Lightroom – Filters or Smart Collections?

Lightroom – Filters or Smart Collections?

A Guest Post by Nick Rains

Once you have added more and more images to your Lightroom catalogue it becomes less easy to find a particular image from the many thousands you have imported. Fortunately, being a digital asset manager Lightroom includes some powerful tools for searching.

You could start with the Library > Find menu item which works pretty well but is limited to searching from metadata fields in all your images. It’s powerful enough to include options for ‘contains’, ‘does not contain’, ‘ends with’, ‘starts with’ etc, plus you can put in multiple search terms like a country and a date to search (Contains All) for all images from a certain country on a particular date. It’s quick and easy but not very versatile.

For more power there is the Filter Bar itself ( ‘\’ key in the Library Module) which can be set to search on four different criteria, each of which can search almost any metadata field. Click on the tiny arrows next to the column’s title to see a drop down box of all available metadata fields that can be searched. These can be hard to find as they only appear (in white) when you roll your mouse over the title bar. There are four columns displayed as a default but you can add more by clicking at the right of the title bar for more options. Selecting terms in more than one column (by clicking another term whilst holding down the Ctrl (Cmd) key) gives you an AND search – Country AND Date AND Location for example.


The Filter bar allows quite complex searches but applies them to the entire catalogue.

You can even save searches as presets which is fantastic for common searches but what if you have a lot of them? They are displayed in alphabetical order under Custom Filter but if you have a few dozen saved searches it can get a bit unwieldy.

TIP – It’s important to remember that you can have filters active and not realise it – it’s all to easy to forget and wonder where some of your images have gone. Ctrl-L toggles filters on and off.

This all works fine but there is a much more powerful way to see at a glance certain information about your collections, updated continuously and showing just about any search criteria.

Smart Collections are like collections except they are based on search criteria that are applied all the time. Make a change and the Smart Collection will update immediately to reflect that change. There is a lot that could be written about Smart Collections, something I plan to do in my magazine later this year, but here is one useful set-up for keeping track of which images do not have certain metadata.

Smart Collection can contain quite sophisticated combinations of search criteria. Click the Plus (+) sign to add new rows.

It’s very useful to see at a glance which images have not yet had your copyright info added (you do this, right?). Simply create a Smart Collection with the criteria set for Copyright Status > Is Not > copyrighted and title it ‘No Copyright’. Now any image which have no copyright added will show as a number count in this Smart Collection and clicking on it will immediately display all the images that do not have copyright info added. You could then select all and add your copyright. Once done the Smart Collection will show zero. It’s a good way to keep track of such things.

I have a set of Smart Collections set up to show me which images do not have Location info, which have adjustments, which do not, and so on.

My modest array of Smart Collections helps me keep on top of adding captioning and place names.

One last tip, Smart Collections work with all your images. You can make them work with a subset of images by using normal collections and having the Smart Collections only display images that are in another Collection. I have a Collection called ‘Recent’ which I drag new images into. My Smart Collections are set to show things like Has Adjustments > Is True AND Collection > contains > Recent. Make sure you have set the ‘Match ALL of the following rules’ option. Then the Smart Collection will show only the images that are in the Collection called ‘Recent’ AND that have ‘no adjustments’.

Smart Collections can be nested by dragging one onto another to set up a parent and Child relationship, and you can set up quite a sophisticated array of Collections and Smart Collections that show you exactly where you are in your workflow. Try it out, I think you will see the benefits.

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Some Older Comments

  • Carlos September 1, 2010 07:27 am

    Thanks for this tut. I'm going to start implementing Smart Collections RIGHT now. It will definitely address issues I run into with my catalog. Thanks again.

  • Nick Rains August 26, 2010 09:29 am


    Any changes you make to the standard metadata fields should show up in any other apps that can read it. Keywords are standard so it should be no problem. Just make sure you write any metadata changes back to the original files or other apps won't realise there has been an update. LR stores metadata in an internal database and you have to tell it to write it to the original file.

  • IYF August 19, 2010 11:11 pm

    Lightroom was the BEST thing that ever happen to me.. Also learning how to use the presets and buying some really good presets, has taken my work to a WHOLE new level.

  • Edwin Matzner August 14, 2010 01:50 am

    Are the metadata additions and changes that you make in LR visible as keywords in PS Elements 8 - Organize? I know that PSE8 keywords are visible to LR, but am asking the opposite. Thank you.

  • Nick Rains August 12, 2010 09:01 am


    You got me; typo. I'll get it fixed.


    I knew someone would come up with an awkward question!

    'Has Adjustments' means that you have changed something, anything, in the Develop Module after initial import.

    Adjustments in other apps will not show - but remember that you cannot directly edit a RAW file in PSE or Photoshop, only in ACR or LR. You have to export into those apps as rendered images like TIFFs or JPEGs. Any editing will be done on those files, which can be then imported back into LR if you choose.

    If you do edit a file in ACR the adjustments will only show up in LR if you read 'Metadata from File'. Then they will show up in the Smart Collection as having Adjustments. But you need to actively read the metadata, LR does not automatically sense changes.

    Best practice is not to edit in another app. LR and ACR share the same engine so why would you want to anyway? Bridge, ACR, LR will work interchangeably with edited RAW files but it's not always obvious that thumbs and metadata are updated. Stick to one app and you'll be fine.

  • PROFusioNZ August 12, 2010 07:18 am

    Been using Lightroom for a bit and never really ventured into using Smart collections. Now I know that it can help me out with my workflow. Thanks for this post. I wonder what other things I'm missing with Lightroom?

  • Matt August 12, 2010 01:56 am

    Wow... I've been looking for a way to sort for items that have been updated. I have a group of about 1400 photos from a trip. I have flagged some as Rejected (X key) and will delete them. They're just terrible shots or basic duplicates. Then I am adjusting some of them and not others. I want to publish only the ones I have modified (ie - ones I care enough about to share with others). A smart collection will allow me to do that.

    Questions - What are the conditions of the "Has Adjustments" smart collection you created? Will that include color adjustments, crops, straightens, etc? What if I open it and modify it in PSE or another Adobe Photoshop family application?

  • Zack Jones August 11, 2010 10:24 pm

    Smart collections are great! I use them all the time. Most of mine are setup based on keywords so that I can easily see all images of a particular sport or person or location. It's one of the best features of Lightroom, IMO

  • zach August 11, 2010 01:24 am

    if you set your filter to "Has Adjustments > Is True AND Collection > contains > Recent" won't that smart collection show images that have adjustments? instead of items without.

  • Ed O'Keeffe August 11, 2010 01:01 am

    I completely forgot about Lightroom having smart filters - I remember using them in a BETA version but since getting LR3 haven't bothered with them. Your post has really made me think about how I can use them to improve my workfollow. Thank you very much for this insight!