Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Windows Explorer does a lot on its own, but add-ons make it even more powerful. Unfortunately, add-ons can sometimes also add problems.

Suddenly, I can't rename, move, or delete raw files (photographs). I am constantly loading photos from my camera to my computer. In order to keep track of them and make them conveniently accessible for processing and after processing, I rename them and move them to folders. Usually, I make copies during processing and then delete them. I have been doing this on this computer for a year and a half. I have never before had anything unusual happen when renaming, moving, or deleting raw files. These files are in the My Documents folder. I view the thumbnails when renaming, moving, or deleting. Suddenly, raw photo files on my desktop computer or folders containing raw files cannot be renamed, moved, or deleted. A box opens saying, “The action can't be completed because the file is open in Windows Explorer”. But the file is not open and no photo applications are open. ...

Actually, the file is open. In Windows Explorer.

But because this has been working for you for some time, it's also clear that something has changed.

First, we need to understand just a little bit of how Windows Explorer works, make some guesses as to what may have changed, and suggest a couple of possible approaches to fixing - or at least working around - this problem.

Windows Explorer

We think of Windows Explorer as simply a program to explore the files on our computers.

Windows Explorer listing files in My Pictures

Windows Explorer supports several "views" of files. The one above is the Details listing of files. If I select instead Large Icons, the display is more like this:

Windows Explorer displaying My Pictures as icons

That's a convenient approach to browsing your photos without needing any extra software.


You might notice that those are all .jpg files, a very common format that Windows Explorer understands natively.

Windows Explorer doesn't understand RAW image formats on its own.

To browse as you are evidently doing, something had to be added.

Windows Explorer isn't just Windows Explorer

Much like Internet Explorer (similarly named, but a different program used for a different purpose), the functionality of Windows Explorer can be extended by adding a type of plugin or add-on called a "shell extension". (The "shell" refers to Windows primary user interface, which is indeed Windows Explorer.)

Windows Explorer comes with a lot of built-in functionality and it comes with a number of shell extensions that extend that functionality.

But it doesn't support raw formats.

Somewhere, somehow, there's a third-party, probably non-Microsoft shell extension that's been added in order for raw files to be viewable in Windows Explorer. (A quick search shows that there are many available.)

What I think happened...

Here's my guess as to what's happened.

The software that is the shell extension has been updated. Perhaps as a side effect of installing new software, perhaps as a side effect of updating some existing software. Perhaps just as a simple update itself.

And that update has a bug.

My guess is that in order to display the icon or thumbnail of the raw formatted image, the shell extension is opening the file to read its contents and failing to close it. As a result, Windows Explorer does indeed "have the file open". And it shouldn't.

I could be wrong, but that's what it feels like.

What to do

There are a few approaches to dealing with or working around this problem.

  • Naturally, if you realize that the problem started when you updated or installed something, that gives you some hints as to where to look. I'd certainly investigate the support options available for whatever that software was so as to see if there have been similar reports of a problem like this and an official answer or update.

  • Don't use Icon view. Based on what you're doing, this is probably not helpful because you're using the Icon view to see the image in order to give it an appropriate name. But I'm guessing that if an icon isn't displayed, the file won't be left open and you'll be able to copy, move or do whatever you need to the file.

  • Don't use Windows Explorer. Windows Explorer is a fine general purpose file browser, but its abilities to deal with images are very basic, and kind of an afterthought, to be honest. Instead, a program like FastStone Image Viewer, which is free, operates very much like Windows Explorer, but is specifically an image browser and viewer. It supports RAW formats natively and does pretty much everything that you've described yourself as doing. Other programs, like IrfanView, Adobe Bridge, and others, can also be used to the same effect.

Advanced diagnosis

If you feel comfortable getting a little geeky, we can look underneath Windows Explorer's hood a little with ShexView (also ShellExView), a free little utility from NirSoft that will list the shell extensions present on your machine.

As this program allows you to disable shell extensions, I strongly suggest that you backup your system first, just in case.

Shell Extension Viewer

On my machine, there are 254 shell extensions loaded. The vast majority are from Microsoft and are part of the core Windows installation. Many others, however, represent extensions that have been added by other programs that I have installed on my system.

The columns are all clickable, so I'd start by sorting by the "Company" column and then looking for non-Microsoft shell extensions that either might relate to software that you've recently installed or updated or that relate to some of the image or photo-related software on your machine.

At a minimum, this could point you at the software that might be responsible and direct your further investigation.

Article C4899 - August 11, 2011 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

Chris Buechler
August 11, 2011 8:25 PM

Best way to find what's holding a lock on a file in a scenario like that is Process Explorer, a free tool from Sysinternals (now part of Microsoft). Just launch it, click the Find menu, go to Handle. Type in the filename that you can't move/delete, and search. That will show the exact process that's holding a lock on the file, which will help greatly in fixing the underlying issue (which sometimes is just that you need to close the program that has the file open).

Process Explorer is a free tool from Microsoft available here:

Chris Buechler
August 11, 2011 8:27 PM

To clarify that - I think Leo is almost certainly right, just providing a tip on an additional tool that can be used to more definitively find the problem, to confirm explorer.exe really does have the lock on it.

Mark J
August 11, 2011 9:43 PM

A free utility which works for me to free up files that are used by other processes is Unlocker Assistant

Bill Holloway
August 12, 2011 4:05 AM

Thanks so much. Something here is bound to be on track. But I must clarify something I phrased badly in the original note and it gave the wrong meaning. "I view the thumbnails..." was supposed to mean I have the folders view set to icon view. The raw files do not display a thumbnail picture; they display a symbol, the same symbol on every one of them. I identify a raw file by always having the corresponding jpg next to it, and the raw file has the same number with a different file extension. So, I'm viewing the jpg thumbnail picture. The raw files cannot be opened by Windows. If attempting to open a raw file with Windows Picture Viewer, it says it "can't open this picture". If attempting to open a raw file with Windows Live Photo Gallery, it says "To edit this photo, make a jpeg copy of it". (I am aware that now there is a new codec for Windows Live to view raw files. I don't have it and I don't plan on using Windows Live for this). However I do have other applications that can process raw files, and Leo's suggestion that maybe an update of something has changed something makes sense, even though the problem happens with no application open, and on two different computers. But as far as I can recall, the only recent updates have been to Windows. Thanks for the leads... I will be hunting.

Bill Holloway
August 12, 2011 4:11 AM

And, the problem still happens when using details view or list view. And, it's only the raw file which cannot be renamed, moved, or deleted. The jpg's, which DO show thumbnail pics, can still be renamed, moved, and deleted, as before, with no problem.

Bill Holloway
August 12, 2011 5:31 AM

Yes, sysinternals indicates explorer.exe. I had also found Lockhunter indicated explorer.exe, and when I clicked "close locking process", all it did was close the documents library, and upon reopening it, I still cannot rename, move, or delete raw files.

August 13, 2011 3:10 PM

And so I decided to remove from the laptop all applications that can read raw files, one by one. The one causing the problem is Capture One.

August 16, 2011 9:00 AM

Mr. Holloway, Sir. Is it possible that in your editing software, Photoshop for example, that the File Associations for RAW files are no longer associated with the software for some reason? It only takes a second to check, and this would account for the problem you are having. BTW, are you backed up?

Gilbert Berry
August 16, 2011 9:15 AM

Another thing to check is the length of the path. If the path is more than 255 characters long, you will not be able to move, copy, or delete the file. You can get arround this by using the subst command in DOS. This will create a virtual drive that will shorten the path. For example the command ' subst "Y:" "D:\Part of\Some really\Long\Path"' will create a virtual drive with "D:\Part of\Some really\Long\Path" as the root. You can then access the file as Y:\Rest\of\path\file.ext. Also, Windows explorer will show the Y drive and you can get to the file that way as well.

Steuart B
August 16, 2011 10:00 AM

The Capture One website knowledgebase lists specific cameras supported by the various releases of their software in relation to raw file support. The list is different for tethered cameras and it varies between the Pro and Express versions. Did you by any chance change cameras?

August 16, 2011 12:04 PM

I use FastStone Image Viewer and InfraView.
Different strokes...

Bill H.
August 16, 2011 2:57 PM

Thanks Joe/Gilbert/Steuart. No, I didn't change cameras. I didn't change anything. The only changes were Windows updates. Which is why I believe Leo's idea that some update introduced this bug. The problem occurs with the mere presence of Capture One installed, without using Capture One, without having Capture One open, and trying to rename/move/delete using Windows.

Barcillo Barsiniestro
August 16, 2011 5:33 PM

Do you have have the same problem with all the raw files or only those in My Documents?
Have you tried conecting the hard disk to another PC or booting from a live linux CD?
I once had problems with some files (non pictures). After a crash I couldn't rename or delete them (said they where in use). I used an Ubuntu CD to delete them without problems. Another time I had a similar problem, I conected the HD to another Windows computer, copied them to another folder and deleted the old ones. After that I had no problem with the copied files. Don't now if it's related, but maybe worth taking a look.

Bill H.
August 16, 2011 6:43 PM

Thanks Barcillo. This is also happening with the raw files in other locations. And also with the raw files on two external hard drives connected to this desktop computer. And also with the raw files on another computer (laptop) which is not connected to the desktop computer.

Bill H.
August 17, 2011 12:31 PM

Finally, Phase One (the makers of Capture One) has provided a temporary fix until they update. The fix disables the shell extensions Leo was talking about. Thank you Leo!!!

john neeting
August 23, 2011 6:31 PM

This is a regular occurance and I find that most of the time it's windows re-building an index file of your graphics while it's displaying the actual thumbnails if the directory is quite large. Just go back to showing file names and it lets you do something. Alternativly, the file may be 'locked' by another program [ neopaint eg ] but a free program called 'unlocker' can release it. Check the properties of the file and directory as it maybe marked 'read only'

September 12, 2011 11:37 AM

I too experienced this file locked problem.

The problem started after I installed Phaseone Capture One v6x trial.

The captured jpeg/raw (nikon's *.nef) files were locked. A message would appear when trying to rename, move the files.

Message pointed the finger to windows explorer - further frustrating the user as to the source of the problem.

Note, only the jpeg photo files would move attempting to move the captured photo files from the capture directory. The Raw or Nikon's *.nef files stayed behind. The when trying to manipulate these *.nef / raw files to force them to move (rename, cut and paste, etc) nothing worked. I believe I recall a full copy of the file may have been possible - yes. But oddly enough, those fresh copies were also locked.

You know, this would be a good virus to launch because it totally disrupts the file management process. Anyway, back on point...

I tried many work arounds, copying the entire set of files (from the capture directory) and then tried to rename them there without any luck.
It took me a minute to figure out it was Phaseone Catpture One software.

Because I rarely install different software, and because I always use an image backup of my system as needed, there was never a history of this "can't move, rename, or file is locked or used by another program error" so it wasn't long when I figured it must have been the capture one program some how "protecting the files that were captured"

I then discovered that only those files "touched" and not only captured were effected by capture one into the locked mode. That is if I even navigated into a photo directory, capture one also locked those as well.

I tried searching Phaseone's Capture One program for system settings to prevent such auto locking of the files, but didn't find any such setting.

I was going to email phase one, but they have poor customer service, and wasn't worth my time to type out an email such as this entry and wait with fingers crossed for them to respond with some dippy response like - oh well that is the trial and the full version will have addressed that issue.

Bottom line, I uninstalled the program and never used it again - ever. I didn't buy it because of this, even though phaseone capture one is a leading capture program. I've settled to work with Adobe Lightroom v3x for capturing - slower, but doesn't effect my workflow by locking files and blaming it on windows explorer.

Note the error or file lock did in fact point to windows explorer as the process still using the files.

The files were the raw files of the capture process, jpeg files were movable. Even those jpeg files capture simultaneously as the raw/Nikon *.nef files.

There was no obvious setting adjustment in capture one software to prevent such overkill in the preserving of files captured or managed by their program.

This may be a problem between the program and windows, because it seems highly unlikely such a problem has gone un-noticed to be unaddressed by phaseone capture one developers.

I believe I may have been able to at least "restart" the computer to access the raw files, but this happened several weeks ago, and I can't recall if a restart actually worked. I think after I uninstalled Capture One, I was happy and relieved and chose to forget about the nightmare and loss of time researching, downloading, installing, learning, setting up and capturing with capture one. Hours have been lost "exploring" this program.

One thing I found out, they "Phaseone capture one" have poor customer service, and hide behind a website that requires you to sign in, and mumbo jumbo your way to help and to speak to a person.

Hope this helps - if anyone gets phaseone capture one to admit their program's fault, please let me know.

Until I really need to revisit another capture program, I'll just keep using adobe's lightroom v3x..


January 6, 2012 5:21 AM

I sure am glad I came across this posting! After I upgraded to Capture One 6.3.3 (It is a great program and I use it for all my raw file conversions) I started to have windows explorer and windows live mail stop working when accessing any folder that had raw files. As recommended above, I changed the view in explorer to 'Show Icon NOT Thumbnails' and the problem went away (well, the problem is still there its just that I now have a work-around) - I did contact Phase One.

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