The Ultimate Guide to Import in Lightroom - Digital Darkroom Academy

The Ultimate Guide to Import in Lightroom

Lightroom is not like a regular file browser. You have to get your photographs inside of Lightroom, before you can start using the software to retouch them or to organize them. This is called Import in Lightroom. But, please remember, when I say ‘bring in’ or ‘import’, what it really means is just create a reference to those files. The photos never actually come into Lightroom, as we’ve understood in our post about catalogsImport is a simple process, but there are some aspects of it that can get a little confusing.

In the video below, we’re gonna take a deep dive into each one of the settings that is available in the Import dialog. It is a slightly long video, but it’ll not only clear up a lot of things, but also tell you a few things that you can automate during the Import process and save some time.

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How to open the Import dialog

How can we go ahead and start the import process? There are actually three ways in which you can Import in Lightroom. First, by going into the menu. File > Import Photos and Video and that would open up the Import dialog. The second thing you can do is press the shortcut key that you see here, which is Ctrl+Shift+I on a PC and that’ll be Cmd+Shift+I on a Mac.

Import in Lightroom

Then another third way to get to the Import dialog is simply by clicking on the Import… button on the bottom left in the Library module. This is the method that I prefer doing, it’s just so much faster.

Import in Lightroom

Any of these will open up the Import dialog where you can start to bring your photos into Lightroom. Let me explain briefly what’s going on there and then we’ll see each one in detail. On the left side, we have the Source, which tells us where exactly the photos are coming from. Then in the middle, we see the actual photos that are going to be imported into Lightroom. On the top of this thumbnail area, we get to decide what is it that we want to do with these photographs. Do we want to copy them, move them or just simply add them to the catalog? Finally, on the right side, we decide if we want to apply any operations to our photos as they’re being imported, along with deciding where our photos would go.

Import dialog

Where are the photos coming from?

Let’s start by understanding the Source panel on the left. This is the area which decides where the photos are coming from. So, this will list down all the hard drives in your computer. It’ll list down any devices that might be connected to your computer. Now, in my opinion, the best time to import your photographs is right after the shoot; directly from the Camera or directly from the memory card. So, if you have your memory card connected to your computer, it’ll show under the Devices section, and as you can see below I have my memory card connected; and if I select that, it’ll start showing all the photos in the thumbnail area in the middle.
source panel in Import

This is when I import in Lightroom from the memory card. But, if your photographs are already on your hard drive where they need to be, you can also go to that location from this panel and simply select the folder those photos are in. Once you select that, it will start showing those photos in the middle. If your selected folder has any subfolders that you want to include in your import, you can simply check the “Include Subfolders” option. You can select multiple folders by pressing the Ctrl key on PC or the Cmd key on a Mac and then clicking on the second folder’s name.

source panel in lightroom import

Which photos are getting imported?

Once you have your source location selected, let’s take a look at the middle area. This area is displaying the thumbnails of all of the photographs that are in the source location that I’ve selected. So, I selected my memory card, it’s showing me all the photographs that are in my memory card. On top, you have three little options: All Photos, New Photos and Destination Folders. This this shows you different methods of displaying the photographs. All Photos will show me all the photos there are in the folders I selected on the left side. New Photos will only show me photographs that are not already in my catalog. Destination Folders divides this area into sections. These sections are based on the option I select in the Destination panel on the right side. If I have the option selected in the Destination panel to organize it by date, then in this Destination Folders view, it’ll divide the grid up into sections based on the date. So, one section will contain photographs from one date, the other section will contain photographs from another date.

Import in Lightroom

If you want to import all the photos from your card or whichever location that you’ve selected, you can click on the Check All button at the bottom. Or if you only want to import only a few, you can check only the ones that you want to import. Now, you could do this one by one, which will take up a lot of time; or you could simply select one, press the Shift key, select the other photos you want to import, then press the check mark on any one photo. Once you do that, it will check all the rest of them. Pressing the Shift key will select the photos that are next to each other. If you want to select non-continuous, you’ll have to press the Ctrl (PC) or Cmd (Mac) key and then click on the photos you want to select. And once they’re selected, just click on the check mark on any one photo and it’ll select all of those photographs for import.

At the bottom of this central area, we have a few options. We can be in the Grid View or see the whole image on the screen with the help of the two options on the left. Then next to this is the Check All and Uncheck All buttons; you can use these to check all the photographs or uncheck all the photographs. About these buttons, if you press the Alt key on a PC, or Option key on a Mac, these change to Check Videos and Uncheck Videos; which means that if you have shot some photographs and some videos, but you only want to import the videos, you can select only those by pressing this button you get. Or even the other way round with the Uncheck Videos button.

Import in Lightroom

Then next in this bar, we have the sorting options. First we have the option of sorting by ascending order or descending order with the A -> Z icon. Then right next to it, we have a dropdown menu, where we can select different sorting options. The most commonly used sorting option is the Capture Time. But, other options include Checked State (whether a photo is checked on or not), File Name, File Type and Media Type (photo or video). Next to that, is a slider that you can use to increase or decrease the size of the thumbnails.

How do you want to import your photos?

Now, once we are done selecting which photos we want to bring, we need to decide how those photographs will be handled, how those photographs will be imported and we have options for that right at the top. You can do 4 things with your photos. Copy as DNG, Copy, Move, Add.

Import in Lightroom

Copy as DNG

This copies the photos from your source location to the folder you select from the destination panel, and it also converts those files into the DNG format during this import process, during this process. What exactly is the DNG? DNG stands for the Digital Negative, which is actually a RAW format that is devised by Adobe, to standardize the different RAW formats. Now, whether you should convert to DNG or not, it’s a big debate in the photography circles. I personally do NOT convert my photos to DNG. I mention the reasons for that in another blog post, you can check it out here: 6 reasons why you shouldn’t convert to DNG.


Choosing this option will also copy your photographs into the folder you select in the destination location, but it will not convert them into the DNG format. It will keep them in the original format that you have shot them in. This option is usually the option to select when you are bringing your photos directly from your memory card or the camera. You would have your images in the memory card, and you would copy them into a folder on your hard drive using this Copy option.


Next we have Move. This option will copy the photos into the new location that you selected, but they will no longer be available at the original location. So, whatever you selected as the source, those files will get deleted from there, and they will just be there in the destination location after the Import process is done. This would be a good option to choose if you are re-organizing your photographs; but it’s not used all that much otherwise.


Then the last option we have is Add. What this does is, it just adds those photos into the Lightroom catalog at their existing locations. Nothing happens to the files of the photograph. They don’t get moved, they don’t get copied. They stay where they were. They just get referenced by the Lightroom catalog. This option is great when your files are already in an organized structure, they are already in the folders they should be in; and you just want to get them to show inside of Lightroom. If you choose Add, then in the panels on the right side, the File Renaming and Destination panels disappear, since they are not really applicable. The files stay in the same place, they stay with the same name.

I, usually import my photos right after the shoot directly from the memory card, so the option that I use most often is the Copy option. Sometimes though, I may end up using the Add option when I have my photographs in the location they need to be in and I just want them to show inside of Lightroom. But, I’ve almost never used the other two options. I’ve never used Move, I’ve never used Copy as DNG.

Do you want to apply any settings to your photos during import in Lightroom?

Once you’ve selected your photographs and decided how you want to bring them, we can take a look at the panels on the right side, we have options if we want to apply some operations to the photos as they’re being imported.

Import in Lightroom

File Handling Panel

The first panel we have is the File Handling panel. In that the first option Build Previews. Now if you understand how Lightroom works, then you know that none of the files themselves are coming in Lightroom at all. The files that are being copied, that are being imported, the files are not coming into Lightroom. Only their previews are coming in. We discuss this in detail in our blog post about catalogs. Over here, Lightroom wants to know what quality of previews do you want to make at the time of the import. If you don’t make high-quality previews right now, every time you go on to a photo, or zoom in on to a photo, the preview will be generated then and it will take up some time to load the preview at that time.

file handling panel in lightroom


So, in this Build Previews dropdown, we have four options. Minimal is a pretty low quality preview. Embedded & Sidecar basically uses the preview the camera created. It’s not really a high quality preview but you have something to look at while you build other previews. This has improved in the new Lightroom Classic CC version. Standard builds a standard sized preview. It’s a bigger preview than Embedded and Sidecar, but it’s still not full size. You can select the size of the Standard Preview in your Lightroom Preferences. So, once you’re inside Lightroom, you can go to your Preferences and select what size the Standard size Preview should be. I talk more about how to do that in another blog post about Lightroom’s speed. Then, next we have the 1:1 previews. These are the full sized previews. These can take up quiet a bit of time to build after import, and they also take up a lot of space on your hard drive, but when you’re going through your photos, you can zoom in and you won’t have to wait for it to load at that time. They will already be loaded. I choose Standard for all my imports as that’s kind of the right balance between quality and speed.

build smart previews in lightroom

Then next is a checkbox called Build Smart Previews. Smart Previews are basically previews that allow you to edit the photos even if the original files are offline. This can be really cool. Let’s say you keep your files in an external hard drive. If you create Smart Previews, you don’t need to keep this hard drive connected to your computer at all times. Your hard drive could be sitting at home and you would be in a coffee shop or somewhere else and you would still be able to work on your photos. If you don’t build Smart Previews, you will always need to have your original files accessible.

file handling panel in lightroom

Then Don’t Import Suspected Duplicates is self-explanatory. You don’t want to import photographs that are already in your catalog. It’s always on when I am importing photos. When it is on, it greys out all the photographs that are already in Lightroom. It won’t even allow you to select them.

Import in Lightroom

After that, we have Make a Second Copy to. This creates another copy of these files at a location you specify. You would think that this is a good way to automatically back up your photographs, but the filing structure it creates is not ideal for backups. It creates folders with the naming convention that looks like this: Imported on <date>, for example, Imported on 27 December. If you back up your photos with this, it can be quiet a pain to recover them. It can be quiet a pain to find your photographs from this folder structure. We talk about backup strategies in a lot more detail in The Complete Lightroom Course, so if you haven’t already checked it out, go do that! Anyways, I keep this option off because I do not like to backup my photographs using this.

file handling in lightroom

Then, Add to Collection. You can add your photos to any existing or a new collection right when importing them. If you use Collections to organize your photos and I definitely recommend that you should, then this can really save you a lot of time! Because this way, you don’t have to manually add them to the Collection after they are in your Library. It’ll happen automatically right on import. These photographs will end up in the Collection of your choice. When you check the checkbox on, it’ll start showing you your existing collections and collection sets; or you can create a new collection with this + icon on the right.




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File Renaming

After the File Handling panel, we have the File Renaming panel. Now, if you’ve read The Ultimate Quick Guide for Lightroom, I talk about The History Book Technique in that, which is basically the naming convention I use for naming my files and folders. I won’t go into what that is, over here, you can check The Ultimate Quick Start Guide for Lightroom to find out more about that.

File Renaming panel in lightroom

I have the template already made for The History Book Technique which I will simply select that from the Template dropdown. You can make your own file name template from this Template dropdown and then going to Edit… Since that’s a detailed topic in and of itself, so I won’t go into that right now. I plan to discuss that in another video/blog post in the future. Anyways, after selecting the The History Book Technique template, I will type in the name of my client in the Custom Text, and type in the project name in the Shoot Name field. That will rename all my files as per The History Book Technique and you can see the preview of it below where it says Sample.

file renaming in lightroom

Apply During Import

Next up, we have the Apply During Import panel. This panel contains options that allow you to apply certain settings to your photographs as they are imported into Lightroom.

apply during import panel


First, you can select if you want to apply any preset to your photographs under Develop Settings. It’ll list down all the presets you have in the Develop module. This can be really helpful. If there’s a certain setting you apply to all of your photographs, you can make a preset out of that and apply it at import in Lightroom. That way, you don’t have to apply those settings manually every time. For example, I apply lens correction and camera profile settings to every single one of my photo; so I’ve saved them in a preset and I apply them here at import. That way I don’t manually have to apply them once inside. This can also be really helpful if you are trying to achieve a uniform look for the entire shoot. So, let’s say you want your entire shoot to have a cinematic look. You can choose a cinematic preset from these and apply that on import, apply that over here. The photos, when they come into the library, would already have that look applied to them. You won’t have to do anything.


The other thing you can do from this Apply During Import is to apply a metadata preset to all your photographs. Metadata is basically some information that can be embedded into the file of the photo. Things like the creator of the file, copyright information, the title of the photo. All of these get embedded right into the file of the photo. So, its a good idea to add your copyright metadata right here at import, so that all of your photos that are being imported have that embedded into them. What you do is, you select a metadata preset from this dropdown that contains your copyright information. If you haven’t created a preset with your copyright information, you can create one by going into this drop down then choosing New… and then adding the copyright information in the dialog box that appears.


Next, you have the Keywords box. Keywords basically allow you to tag your photographs with words that you may use later search for them. So, at this point, you can add all the words that would apply to all of the photographs that are being imported. So, for example, if I am importing a shoot of a house, I can add ‘house’ or I can add ‘architecture’. But, at import, I would make sure that I only add keywords that apply to all the photos that are included in the import and not just some of them. So, in the case that I am only importing night shots of a house, I can add the keyword ‘night’ to it. But, if the import included both day and night shots, then I wouldn’t add the ‘night’ keyword, because then it’d apply to the day shots as well, and that doesn’t apply. If there are keywords that don’t apply to all the photos in the import, I can add them later on from the Library module. We discuss keywords in a lot more detail in another blog post here: Find Your Photos Faster with Keywords

Where will your photographs go?

Then finally, you need to decide where the photos will go and how they will be organized. That’s what the Destination panel will allow you to do.

Organizing by The History Book Technique

In the screenshot below, I have my Photos I (G:) external hard drive and in that, my folder structure is organized according to The History Book Technique. Again, if you’re not familiar with what The History Book Technique is, go and check out The Ultimate Quick Start Guide for Lightroom.

the history book technique

In order to keep my photos organized according to year, I’ll click on this 2018 folder and then at the top of the Destination panel, I have the Into Subfolder checkbox I’ll make sure it’s checked on. Along with that, from the Organize dropdown , I’ll choose Into One Folder. Then in the Into Subfolder text field, I’ll type in the name of the folder as suggested in The History Book Technique i.e. YYYYMMDD – Client Name – Shoot Name. If you notice at the bottom, where there folders are; in the 2018 folder, it’s creating a new folder by the new name given in the text field above. What you see in light grey and italics, that’s the new folder that will get created during the import process. It’s in this new folder that it’ll be copying all of the files that are getting imported.

Organizing by Date

I don’t recommend it, but you can also organize your photos according to date, by creating date-based folders. For that, from the top of the Destination panel, you have the Organize dropdown. From this, instead of Into One Folder, you can select By Date.

destination panel in lightroom

When you select that, it’ll show another dropdown where you can select the format of the date; and there are quite a few to choose from. Any of these formats that have a slash in them, that will create nested folders, which would mean that it would first create the 2018 folder and then inside that, it’ll create the month folder and then inside that it’ll create the day’s folder.

destination panel

Just to be sure of what’s happening with each one, what you can do is select anyone and then scroll all the way down to see what folders are being created and where are they being created. It’s really important to make sure you have selected the correct parent folder. So in this case, I’ve selected 2018 to be the parent folder, and then Lightroom is creating the date-based folders inside that. It’s actually creating another 2018 folder inside there, which is something I wouldn’t want. If you’ve selected the wrong folder, the new folder that Lightroom creates will end up at a place where you didn’t want it, where you can’t find it. So, always double-check by scrolling down below and checking what you see in italics at the bottom, making sure it’s happening the way that you would want it.

Saving Your Import Settings

Lightroom remembers the previously used settings and will bring those up the next time you open the Import dialog. But, there may be cases where you may need different settings for different purposes. For example, if you’re importing from a card, you may need one set of settings and if you’re just importing from inside your hard drive, you may need another settings. So, what you can do is, you can save all of these settings, as an Import Preset.

import in lightroom

What you have to do is simply go right at the bottom and find the black bar that says Import Preset. On the other side of this bar, you have a dropdown where you have the option to Save Current Settings as New Preset. When you click on that, it’ll ask you for to name it and you can name it anything you want, and then you can come back to these import settings every time you import something similar.

import in lightroom

Now, what does it really include in the Import Preset? It only includes the settings from all the right side panels. It does not include the source nor does it include which photos you selected, because that changes every time.

Now all that’s left to do is to just click on the Import button and that will bring your photos into Lightroom. If you have any questions related to import in Lightroom, feel free to ask them in the comments section.

Shajee Aijazi

Shajee Aijazi is the founder of Digital Darkroom Academy. He helps people speed up their post-processing workflow and organize their photos in a way that they don't have to waste time managing it and they can focus on creating great looking images.

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  • Hi Shazee

    Thanks for the very good article. I have some questions if I may. I’m new to Lightroom by the way. I have, I think, a pretty good folder structure on my hard drive storing my photos and concentrate on getting that right before I do anything in Lightroom.

    I am torn between using the copy or the add function adnwant to get it right from the beginning especially with future growth in the number of photos I import and also downstream I can see me going to a NAS drive to hold all my photos. My concerns/questions are

    If I decide to adopt the copy function I feel I will always use it and not use the add function – so want to get it right from the beginning, I will then create a ‘mirrored’ folder structure within Lightroom. My thinking then is when I come to use the other main functions – Develop etc – then I always will be referencing each particular destination folder and all the edits etc will remain there.

    If I adopt to use the add function, the advantage is I save disc space and I don’t have thre hassle of haing to create a mirrored destination folder structure. I am assuming that if I want to go back and edits to any photos I have to go back and reference the source folder and hence reference the import and then it has all the edits i’ve made stored there for me to add to / change etc

    Is it as simple as that with no disadvantages whatsoever, ie if I have a good original source folder structure which doesn;t fundamentally change but only get added to – then using the add function is better thatn using copy

    I hope this makes sense but simply want to get it right from the beginning

    BR Tony

    • Hey Tony, thank you for your comment and questions.

      In your questions though, one important piece of information is missing. Where are you copying/adding those files from?

      • if you’re bringing them in from your camera’s card, it would not make sense to use the ‘Add’ functionality, because you want to copy them somewhere too, whether on your external hard drive (which is my recommendation) or on your computer’s hard drive.

      • if your photos are already on your hard drive, or where you want them to be; then the “Add” functionality makes sense; since you’re just adding those photos to Lightroom and not copying the files of those photos anywhere (since they’re already where you need them to be).

      The other thing to note in your comment is that when you go ahead to use the features in Develop and make any edits, they never get applied to your original files, nor are they stored in the place where your original files are. All edits made within Lightroom are stored inside the Catalog file.

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