4 Tips to Organize Your Photos in Lightroom

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Lightroom is one of the most widely-used programs for photographers today, with good reason. In addition to extensive editing options in the Develop module, Lightroom also contains a bevy of tools to help you organize your photos as well.

It can make the process of managing thousands (or tens of thousands) of pictures much more seamless and intuitive. Getting started with Lightroom’s organization functionality can be a bit intimidating, but there are four simple ways in which you can easily and quickly use the program to get a handle on your photos.

4 Tips to Organize Your Photos in Lightroom - sunset and flowers

Understanding the Lightroom Method

Before you begin using Lightroom’s organizational options it’s important to know one thing about how the program works. It never, and I mean never, does anything to the original images on your computer. All the organization tips covered here deal solely with how Lightroom sorts and displays images within its own internal Catalog, which is kind of like its own database for keeping track of your pictures.

Lightroom will never move your pictures to a different location on your computer, nor will it change the filename or any other property of your pictures. Basically, no matter what you do in Lightroom, your original pictures will always be safe and unchanged, so you never have to worry about making a mistake.

Feel free to try things, click on buttons, and play around with the features in Lightroom as much as you want because you’ll always have your original files safe and sound.

4 Tips to Organize Your Photos in Lightroom - thumbnail images

Lightroom contains a variety of tools to help you organize and manage your images.

1 – Smart Collections

If Lightroom didn’t have Smart Collections I’d probably fall out of my chair and start crying like a baby. Smart Collections are the bedrock upon which my entire Lightroom organizational methodology is built. They are simple enough that anyone can learn how to use them but powerful enough to meet the needs of the most demanding photographers.

Imagine taking a hamper full of laundry out of the dryer, dumping it on your floor, and as the clothes fall out they are immediately sorted and folded into individual piles: pants, shirts, lights, darks, and even socks. Pure bliss, right? That’s kind of how Smart Collections work, and they are so useful it’s almost magical.

4 Tips to Organize Your Photos in Lightroom - abstract image

Smart Collections can help you make sense of the chaos that is your photo library.

Smart Collections automatically sort your images into folders depending on criteria that you specify, and you can even have Smart Collections within other folders called Collection Sets. (Again, this all happens ONLY within the Lightroom Catalog database.

Lightroom will never move your photos around on your computer or change the folders they are actually stored in!). You can set up Smart Collections to automatically sort your photos into virtual folders such as…

  • All images that were taken in the month of January 2018  (see screenshot below).
  • Include all the images that were taken with either your Nikon or Canon camera.
  • Any images that have not yet been edited in the Develop module.
  • All images that were taken at a specific geographic location and have a five-star rating.

4 Tips to Organize Your Photos in Lightroom - smart collection criteria

One of the easiest ways to use Smart Collections is to just create one for each month of the year. I do this at the beginning of each year so my pictures are automatically sorted by month and I never have to think about it again until next January rolls around.

It’s a simple way to get started with Smart Collections and will help you see how useful they are for your entire photography workflow. You can create Smart Collections that fit almost any criteria you can think of, which can dramatically decrease the amount of time you spent managing your pictures.

2 – Flagging and Rejecting

This might sound simple to veteran photographers, but for someone who is just starting out or otherwise unfamiliar with Lightroom, the Flag/Reject technique can have a huge impact on how you organize your pictures.

On its face, the technique is simple. As you scroll through your photo library, press the P key to mark a photo as a Flagged (or Picked), press the X key to mark a photo as rejected, or press the U key to remove either of those demarkations from a given image.

This simple act can be incredibly useful as a way to organize your photos, especially when used in conjunction with Smart Collections. As you flip through your pictures it’s easy to press P, X, or U so later on you know which pictures are your favorites and which are not worth keeping.

You can then have the Flagged images automatically displayed in a Smart Collection without doing any extra work on your part. Additionally, you can click the filter icons at the bottom-right of both the Library and Develop modules to quickly show or hide the photos you have marked as Flagged, Rejected, Unflagged, or a combination of all three.

4 Tips to Organize Your Photos in Lightroom - flagging in LR

The white flag indicates that image is marked P or as a Pick. Notice there is also a white line around the thumbnail so you can easily find the flagged images.

3 – Keywords

One of the most useful features that Lightroom has to offer as it relates to photo organization is that of keywording, though it also requires some degree of effort on your part to make it truly worthwhile. In the Library module, you can activate the Keyword panel on the right-hand side of your screen and type in descriptive words that identify a given photograph, such as Soccer, Nature, or Macro.

To use multiple keywords for a given picture just use a comma to separate them, and you can assign as many keywords to a picture as you like.

Lightroom even has banks of keywords you can use to select common descriptors for categories like Outdoor Photography, Wedding Photography, and Portrait Photography. These make the process of adding keywords even easier because you can just click on the ones you want to use, and they are automatically assigned to the photo or a group of photos that you have selected.

4 Tips to Organize Your Photos in Lightroom - keywords

Lightroom makes it easy to assign keywords to photos in the Library module. You can also assign keywords to a group of photos during the import process as well.

To use keywording for photo organization you can create Smart Collections that specify certain keywords or, in contrast, do not contain specific keywords.

For example, you could have a Smart Collection of photos that include the keywords Wedding and Ceremony and another Smart Collection that requires the keywords Wedding and Reception. You can also use the Filter Bar (View > Show Filter Bar) to sort photos in real-time by adding specific keywords to your sorting criteria.

4 – Face Detection

Some people decried the inclusion of face detection when Adobe added it to Lightroom in 2015 because it’s generally not seen as a feature that true professionals use very often. While I can’t necessarily disagree with that sentiment, I do find facial recognition to be a fantastic way to organize your photos for beginners, casual shooters, and even sometimes for working pros.

Nestled at the bottom-left corner of the Library module is a small little Face icon which will activate Face Detection when you click on it. If you have never used this feature it will take Lightroom quite some time to analyze all the photos in your catalog for faces.

This also illustrates one of the biggest weaknesses with this feature: speed, or lack thereof. Face Detection is, and this is putting it mildly, as slow as molasses even on some of the latest computer hardware. But it still can be highly useful and, when properly trained, a great way to keep your images organized.

4 Tips to Organize Your Photos in Lightroom - facial detection

The initial facial analysis will take a long, long time. Better go get yourself a cup of coffee while you wait. Or two cups.

Click the question mark below each photo to add a name, and the more photos you name the better Lightroom’s analytical engine will be at figuring out which images contain which people. It will also group photos together that are nearly identical so when you give a name to one face it will add that name to all the faces in the group.

After you start the identification process you can click on a single face at the top of the screen under “Named People” to show all the pictures that include that person.

The most difficult part of the Face Detection process is detecting and naming faces. If you’ve got tens of thousands of images in your Catalog this can take a really long time. So I recommend starting with people who are most important to you and working out from there over time. Begin with your family, closest friends, or repeat clients, and then branch out to other people as you progress.

I find Face Detection to be in roughly the same category as the shop-vac out in my garage: I don’t use it every day, but when I do need it, it’s extraordinarily handy. Your mileage may vary, but you just might find that it’s worth your time to try out.

4 Tips to Organize Your Photos in Lightroom - face detection and naming

You can enter names for everyone in a single photo, and unnamed people will have a “?” above them.

Conclusion

These four tips are just some of the ways in which Lightroom can help you manage your ever-growing collection of photos. If you’re a Creative Cloud subscriber you will continue to see improvements over time, especially with regard to overall speed for things like Face Detection.

But even if you use a standalone version like I do, you may find that these features are often indispensable. Each also has their own set of nuances and additional settings that can help you tweak things even further.

What about you? What are some of your favorite ways to organize your photos in Lightroom? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

  • TByte

    Uhm….yes, you CAN move and delete photos from your system through LightRoom.

  • Rolf Lawrenz

    Also if you take nature photos you can use the iNaturalist plugin I created to identify and label animal and plant species. See here http://lawrenzcode.com/lightroom_plugins/inaturalist_lookup_plugin.html

  • Cally

    You are correct that Smart Collections will not move photos around your computer. However, if you use folders then if you move a picture to a different folder within Lightroom you will move it on your computer as well. If you move it on your computer then Lightroom will be unable to find it. Equally, when you go to delete a photo, you have the option to remove from your catalogue or remove it from the catalogue and computer.

    I personally use folders and keywording and never touch Smart Collections.

  • Allen Conway

    I personally use smart collections and keywording and never touch folders.

  • Cally

    A lot of people do. However, the fact still remains that stating that Lightroom will never move your pictures or rename the files is incorrect.

  • Allen Conway

    Sorry – I just couldn’t resist being cheeky. That being said, in what circumstances does LR move and rename the files containing your photos? Are you talking about when the photos are imported or afterwards?

  • Russell

    It’s misleading to say that “you can create Smart Collections that specify certain keywords or, in contrast, do not contain specific keywords”.
    You can’t, for example, create a collection for “Wedding” and NOT “Reception”. I wish you could, but you can’t.

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