Updated: February 6, 2019 | Contains affiliate links

The Ultimate Guide to Importing Photos with Lightroom


Lightroom thumbnailImporting photos with Adobe Lightroom looks frightening sometimes because of the intimidating import screen. Each section of the Lightroom Import screen is well laid out and easy to follow. Once you understand each section and the actions Lightroom can do for you, the entire photo importing process can be very much simplified for you. Read along to find out how to import your photos with Lightroom.

Importing photos with Lightroom is a straight forward process. I love the way the software is laid out and how much sense each option makes. Yes, there are many options, which can be intimidating, but Lightroom can do a lot for you during import once you use it a few times.

Lightroom Import window with most important operations highlighted
Lightroom Import window with most important operations highlighted

1. Source

In order for your photo sources to appear in the Source pull down, you must plug in your external source (a camera or your phone). When you plug in a mobile phone, normally your phone needs some sort of action from you in order to ensure that you want your computer to access data on your phone.

Make sure you plug your phone into your computer, and unlock your phone.  If there are any prompts on your phone, make sure you press OK, Agree, Allow, or whatever else comes up on your phone after connecting it to your computer. Read more about transferring photos from your phone to your computer.

2. Import Actions

Copy as DNG means that your photos will be converted to the DNG (Digital Negative) image format during the process of importing. Unless you are importing RAW photos, you shouldn’t use this format.  If however, you are importing RAW images (from an advanced camera like an SLR) it might make using this option in Lightroom import module. I use this import action whenever I import RAW photos I take with my old DSLR camera.  I prefer the DNG format to Canon’s CR2 format.

The DNG format has several advantages over a RAW file format.  Most importantly, your keywords and metadata can be saved inside the image file itself instead of saving them in an additional sidecar file.

Copy means exactly that: copy your photos from your camera (or phone) to your computer.  I would note that by design Lightroom import does not support Moving photos.  Moving photos means copying to your computer, and deleting the photos from your source.  By design, Lightroom import doesn’t allow moving your photos.  This is the action I choose anytime I copy photos from our mobile phones to our computer, since they are all JPEG format.

When you select Copy you can also modify destination folders in the next section.

Add means adding photos that already exist on your computer.  Adding them where? To your Lightroom catalog.  This means not moving your photos anywhere, but simply telling Lightroom to look at these new photos you select in the Add screen.

After deciding what action to take during import, you can decide which photos to include and which to exclude.  This is called import filtering.  Let’s take a look.

3. Import filtering

All Photos means selecting all photos from the selected source.  It’s as simple as that, you select all photos with a click of a mouse.  This is the filter I use 99% of the times when I import with Lightroom.

New Photos means only importing new photos, or in other words, photos you have not imported previously. This import filter is a bit tricky though, so I don’t use it at all.  Here is how it works.

In order for New Photos to actually select only new photos and not select previously imported photos, a few stars have to align properly.  First, Lightroom compares the photos from your source to what it see in the Destination Folder you have chosen (see next step).  If you move your photos after import (like I do), then this will not work.  Secondly, you must not delete previously imported photos.  If you do, then same photos that you have imported previously and deleted will be imported again.

Since I always use All Photos, and I delete all photos from my source after import, I never have to try to figure how New Photos actually works.

Destination Folders allows you to chose which destination folders you want to include and which ones to exclude.  I never use this one either, since I always use the same destination folder (My Pictures/00-TRANSFER) with dated sub-folders.

Now that we selected the Source, Import Action (Copy) and Import Filter (All), we can actually move on to selecting specific photos to import if we want.

4. Import selection

Now we can filter even more precisely the photos we want to import.  Again, I don’t really use this option.  Once I choose my source and Import Action (Copy or Copy as DNG) I always import all photos. And since All is the default Import Filter, I’m good to go…nothing more to do.

But you can do more if you want…

You can Examine your Photos by scrolling up and down.  Then you can Enlarge Thumbnails to examine closely.  Finally you can un-select the photos you don’t want to import.  In the end, Lightroom allows you to choose exactly what you want to import and exclude what you don’t want.

In addition, at the bottom of the Import screen, Lightroom gives you some helpful buttons by which you can select all or un-select all photos.  You can also use the slider that allows you to enlarge or shrink the thumbnails for easy examination of your photos.

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So, at this point we have our photos source, our Import Action, Import Filter, photos selection.  Now we are ready to pick what to do with our selection of photos.

5. File Handling

Build Previews means what kind of preview files you want Lightroom to use.  There are lots of debates about this, but I always use minimal for my own workflow.  My desktop computer is somewhat old and building any larger previews will slow down Lightroom whenever I want to move from preview to preview quickly. Choosing standard previews during Lightroom import is also a good option if your computer has a decent amount of memory and you are not limited on hard drive space.

Lightroom creates previews as smaller version of you images to help navigating through many and many photos.  Lightroom places your previews in your Lightroom Catalog folder in a sub-folder called “<catalog name> Previous .lrdata”.  To find out where your Lightroom Catalog is go to Edit/Catalog Settings/General Tab.

Smart Previews are a special kind of previews that allow you to zoom in faster when moving from thumbnails to full size.  However, I found that they are large and slow for my own workflow, so I don’t create them.

So far, we have a Source, Import Actions, Import Filter, Photos Selection and Preview sizes.

6. File Renaming

Here you can rename your image files to suit your needs.  I choose to add the date in front of the image file name that comes from my camera or phone.  My old Canon DSLR names images like this IMG_1234.jpg which doesn’t mean anything.  I like to rename my image files like this 2019-01-12-IMG_1234.jpg.  This way I have the date when the image was taken inside the image file name.  I find this helpful sometimes, but it’s not a big deal.

Lightroom give you lots of options for renaming your images during photo import, which can be a real time saver especially if you are processing lots of images.

Next we move to applying developing settings during import.

7. Apply during import

I never apply any develop settings during import.  However, you can increase the contrast or colors, or whatever other parameter to all the imported photos.  Let’s say you know that your camera is a bit flat on the colors.  So, you can increase color saturation for all imported pictures.

Remember that Lightroom doesn’t really modify any of the original photos.  When these develop settings are applied to imported images, this means that a transformation is applied to images you see, but the original pixels are not modified at all.  This is non-destructive editing.

Only when exporting photos with develop settings applied, that’s the only time when the pixels are modified.  It’s only when you create a copy of the image with develop settings, that the pixels of the image copy are actually modified.

Again, I never apply any develop settings during import.

8. Destination

Now we finally get to talk about where we want our photos to be copied to.  If you have been following my STORE method for organizing photos, you have learned about the TRANSFER folder. I always import my photos to My Pictures/00-TRANSFER.  So, that’s the folder I enter in Lightroom Import screen.

Then I make sure I tell Lightroom to create a separate sub-folder for each day of shooting photos.  This way I can easily navigate the different events I have shot pictures for.

Choosing a destination folder during Lightroom Import operation
Choosing a destination folder during Lightroom Import operation


9. Import

Finally, after all that work you get to press the Import button and watch Lightroom go to work.  It will copy only the photos you selected, it will build previous, rename your image files and place them in the folders you wanted. Pretty powerful and cool.

10. Delete photos from your source

I always perform this step in addition to all the steps discussed above for Lightroom Import.  Even though, Lightroom doesn’t allow me to delete my source photos as part of the import process, I verify my imported photos quickly, and then go to my source device and delete all photos.

This step is crucial for making sure you don’t create duplicate copies of your photos.  It is the only way to avoid creating duplicate photos.

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