue.  You can also move a folder from one location or drive to another by clicking on it and dragging it to a new location.  Doing this file/folder management within Lightroom maintains the dynamic links.  You cannot delete a folder from the drive using Lightroom and if you delete an image or images from within Lightroom then it will first ask you if you want to remove the files from the Lightroom catalogue or delete them from the drive.  Deleting them removes them from the drive as well as the catalogue, of course.

I trust that makes some kind of sense.  Now go out and make some photographs!!


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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