The Lightroom Catalog is a database containing all the relevant information that Lightroom needs about your photos in order to process your images and sit at the centre of your workflow.
Lightroom is a digital asset management (DAM) tool – you can use it to organize and search your photos, as well as process them. This is the main difference between Lightroom and Photoshop, which is a powerful image editor, but has no database capabilities.
Even if you use Photoshop for all your processing you can still use Lightroom to view, organize, and search your photos. That’s why the two programs come together if you subscribe to Adobe’s Creative Photography Plan (and why Photoshop no longer comes with Adobe Bridge). This article will walk you through some of the tools inside Lightroom to help you organize your photos.
Lightroom uses Collections to organize your images. A Collection is a virtual folder that exists in the Lightroom Catalog. You can create as many Collections as you like within Lightroom and use them for whatever purpose you see fit. The more you use them, the more you will find better ways to use them.
There are several types of Collections in Lightroom:
Collections: Virtual folders to which you can add any photo that you have imported into Lightroom.
Collection Sets: Another type of virtual folder to which you can add Collections, but not photos. Collection Sets are used to keep your Collections organized.
Smart Collections: Collections that are populated automatically according to the rules that you set. For example, you could create a Smart Collection containing all photos taken in 2015, tagged with the keyword phrase “New York” to find all photos that meet those criteria. A Smart Collection is really a way of searching for images, and retaining the result indefinitely.
Published Collections: Beyond the scope of this article, Published Collections are created in Lightroom’s Publish Services. You can learn more about Published Collections in my article How to Upload Photos to Flickr and 500px Using Lightroom 5 (the information applies to Lightroom 6 and Lightroom CC as well).
Book and Print Collections: These are created in the Book and Print modules. My articles How to Create a Simple Blurb Photo Book in Lightroom and How to Create a 2015 Calendar in the Lightroom Print Module go into more detail.
For the purposes of this article we are interested in Collections and Collection Sets.
Creating Collections and Collection Sets
If this is your first time using Lightroom you won’t have any Collections yet (apart from the Smart Collections that it already contains). So let’s get started! I’m assuming that you have already imported your first photos into the Lightroom Catalog.
Go to the Collections panel and click on the plus icon you see in the top right corner. Select Create Collection Set.
The Create Collection Set window appears, where you can give the Collection Set a name.
I’ve named this one 2015. The idea is that it will house all the Collection Sets containing photos taken in the year 2015 (remember that Collection Sets can only contain Collections, not photos).
Now right-click on the Collection set you just created and choose Create Collection Set. Lightroom prompts you for a name. I’ve called this Island Bay because it’s the Wellington suburb where the photos in my last import were taken (and have saved it inside the 2015 Collection Set).
Right-click on this new Collection Set (Island Bay) and select Create Collection. The Create Collection window opens. This is slightly different and gives you more options. Name the Collection “Full selection” (I’ll explain why in a minute), tick the Set as Target Collection box and click Create.
Now go to the Catalog panel and click on Previous Import. Lightroom displays the last set of imported images in the Content window. Go to Edit > Select All to select all the photos and press the B key. Lightroom adds all the selected photos to the Target Collection – the Collection called Full Selection that you just created. Congratulations, you have just created your first Collection!
Collections and workflow
Of course, you are probably wondering why I asked you to create such a strange name as Full Selection. To find out why read my article Use Lightroom Collections to Improve Your Workflow. It shows you how to use Collections to help you decide which photos from a shoot you are going to process. All will become clear when you do so.
Flags, Ratings and Color Labels
The Lightroom database (called the Catalog) lets you assign Flags, Ratings, and Color Labels to your photos. There seem to be as many ways of using these as there are photographers, but if you have read my article about using Collections to improve your workflow you will understand that I favour a very simple system, which is this:
Use Flags to indicate which photos you are going to process.
I ignore Ratings and Color Labels and don’t use them. Of course, you may wish to use them and there is nothing wrong with that. Workflow is a personal thing, and ultimately you will figure out what works best for you through trial and error.
Let’s take a closer look at Flags, Ratings, and Color Labels. The easiest way to see them is in Grid View, which you can go to from any Lightroom module by pressing the G key on the keyboard. Read my article Making Sense of Lightroom’s Grid View to learn more.
Every photo in your Lightroom Catalog is either unflagged (the default), flagged as a Pick (indicated by a white flag) or flagged as a Reject (marked by a black flag with a cross in it).
The quickest way to flag a photo as a Pick is to select and it and press the P key. You can remove the flag by pressing the U key or mark it as a Reject by pressing the X key. Flags are generally used to indicate which photos you would like to process (Picks) and which you would like to delete (Rejects).
Every photo in your Lightroom Catalog is either unrated (the default) or has a one, two, three, four or five star rating. You can apply these ratings by selecting a photo and pressing the corresponding number key (1, 2, 3, 4 or 5).
Ratings are generally used as a way to indicate which photos are your favourites. Give your best images a rating of 5, and use the other numbers for the rest.
You can also assign a color label to your photo by selecting it, going to Photo > Set Color Label and choosing from Red, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple or none. You can also use the 6, 7, 8 and 9 number keys as a shortcut to applying Red, Yellow, Green and Blue color labels.
Colour labels are designed to be adaptable so you can use them for whatever you want. Go to Metadata > Color Label Set > Edit to assign a meaning to each color label. In this example I have entered a purpose for three of the color labels. It’s just an example to show you the possibilities – in reality I prefer to keep things simple and not use them.
Hopefully this article has given you a good overview of the process of using Lightroom as a digital asset management tool. The next article in this series will show you how to get started in the Develop module. Meanwhile, if you have any questions about organizing your photos in the Library module then please let me know in the comments.
Mastering Lightroom Book One: The Library Module
My latest ebook Mastering Lightroom Book One: The Library Module (second edition) is a complete guide to using Lightroom’s Library module to import, organise and search your photo files. You’ll learn how to tame your growing photo collection using Collections and Collection Sets, and how to save time so you can spend more time in the Develop module processing your photos.