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Before learning exactly how to keep your Lightroom catalog organized, it’s important you understand exactly how Lightroom works. That includes understanding how your photos are stored, how to import your photos, and learning about the other features that Lightroom offers.
If you’re unsure about any of this, start by reading our guide to importing photos into Lightroom. It’s best to come back to this article once you have at least a basic understanding of how Lightroom operates.
You’ll then be in a perfect position to learn how to keep your Lightroom catalogs organized forever. The workflow you choose will make it easier for you to store and find photos, decide which photos to work with, and keep on top of that ever-expanding library. That means knowing how to:
- Organize your folders.
- Use tags, pick flags, and colors ratings.
- Easily delete unwanted photos.
- Make use of collections.
- Use keywords wisely.
Once you have a system of organization in place, no matter how large your Lightroom catalog grows, you’ll always be able to keep on top of it.
Choosing a Good Folder Structure
You should only really start importing photos into Lightroom once you know the kind of folder structure you’re going to be working with. Changing this structure later can be a nightmare, so it’s best to figure out a photo organization system you’ll be able to use for years to come. If you’ve already been using Lightroom for a while, it’s probably best to skip this section.
How you choose to organize your folders is ultimately up to you. But beware of falling into the trap of organizing solely by date. In five years’ time, will you really be able to remember what you shot in January 2012? Probably not. Lightroom can usually find the date of a shot from the file’s meta-data anyway, so, that search option will still be open to you.
The most reliable and (from what I understand) common folder structure is:
Year > Month > Event
I use the slightly more simplified structure below (Year > Event).
This kind of subfolder structure allows you to easily sort a large number of folders (yes, by date) while also leaving room for descriptive folder names that you can quickly search for. Now, rather than needing to remember the exact date of Steve’s wedding, you can just search for “Steve’s Wedding”.
Note that it’s always best to have all photos within your Lightroom catalog stored in a single location (on a single hard drive), rather than spread across multiple drives.
Do Everything in Lightroom
Once your folder structure (and photos) have been imported into Lightroom, avoid touching them outside of Lightroom. Don’t move them, don’t rename them. For now, just remember to try and do everything relating to your photos within Lightroom. If you want to move them, drag and drop them within Lightroom. If you want to rename a folder, rename the folder within Lightroom.
This is because your Lightroom catalog consists of location references to your photos, not your actual photos. As soon as you change a folder name, file name, or location outside of Lightroom, that link is lost. Lightroom can no longer locate those photos and folders. It’s a hassle to clean that mess up.
Tagging and Rating Your Photos
Lightroom offers three different ways to review and rate your photos. Figuring out the best way to use these will make it a breeze for you to go through your photos, choosing which to delete, and which you want to be able to access more easily in the future. Each of these three options is accessible via the bottom toolbar in the Library module.
- Star ratings allow you to rate each of your photos with 1–5 stars.
- The white pick flag allows you to “pick” a photo. The black pick flag allows you to “reject” a photo.
- You can also assign a color to each of your photos.
When you start mixing and matching stars, flags, and colors, things can get very complicated, very fast. So unless you need a complicated workflow, keep your rating system as simple as possible.
For me, this means going through one folder at a time. If I really don’t like a photo, I’ll mark it with a black flag (by pressing X). If I really like and/or want to edit a photo, I’ll mark it with a white flag (by pressing P). And if it’s somewhere in the middle, I’ll just leave it unflagged.
You can then pull up all photos tagged with a certain rating using the filter bar at the bottom right of the screen. This removes all those mediocre photos from the screen, so you can focus only on the best.
I find this useful for: a) quickly finding nice photos to show people on my computer, and b) for quickly scrolling through photos tagged with a white flag, so I can mark my absolute favorites with 5 stars. These are those I’d like to print, or add to my portfolio.
That’s it. Occasionally, you may need to use one of the other rating options. But most of the time, things don’t need to get much more complicated than this.
Bulk Deleting Photos
Once you’ve gone through a folder (or multiple folders), marking photos you want to delete with a black flag, use the filter option at the bottom right of the screen to only display those rejected photos.
Double check that you actually want to remove these photos from your library. If you find one that you don’t want to delete, click X again to remove the black flag.
Once you’re happy that you want to delete all of those photos, press Ctrl + A (Cmd + A on Mac) to select them all. Then right-click, and select Remove Photos. You’ll be given the option to only remove the photos from your library (recommended), or to permanently delete the photos from your drive.
Using Collections Wisely
If you want to really keep your Lightroom catalog organized, you’ll probably want to get to grips with collections. Each collection can be made up of photos from any number of folders. And any photo can be placed in any number of collections (without moving the photo). Some people swear by collections. Others try to avoid them. To what extent you use them is entirely up to you.
A common use for collections is to show off your favorite photos, like you would with a photo album. You could select all those photos you tagged with a white flag, and add these to a collection, thereby creating a “best of” album for that folder. That’s what I’ve done in the collections above. The original albums for each of these trips had hundreds of photos. These collections, however, only contain the best of all of them.
Another use for collections is to group photos together for a specific project. For instance, if I wanted to print a group of photos, I would add these to a collection called “To Print”. Or I could place all the photos I want to upload to my website in another collection called “To Upload”.
If you end up creating a lot of collections, you can always organize these more neatly by creating collection sets. These are nested collections, that you can expand and collapse to keep everything tidy.
There’s also the option to create smart collections (New Collection > Smart Collection). Smart collections automatically populate themselves based on the criteria you set. For instance, you could create a smart collection that shows you all of your 5-star photos. Or all of the photos you tagged with the name of your dog. You can be as creative as you like.
In the Library Module of Lightroom, you have the option to add keywords to each of your photos. If you use keywords wisely, they can be a very powerful addition to your organization arsenal. That’s why if you decide to use keywords, it’s best to figure out a system, and stick to it.
By adding a specific keyword to every photo of your dog, for instance, you can create the smart collection mentioned in the previous section. You can do the same with the names of your kids, and best friends.
Perhaps you eventually want to create a book of all your best photos. In these cases, you could add the keyword “Book”.
The uses for keywords are endless. But be careful not to make things too complicated here. Once you start creating keywords, keep them organized, and try not to add unnecessary keywords. This will make finding photos in the future much easier.
Bringing It All Together
When it comes to keeping your Lightroom catalog in order, there really is an elegance in simplicity. Before diving in, think about your desired workflow. Figure out what it is you want to be able to do with your catalog. Only then should you decide on which tools and features you’re going to use.
Some tools you’ll use all the time. Others you’ll use occasionally. And a few you’ll never even touch.
As mentioned, once I import photos into my Lightroom catalog, the first thing I do is mark them with a white or black pick flag. Those marked with a black flag, I remove from my library. Those marked with a white flag are given one or two relevant keywords, and placed into any relevant collections. If I really like them, I’ll give them 5 stars. And that’s pretty much it.
This setup allows me to quickly keep my library organized. To easily be able to pull up the best photos from a certain trip. To rapidly display my own personal favorite photos. And to search for photos based on my (relatively few) keywords.
But remember, there is no right or wrong way to organize a Lightroom catalog, but once you’ve figured out a system that works, and that’s scalable, stick with it. As that system becomes second nature, the ability to quickly store, sort, search, and rate your photos is something you’ll benefit from for years.
Over to you: what tools and features offered by Lightroom do you rely on most to keep your photos organized?