If you’ve been using Lightroom for a long time, chances are you have accumulated a lot of orphan files. Those are RAW files that still exist in your pictures folder, but that your Lightroom catalog (the database) doesn’t know about.
During the import of your photos, Lightroom adds a lot of information about the images to its catalog. The file name, all the EXIF data like shutter speed, aperture and ISO, the location of the image file on your hard drive and more.
Orphans accumulate over time because when you try to remove a file from Lightroom, it’s actually quite easy that instead of removing the image file, you remove it from the catalog and not from the hard drive.
Whenever you press the backspace key while in the All Photographs view, you get the choice to Delete from Disk or Remove. Delete from Disk trashes the image file, while Remove keeps it in its location and just removes it from the catalog. The default is the Remove button, so by simply hitting enter at this point, you’ve created an orphan.
I have now again reached the point where the hard drive that holds my pictures is threatening to fill up, but this time, instead of just buying a bigger drive and adding to the pile of obsolete hardware, I wanted to find out if there were any invisible space hogs on the drive that I could get rid of first. To my surprise, there were gigabytes of orphans strewn all over the place. Most likely those are files that I wanted to Delete from Disk but accidentally just removed from the catalog. It happens.
Here’s how to find and delete these orphans and reclaim all those valuable gigabytes. WARNING: if you follow this method, you will end up permanently deleting photos from your hard drive!
- For later reference, check how much space your pictures take up on your disk by selecting the folder where Lightroom saves the images and pressing CMD-I (Info).
- Open the folders tab in your Library and select the top level one (in my case it’s called Pictures). This procedure assumes you keep your Lightroom photos under one directory. If your pictures are on several hard drives or under several top-level directories, repeat this process for each of them.
- Right click on that folder and select Synchronize Folder… – wait for the following dialog to update its numbers. This can take a while depending on the size of your library. In the end it will show you the number of orphans behind Import new photos.
- Select Import new photos and press the Synchronize button. Lightroom will now import those orphans into your catalog. Make sure you select “Add” instead of “Copy” when you import, so the files will stay in their original locations.
- Lightroom will automacially select Previous Import in the Catalog panel for you and show you the pictures it found.
- IMPORTANT: Review those pictures to make sure you really want to get rid of them.
- WARNING: unless you have a backup, this next step will actually remove photos from your hard drive for good. Select all pictures from Previous Import, hit backspace and when prompted, instead of clicking Remove, click Delete from Disk. Lightroom will move them to the Trash. To completely clean things up, empty the Trash.
- Check the disk space that’s used by your pictures again.
You have now hopefully reclaimed a ton of hard disk space. How much? If you measured before and after clearing the orphans, let me know in the comments how much space you reclaimed with this method.