Lightroom Disaster - When You Lose Your Originals

You know that feeling. You’re working in Lightroom and something just isn’t right. Suddenly it hits you - like a lightning bolt. The original files from your camera are gone. It sends a chill down your spine and gives you that horrible sinking feeling. Now what? You may have just moved the originals and can reconnect them. Or, they may be gone - even from the memory card.

Photo by fizkes/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by fizkes/iStock / Getty Images

All may not be lost. There’s a good chance that you can recover something from your images. The key is understanding how Lightroom works.

 The exclamation point in a dotted box tells you that Lightroom can not locate the original file.

The exclamation point in a dotted box tells you that Lightroom can not locate the original file.

When you “import” a file into Lightroom, you really don’t. Yes, that’s what I mean. Read that sentence again. Lightroom never really “imports” anything. It may put your originals into a folder somewhere, but they never reside inside Lightroom. Instead, what you see when you use the program is a preview image.

The image you see in Lightroom is a JPEG file that is stored inside the Lightroom catalog. Lightroom calls them previews, and they can be a very small thumbnail or have the dimensions of your original file. Regardless of size, Adobe has provided a nifty script that can be installed in Lightroom which gives you the capability of extracting the JPEG previews and creating a separate file. You can then edit this file just as you would any other image file.

Install the script

Search the Adobe help site for an article titled Extract Preview for Lost Images. In that article, you'll see instructions for how to install the script and also how to run the script. It's really straightforward, just follow the directions provided. The only stumbling block that I can see is that you need to be very careful what folder you put the script in.

 After installing the script and restarting Lightroom you should see the script icon next to the Help menu. It may look different in Windows and Mac but the function will be the same. 

After installing the script and restarting Lightroom you should see the script icon next to the Help menu. It may look different in Windows and Mac but the function will be the same. 

A word of caution, in step 3 of the instructions you’ll click a button “Show Lightroom Presets Folder…”, and this will display a folder for all Adobe products. You should see another folder called Lightroom. It is that folder in which you must copy the downloaded script.

Extracting the Image File

Running the script is pretty straightforward. It simply asks you for a file location. This is where you want the newly created files to be stored. I’d suggest a unique folder so that when you’re done, the only contents of the folder are your new files.

It’s going to create a new image file for each of the selected photos. You can extract a single image, or select multiple images.

When it's done, you’ll find a new JPG file with the name of the original file appended with the size of the image. For example, if you’re original file was IMG_1234.CR2, then the new file will be IMG_1234-[pixel width]x[pixel height].jpg.

The pixel dimensions all depend upon the size of the preview that Lightroom has in its catalog. If you’re lucky enough to have 1:1 previews, you’ll see pixel dimensions that should match what you get out of your camera.

After extracting a preview file, I imported the extracted file and compared it to the original preview in Lightroom. As you can see, the color isn't the same but because I had a 1:1 preview, the amount of detail in the file matches the original. Not perfect but I can live with this. (This is Compare View zoomed to 1:1 - showing a portion of the image above.)

The Caveats

This method of image recovery does NOT bring back the original image. There is bound to be some loss of quality, especially if Lightroom does not have a 1:1 preview of the photo available. Even so, it can be a lifesaver as long as you understand the shortcomings.

  • There is no metadata in the extracted preview. That doesn’t mean that the catalog information in Lightroom is gone. It just doesn’t point to the newly created file.
  • The extracted image file doesn’t contain an ICC profile. So, if you import it back into Lightroom, it will be tagged with the sRGB profile.

The Adobe script can be a lifesaver but it doesn't magically bring back your original file. This is one of those tools that should be a last resort. To avoid needing this solution, make sure you have a good backup system in place and keep it up to date.