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Posted by Gerard Murphy – December 22, 2011 browse all

How To Move Photos To An External Hard Drive In Lightroom

At some point most serious photographers make so many pictures that they will run out of space on their local hard drive. They will then want to put their images on an external hard drive. One of the most common questions we get from photographers is “how do I move my images to an external hard drive within Lightroom?”

This process is actually pretty straight forward in Lightroom but not terribly intuitive.

For many Lightroom users, they know better than to just move their images to their external hard drive. Lightroom is a catalog software. Basically this means that Lightroom references the file location. If you move that file behind without Lightroom knowing, Lightroom will have no idea where the image is. The image will then appear “offline or missing.”

This is the same process in Lightroom 4 as described here in Lightroom 3.

If you have an image in Lightroom, that image should only be moved from within Lightroom.

Move Images to External Hard Drive Lightroom

To Move an image to an external drive, from within the Library module, press the “plus” button on the left navigation next to the Folders menu. Making sure your external hard drive is plugged in, select the drive. If you want to add a folder you can also do this.

Then within Lightroom, select the images and drag them into the new folder you have created. Lightroom will give you a warning that you are moving the files. Lightroom will then move the images from their present location to your external hard drive.

This will free up space on your local hard drive. Using Mosaic you can backup and connect to the contents of that external hard drive, even when you are not plugged in. This gives you anywhere access to you photos.

Most photographers will keep some of their photos on their local computer (depending on how many you take this could be the last year or the last week). Eventually when they are ready they will then move the files to an external hard drive.

Here is a quick video on how to move your files to an external hard drive using Lightroom.

Gerard Murphy

Gerard Murphy is an entrepreneurial do-er who is the CEO / Co-Founder of Mosaic. He is also a decent guy who loves his family, taking photos and startup culture. Loves promoting Mosaic to the world. Gerard has written several articles on entrepreneurship, marketing and photography that have appeared in publications including Forbes, LinkedIn and Photofocus.

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  • Locatethis

    And after that, do I move the catalogue over to the external drive too?

    • Anonymous

      You can move your Lightroom catalog to an external drive but you do not have to. If you move your catalog to an external drive you can plug that external hard drive into any machine with Lightroom installed (second laptop, desktop etc.) and you will have full access to your images. (Within the same operating system) 

      The downside to moving your catalog to the external hard drive is that you will not have access to that catalog when that external drive is not plugged in. If you leave the catalog on the primary computer, than you can still access all of your images in the Library Module when the external drive is not plugged in. With the catalog on the primary machine and the external drive not plugged in, you can still view the previews of the images and change any of the metadata (stars, flags, keywords, etc.). You cannot use the Develop module. 

      A lot of photographers will keep their master catalog on their primary computer and move older photos to an external hard drive as they need more space on their machine. It obviously depends on what you are looking to achieve with your workflow. Hope this helps! 

      • DS

        Thanks for this. I am running out of space and need to do something. I at first considered the external drive route and am now thinking about going with a second internal drive in my laptop. If install a second internal drive, I would use it for just storing my images and I would work in Lightroom from the second internal drive only.

        I’m wondering though if the external drive method would be more efficient? I’v heard people talk about LR slowing down once it gets so many images in the catalog (I can see some slowdown but not enough to make me mad yet). So, if I have a second internal drive to work from, I may start experiencing this. If I have an external drive where I’m simply archiving older photos I’m no longer currently processing, then in theory I would have less photos on my internal drive which would make LR run smoother.


      • Catherine O’Hara

        How do I move the actual catalogue to the external HD once the files are moved? Is it just a simple mac move action? Thanks

        • MosaicArchive

          Hi Catherine, To move the actual catalog file (not the photos), first quit Lightroom and then copy and paste the Catalog Files onto the external drive.

          Once you know the catalog is safely on the drive, then delete the original catalog file on the internal drive. 

          Then reopen Lightroom. When this happens Lightroom will not know where you catalog is. Point it to the pasted catalog file by selecting “Choose a Different Catalog” when promoted. Then you are all set! 

          This blog post has a more detailed description. 

          Hope that helps! 

  • Lisa

    I am having trouble with file name duplication.  what am I doing wrong?

    • MosaicArchive

      Hi Lisa. Happy to help. Can you give me a little more info and I can help figure out what is going on. It is not immediately obvious. Thanks! 

  • George F Felton

    Great Help. Does this work the same for LR 4.1? And how do I make the external drive my main working drive so I can free up my PC hard drive?

    • MosaicArchive

      This works exactly the same as LR3! If you move all of your images to your external hard drive it will save a lot of space. Keep your Lightroom catalog local and you will still have “offline” access. 

  • Pat

    But this only moves the jpg files? I’d like to back up my original dngs some how.

    • MosaicArchive

      The same process moves RAW, DNGs, Videos or JPGS.

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  • Tsaisaenz

    When I try to import photos and add folder it says no pictures were found and I can never see my external harddrive that I am trying to add

    • MosaicArchive

      You should add the Drive in the Library module before importing new photos. The drive needs to be plugged in when adding the drive and also when trying to import photos to that drive. Hope that helps! 

    • Tsaisaenz

      my hardrive does not have its own category but a subset folder under my mac hd folder? Is it ok to use it like this

      • MosaicArchive

        It is fine to use a subset folder!

    • Tsaisaenz

      can i move the location so it has its own location instead of inside my mac hd drive?

      • MosaicArchive

        Yes. You can add a new folder using the “plus” button and then drag and drop the photos to that location. 

  • Yuluminati

    i moved all pics from my All Photographs to the ext HD but photos still remain on LR

  • Ian

    If I add

  • Ajhaun

    I followed your instructions, but to save time i selected an entire parent folder that contained many subfolders. The result is that Lightroom moved all the photos, but they were copied into one single folder, and the subfolders with dates, places, etc. were not moved. For this to work properly, does one have to select each subfolder and move it one at a time?

    • Jason Kindle

      Were you able to find a resolution to this? Thanks.

      • Supreet

        Did you find any solution to sub folders?

  • Anita

    Thanks so much. this was very helpful!

  • ymorris

    I have tried to move my images to a flash drive on my pc. I have tried doing it directly from Lightroom which did not work so I moved the picture to my desktop and it still doesn’t work. What am I doing wrong?

  • faseeh

    brilliant post, thanks helped very much. Just a quick point – can you please update the link above to Moaisc plugin – it openes up with a wrong link.


    • MosaicArchive

      Thank you! I just updated the link. Apprecaite the heads up.

  • Deidra

    Thank you! This is just what I needed.

  • tiffysquid

    Hi. Great post! Now if I’d only read it before I moved catalog items around. I actually re-imported all my photos, doing a merged master catalog (previously i had two catalogs, and every time I tried to find or get advice online, everyone would tell me to combine the catalogs).

    The upshot is, I have thousands of ? question mark photos that Lightroom can’t find. It isn’t hard for me to locate them. However, it’s going to take foreeeever and I have a disability that makes it difficult for me to click and drag thousands of times in a row. “find others nearby” just finds a few. Is there any way to make it find and re-link EVERYTHING in a folder, including subfolders? Should I start over and re-import? Thank you so much for your posts and followup comments here…

  • Erik Meadows

    Amazing article! I have successfully moved a good portion of my Lightroom photos to an external hard drive, freeing up space on my main desktop hard drive, in the exact manner that you outlined in this article. Thank you!!!

    However, I am stuck. I want to have TWO external hard drives with all of these photos (so they are backed up). How do I go about putting an exact copy of these Lightroom images onto a second external hard drive? Thank you!

    • MosaicArchive

      Thank you! I am glad you liked the post!

      Also, you should consider using Mosaic for online backup as well :)

      You can keep a carbon copy of your external drive locally by using a couple of software packages. I use SuperDuper on my Mac for this.

      These systems create an exact clone of your external so when (not if) your external fails, you can just plugin the new drive, point Lightroom to it and be merry.

      Hope that helps!

      • Erik Meadows

        When I point the 2nd drive to Lightroom, I’m not merry. :-(

        The second drive does have a copy of all of my RAW files, but when I open them in Lightroom, using the “Add Folder” function, and then import, none of my edits are on the images, the way the edits are on the images after I move the files (like in the video). Am I missing something? A second copy of all of my files is not nearly as useful if I can’t open the versions that I have spent many hours editing into Lightroom.

        • MosaicArchive

          Hi Erik,

          Good question!

          If you need to reconnect the drive you should not use the “Add Folder” option in the Lightroom Import dialog. You should use the “Find Missing Folder” option.

          This will reconnect your catalog so your edits and metadata will not be lost.

          Hope that helps! Best, Gerard

          • Erik Meadows

            Thanks so much! That works like a charm. It’s almost like you have to toggle back and forth between the hard drives if you want to open the files in one or the other, if that makes sense.

            Lightroom’s cataloging functions are still very confusing to me, I just love the way that it organizes my photos.

            I am all set with my back ups now! Thanks so much for your help!

  • Chelsea

    …I didn’t fully understand lightroom’s cataloging and moved 3,000 files onto my hard drive and NOT through lightroom….is there a way to get them to be in sync with each other?

  • Richard Osborne


    I tried this and was successful at transferring photos to my external drive. But the remained on Lightroom. This is good if I was after a backup, but I need to free up some space on my mac.

    Any suggestions?


    • MosaicArchive

      Hi Richard, Great question. When you move your photos in Lightroom to an external hard drive, this will free up space on your computer. What is a little confusing is that Lightroom keeps a preview image in the Lightroom catalog so this makes it look like the image is still on your computer. You will notice that the image will have a little question mark next to it when the external drive is not plugged in. This preview files are typically small so they will not take up a lot of room on your computer.

      Lightroom gives you the ability to look at these images even when the external drive is not plugged in, which is pretty cool. Hope that helps! Best, Gerard

      • Richard Osborne

        Helped? Heck yes! Thanks, that’s very cool.

  • Tiffany

    I was able to move photos into my new folder under the external hard drive folder, but the photos still appear in lightroom. How do I get them out of Lightroom?

    • MosaicArchive

      If you want to delete the photos from Lightroom, just select them and hit delete. Just to be clear, if the photos are on the external drive, they are no taking up room on your internal drive within the Lightroom catalog. Lightroom shows you previews so you can still view the images even when the drive is disconnected. Hope that helps!

  • lcowboy

    yá’át’ééh! (hi) i need help, i have lightroom 5 on an external drive and i would like lightroom 5 on my laptop. can you help me? lcowboy

  • Joanne

    Your instructions worked to move some of my images to my connected external drive, but I also got messages that the folders could not be moved. Is there a work-around for this?

  • Mark

    I followed the instructions on your video exactly. Once I was done and went to start up lightroom, it won’t open. What am I supposed to do now? I’m also running on mac

  • Lee

    Hi, Thanks for a very useful tutorial. Having said that I’ve encountered a problem, After draging images to the external drive they do not show at all as previews on my Mac HD unless I select the external drive offline, then they will show, but not in any catalogued order, so browsing for a group of images taken at any one time is virtually impossible, I would have to scroll through thousands of images.
    I would like the same format as lightroom offers as on my HD i.e.. dates and file names.
    Am I missing something?
    Your reply would be greatly appreciated.