How to Organize Your Photos in Lightroom

How to Organize Your Photos in Lightroom


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.

Using Collections

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.

How to organise photos in Lightroom

This screen shot shows the icons used to represent Collection Sets and Collections in Lightroom. Xi’an – Terracotta Warriors (red arrow) is a Collection Set. Full Selection (green arrow) is a Collection. The icon is indented because it is inside the Collection Set.

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.

How to organise photos in Lightroom

The Create Collection Set window appears, where you can give the Collection Set a name.

How to organise photos in Lightroom

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).

How to organise photos in Lightroom

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.

How to organise photos in Lightroom

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!

How to organise photos in Lightroom

This is what the Collection Sets and Collection I created in the example above look like in the Collections panel in the Library module. The plus icon next to the Collection Full Selection indicate it is the Target Collection. The number 27 on the right tells you how many photos are in the 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).

How to organise photos in Lightroom

The middle photo has been flagged as a Reject. It is marked with a black flag (circled left) and the thumbnail is greyed out, making it easy to pick out in Grid View. The right photo has been flagged as a Pick and is marked by a white flag (circled right). The left photo is unflagged. There is no flag icon, but Lightroom displays a grey one when you mouse over the thumbnail.


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.

How to organise photos in Lightroom

Here, the three photos have been given a rating of three, four and five stars respectively. The star rating of each photo is displayed under the thumbnail in Grid View.

Color Labels

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.

How to organise photos in Lightroom

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.

How to organise photos in Lightroom

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

Mastering Lightroom ebookMy 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.

Read more from our Post Production category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

  • Thanks for the great tips! I use Lightroom for 99% of my editing so these will really help! I only have a small collection of around 7,000 in Lightroom but I know that this is tiny compared to some photographers!


  • Ina

    Can the photos be numbered? I keep the photos for our local museum and have over 3000 and it is very difficult to find specific photos without a numbering system.

  • Seattle Brad

    I’ve always found Tags to be an important part in keeping organized. I like to keep my default tags analytical – when (summer/winter/etc, as well as year), where (country, region of country, state, city, city neighborhood, attraction in neighborhood, add/subtract these as appropriate), technology (camera make, camera model), generic subject (beach, city, mountain, snow). Other people I know will add emotional words (youth, fun, adventure), but these are mostly for posting to stock photo sites.

    So for example, I went to the Star Wars Exhibit at the EMP Museum in Seattle last weekend. The tags for these photos are all start with “2015, D750, EMP Museum, Nikon, Seattle, Seattle Center, Star Wars, WA, Washington”. The tags for Washington and Oregon states are nested in a tag for “Pacific Northwest”, which is under “USA” The USA and PNW tags will be added at export. Many of these tags have export aliases. So I may have a tag “Pennsylvania” that has an alias of “PA”. If I had a Ford Mustang photo, I might have a tag for ‘Ford’ with a tag nested under it for ‘Mustang’. Mustang would probably have an export alias of ‘Ford Mustang’.

    I also keep a separate set of tags for family groups. These are set to not export, but help me find photos of my cousins.

    I was recently in Iceland and used the tag aliases to keep the original names – so Jokulsarlon has an alias of Jökulsárlón. This was also useful for eth and thorn characters Ð/ð and Þ/þ respectively.

    But tags are only a way to keep organized, and one that works very well for me. Using this system, I can locate any photo I’ve taken since 2009 in under 2 minutes.

  • Seattle Brad

    Hi Ina. What do you mean by numbered? Under the Library menu you can choose the ‘rename’ button, which can rename the photos in a sequence, but I don’t think that’s what you want.

    Staying organized is about finding a system that works for you.

    Do you have a museum that features 1 artist or many artists? One time period/subject/location or many?

    An exercise that helps me is writing down on a piece of paper ‘what makes these photos similar’ ‘what makes these photos different’. If you only have 3-4 ‘somethings’ (something = artists, time periods, cities, areas of a city), and you won’t likely have more, you may want to use colors. I’d also use the collection and smart collection described in the article.

    But if you are trying to associate a digital copy of an image w/ the physical image asset, that will be more difficult. If this is the case, I would model your Lightroom organization on how the images are organized in the storage area.

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  • Michael Joslin

    I would highly recommend THE DAM BOOK by Peter Krough. Very good book on different approches to store and organize photos. I take over 10,000 a year and it has made organizing them so much easier.

  • namberak

    Through trial and error I discovered over the years that my limited brain power tends to organize things according to the calendar. So, I have taken to using LR’s ability to modify a file name when it’s imported to put the date onto the front of file name. There are other possible combinations that it can manage so I suppose my advice would be to experiment with that ‘rename on import’ capability to see if something doesn’t click and work for you.

  • Thanks Michael. Great recommendation, it’s a very useful and informative book.

  • Hi Brad, thanks for sharing your system. Do you find it difficult to maintain a consistent keywording system? It sounds like yours is highly organised, and I guess that requires time and a little discipline to maintain consistently.

  • Hi Ina. There are a number of ways you can organise those 3000 photos. The easiest would be to create Collections and Collection Sets. So, for example, if have photos of a display of Ancient Rome you could create a Collection called Rome to store them in. You can create more Collections as needed, say Roman Coins, Roman Swords, Roman Pots and so on. Collections are very flexible so you can set them up according to your needs.

    If you have a numbering system in mind you can rename the photos with a number. You can do that either when you import the photos, or after they have been imported.

    You could also use keywords, although that takes effort and discipline to do consistently. Keywords are really there to help you search your images, and if you have an organised set of Collections you can go straight to the appropriate Collection without having to do a keyword search.

    Or you could use a combination of these methods – rename the files to match your numbering system, create Collections to store them in and use Keywords to help you search them.

    Hope that helps, let me know if you have any questions.

  • Glad to be of help!

  • Good point – Ina, Lightroom has lots of options for renaming photos and you can create your own custom presets to use when you import images. These articles I wrote for my website will get you started.

  • These are good suggestions Brad. I like the idea of figuring out how you want to organise your photos first, then using Lightroom’s tools to achieve that.

  • Seattle Brad

    Hi Andrew. At first, yes, it was difficult to keep things consistent. But now, it is second nature and one of the first things I do when importing. I fix old inconsistencies when I find them. Sometimes I’ll do revisions on old photos if I find that they aren’t up to current standards. When I first started using the system, it did take a lot of time to apply it to all of the photos I already had. But now it takes about 5-10 minutes per outing, depending on how many photos. 5-10 mins per day is a lot easier than dedicating a 5-8 hour block to do an entire year’s worth of photos.

    It also isn’t a static system, so it can change if needed. If I see a better way to get and stay organized, I’ll consider adopting it or adapting it. The system didn’t appear overnight, but is the result of years of small improvements.

  • Good to know. Thanks for sharing your system, I think other readers will find it useful.

  • Sanal Tur

    Thank you for your very descriptive article. It’s nice to use lightroom especially for working with tons of photos easily! It will be very useful for us for our virtual tour photos.

  • Paul Harding

    Complex beyond comprehension ! ?

  • Ian Terrell

    sound article but there are others on this already- what about discovering after 5 years that your computer has ground to a halt through lack of space, then starting various storage devices, and then trying to create back ups, and then you want to start again because 1000000 images are all in the wrong place because it sounded simple so long ago……..

  • Julie

    What is the proper way to move the pictures to the picks folder once you’ve flagged them?

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