Mar 19, 2014

How Lightroom Can Come To The Rescue When Your Images Go MIA.

It was a rainy, evocative, day in Vancouver when I received a rather flustered call from a good friend. She had recently been shooting on location down south and her laptop had run out of storage space. Knowing that all her files were backed up not once, but twice back home she went into Lightroom and deleted about 4 months worth of images then continued on her merry way.

Upon returning home she went into her backup system to retrieve the files she deleted only to realize that she had accidently blacklisted her laptop’s internal drive in her backup software and none of the photos that she deleted actually had been backed up!

Four months worth of photos gone! Including several client shoots which had YET to be edited or delivered. Needlessly to say she was quickly approaching exasperatingly hysterical by the time she got ahold of me.

Given that she had refilled her hard drive with new photos while shooting data retrieval of the deleted files was pretty unlikely so my initial response was to tell her to start practicing her best “I’m sooooooo sorry” speech but through her teary cries she randomly opened lightroom and all the previews of her images started popping up.

Initially she was gleeful, she thought the files had magically resurfaced only to realize a few seconds later that all she was seeing was the cached previews that Lightroom likes to store to speed things up for you.

Luckily for her a strangely shaped lightbulb popped up above my head. There was a hint of hope. If Lightroom has those previews displaying it means image files of some sort must be stored somewhere. I had no idea what resolution or quality they might be but there were certainly image files someplace!

After some research and tinkering I was able to recover a huge number of image files for her and while none of the raw files could be recovered I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Lightroom stored the vast majority of the library as full resolution jpgs! Certainly not ideal but good enough to avoid being sued!

How To Export Lightroom Preview Files To Your Desktop

My initial assumption was that I would have to figure out a way to unpackage the Lightroom catalogue file and manually extract the images that I hoped were stored in a format that I could easily use.

After a quick Google search, however, it turns out that Adobe has already created a fantastic Lightroom script for exporting previews and also includes detailed instructions on how to set it up.

After exporting all your photos you will find a folder filled with jpg image files named according to their resolution. The script will automatically export the highest resolution preview available which ideally will be full resolution.

The only weakness I found with the script is that it doesn’t take into account the folder structure of your library. It merely exports each and every image you selected into a single folder. You can, however, maintain, your organization by exporting images folder by folder instead of all at once.

How To Make Sure Lightroom Caches Full Resolution Previews

Lightroom, by default, only caches the lowest quality image it needs. For example, if you only ever view a set of pictures in grid view the previews will only be 160×100. I am sure you have also noticed that sometimes when you are culling your images that when you view an image it starts out looking a bit low quality then if you wait lightroom displays a full quality one. This happens because Lightroom first makes a lower resolution preview. (About 1000px on the short edge) and then creates a full resolution preview.

If you skip through your images too quickly while culling Lightroom will not cache the full resolution preview.

You can also force Lightroom to render full resolution previews of all your images by going into the “Library” menu and then under “Previews” where you are greeted the the option: “Build 1:1 Previews”. If you have a large library though this can take up a lot of hard drive space. For example my Lightroom catalogue is about 20gb.


This method, is, of course, an absolute last resort. My best advice is to make sure you have a secure, reliable, two tier backup workflow that includes offsite storage but when all else fails at least Lightroom has one more line of defence for you. I hope you never ever have to use it!


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    Mark ODonnell

    Hey Ryan. I enjoy your articles and tips. This one in particular should get a lot of people thinking about their backup strategies. I would love to see an article on the differences and pros/cons for different off site backup offerings. I have been using cloud storage for awhile but I am slightly put off by the speed of recovery which can be weeks for a full backup recovery.

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      Ryan Cooper

      Hey Mark, I have tried a few online backup solutions but not nearly enough to be able to confidently write about them. Of the ones I have tried Amazon Glacier has proven to be by far the fastest and most reliable, however backing up and recovering will always take a very long time due to the bandwidth and speed limitations imposed by internet service providers.

      Personally, I feel like cloud storage should be your last line of defence. You should never have any intention of actually needing it. Local backups are much quicker when recovery is needed. I would only recover from the cloud if my local backups were compromised along with my primary files. (which really only should happen if I get robbed or my studio burns down)

      I also think effective culling can also be a huge factor in making backups more manageable. Some photographers keep every image they take forever. Personally I usually narrow down a shoot to the best 80% or so and discard the rest. Keeping all the shots where the camera mis-focused or the subject blinked really doesn’t do anything other than eat up storage budget.

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    Matthew Kent

    Backup solutions can be expensive and while cloud sounds good, I don’t think it is very practical for the pro photographer. First off, any pro should be using some kind of NAS (Network Attached Storage) Array. This is where your photos get offloaded and stored in Raw. Depending on your needs these can run from 4TB QNAS boxes to 32TB Thecus boxes with Fiber Channel. Ideally you will then store your working files on a separate NAS or local hard drive which is then backed up. This all becomes layer one of your storage. Your Raw NAS and Working NAS should then be either backed up to external hard drives or tape which are stored offsite.

    Cloud solutions like Amazon Glacier are a possibility for archiving images, but recovery is expensive and slow. For a pro that has terabytes of data, cloud backups can prove to be much more expensive than the purchase of a couple of hard drives. However, the convenience of not having to rotate backup drives and remember to bring back a drive to the office or take drive offsite may make it worth the added cost.

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      Ryan Cooper

      I agree Matthew, to a degree, however, sometimes the reality of running a business creates problems with one’s ability to construct a set up like you describe. Furthermore, for someone who knows little to nothing about computers it would be awfully difficult to set something like that up.

      The photographer who’s story I mentioned above is not a computer whiz, she uses time machine and just trusts that it will work. She also doesn’t have the budget to spend $10,000 on a backup solution.

      Ideally we would love a RAID backup solution that also uses tape archiving which then gets stored offsite but at the same time we must also do what is economical. Just like how buying that $6,000 200mm F2.0 is usually not the best business decision for emerging photographers an expensive backup routine also isn’t something that can easily be bootstrapped.

      For my own personal use Amazon Glacier is fantastic. Beyond my already local backups it provides not only an excellent “second line of defence” but it also does it at a price that I can stomach.

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        Matthew Kent

        It’s kind of my job to help businesses find solutions that work. 🙂 For under $1000 you can buy a 16TB NAS with dual gigabit NICs (greatly improving throughput) from Western Digital. Most of the new NASes include software to help you in backing them up to cloud services like Amazon Glacier. So for less than the cost of many of the lenses in my non-pro bag, you can have an easy way to secure your data. If you can survive with 8TB, two NAS arrays can be bought for $1500 for my aforeposted setup. A managed gigabit switch (allows for link aggregation) with 8 ports can be purchased for $60. Add in $240 for a local IT specialist to set it up for you and your total cost is $1800. If people are interested I could even throw up a tutorial on setting up such a system.

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          Maybe think of something like this. Will try to say as easy as possible.
          2 different ZFS partitions. One will back up another one. Don’t need to spend thousands and it is more secure, repair itself, doesn’t involve expensive raid hardware. Run it on few years old computers like Intel atom motherboards and it will serve you well. Mine 2 computers with router costs 230E (with two gigabit ethernet cards). Rest money goes toward HDD. You need 6 of them minimum 8 would be perfect. And even to make things simpler you can buy one computer install ZFS partition (RAID-Z2) and you can sustain up to two drive failures without losing data. Your data will be lost only if some flood, fire or theft will occur.

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    “fantastic Lightroom script for exporting previews” doesn’t work