Guest Photo & Post By Nat Coalson

In Part 1 of this two-part mini-series, we looked at how Lightroom uses the catalog (a database) to manage information about your image files. In this article, I will explain the essentials of importing pictures into Lightroom and how to organize your files.

When you open Lightroom for the first time, there won’t be any pictures visible, because you haven’t yet imported any. In the middle of the main preview area, a message appears saying ‘Click the “Import…” Button to Begin…’ If you’ve already imported photos, you won’t see this message, but in either case, the next step is the same: click the Import button (in the bottom left panel of the Library module) or use the Import Photos command under the FIle menu. This opens the Import window, as shown in the above screen shot.

IMPORTANT: Each time you perform a new Import, it’s critical that you take your time to carefully choose your options on this window. Using the wrong settings can create a huge mess!

First, on the left side of the window choose the Source from which you will import the photos. Generally speaking, you’ll encounter two common scenarios when importing photos into Lightroom: 1) the files are on a hard drive, and you just want to add them to the Lightroom catalog, and 2) you are importing new photos from your camera’s memory card.

Let’s look at the first scenario. If the files are on a hard drive, choose the drive and folder on the left side of the window. You should see previews of the photos in the middle of the screen. (If they are grayed out it means you have already imported them into the catalog.) Next, at the top middle of the window, make sure that Add is selected from the four file-handling options. Using Add means that Lightroom won’t move or copy the files, just add them into this catalog. Finally, on the right side of the window go to the Apply During Import panel and make sure that the popup menus are set to None, and there are no Keywords visible in the text box. (Usually, I recommend not applying these settings when importing photos from a hard drive, because you won’t be able to see if there are settings already applied. You can add your presets later, in the Library module.) When you’ve confirmed everything is set up correctly, click the Import button at the bottom right and the import begins.

In the second scenario, where you need to copy files from your camera’s memory card onto a hard drive, you have two options: 1) copy the files manually using drag and drop, putting them in the folder where you want them to be stored, or 2) let Lightroom copy the files for you. When you’re just getting started with Lightroom, in most cases I recommend using the first method. If you copy the files yourself (in the Mac Finder or Windows Explorer), you can be sure that they are stored where you want them. Just make a new folder using a descriptive name and copy your new photos into that folder. The main benefits of this method are that you will know exactly where the files were copied and you can simply use the same Add method described above.

In the top middle of the Import window, if you choose any option besides Add, Lightroom will make copies of your files, and it’s the copies that get Imported into the catalog — not the originals. In this case, you must be very careful choosing the Destination on the right side of the Import window. Otherwise, Lightroom will automatically choose the destination for you. (Typically, this will be in your Pictures folder on your system hard drive, in sub-folders named and organized by the dates the photos were taken.) If you are careful about setting the Destination, having Lightroom copy your files offers several benefits. Most importantly, you can rename the files during the import. However, keep in mind that you can always rename or re-organize your photos after the import, and in many cases, it’s easier to do these things in the Library module instead of in the Import window.

With regard to file organization, the most important thing is that you devise a system that makes sense to you and use it consistently. If you have files spread over several hard drives, in different folder structures using different names, you’re headed for trouble. Ideally, you should keep all your photos in one place, using a consistent organizational system. Most photographers name their folders and files using a combination of date and subject, location or client name. Also, it’s best to keep all your photos in subfolders under one top-level folder, called My Photo Library or something similar. Having everything contained in one top-level folder helps keep your photos organized and makes backing up or moving your photo library much easier.

If you can do some organizing of your photos before you Import them into Lightroom, you can save yourself some time. (Adobe Bridge can be helpful for this.) That said, after you’ve imported photos into Lightroom it’s essential that you do any re-organizing from within Lightroom! The Folders panel in the Library module shows a direct view of the folders on your hard drive. You can add/delete, move and rename folders and files within Lightroom and your changes will be made to the files on the hard drive. If you re-organize photos outside of Lightroom after they’ve been imported, Lightroom will lose track of them, and you will need to re-link the missing files to work with them.

Setting up your Imports correctly is one of the most important steps to working with your photos in Lightroom. Over time, you will do lots and lots of imports. With your familiarity of the process, you can do more batch processing of files during the imports, which can save huge amounts of time and effort. I’ll cover more advanced batch processing in future articles.

Nat Coalson is the author of Lightroom 3: Streamlining Your Digital Photography Process.