How to Use Lightroom Collections to Improve your Workflow

How to Use Lightroom Collections to Improve your Workflow


Using Lightroom Collections

The main benefit of Lightroom’s Library module is that it gives you the tools you need to get organised and speed up your workflow. The end result is that you can spend more time in the Develop module – the place where you creatively process your photos.

The best way to get organised is by using Collections and Collection Sets. There seem to be as many ways of using Collections as there are photographers. I’m going to look at two in this article. The first uses Collections, and the second Smart Collections. Together they will give you an insight into how you can use Collections to improve your workflow.

Why use Collections?

You may be wondering why you should use Collections in Lightroom instead of the Folders panel. Here’s why:

1. The Folders panel is only available in the Library module.

The Collections panel is accessible from every module. Adobe wants you to use the Collections panel as it is the most practical way to organise your images.

2. Collections and Collection Sets give you far more freedom than the Folders panel.

The contents of the Folders panel mirrors the file structure of your hard drive. Let’s say you take a photo of a friend called Amy in Hong Kong. In the Folders panel, that photo can only exist in one place – the physical folder where it has been saved on your hard drive.

However, the same file can be stored in as many Collections as you like. It could be part of a Collection called ‘Amy’, another called ‘Hong Kong’, perhaps another called ‘Favourite photos’. There is no limit to the number of Collections you can add it to.

It’s a little like using Playlists in iTunes. You can add a song to as many Playlists as you like. It’s the same in Lightroom with photos and Collections.

Organise your images

Hopefully you’re now beginning to see just how flexible and convenient Collections are. Now let’s take a look at how you can use them to organise your images.

Other photographers’ methods

When it comes to learning how to use Lightroom, don’t feel that you have to figure everything out yourself. There are plenty of outstanding websites dedicated to using Lightroom, and lots of photographers who share the way they work for others to use. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel – just find a way that works for you and tweak it to suit your needs.

In that spirit, I’m going to look at two methods for using Collections I learnt from other photographers.

Technique 1: Using multiple Collections

Using Lightroom Collections

This technique is based on a method I read about on Scott Kelby’s blog. I like it because it’s simple, and the easiest way that I’ve found to narrow down the images you take in a shoot to the ones that you want to process. The quicker you can do that, the sooner you can move on to the Develop module. Here’s a brief description of how it works:

  • Create a Collection Set and give it a name relevant to the shoot (i.e. the name of the place where the photos were taken, or the person in the photos etc.)
  • Create three Collections inside that Collection Set. Name them Full Shoot, Picks and Selects.
  • Send all the photos from the shoot to the Full Shoot Collection.
  • Flag your favourite photos from the Full Shoot Collection and send them to the Picks Collection. You don’t have to be really selective at this stage. You’re eliminating the worst images rather than picking the best.
  • Use flags to mark your best photos from the Picks Collection and send them to the Selects Collection. This is where you get really picky – the aim is to select only the very best photos from the shoot, the ones you intend to process.

Of course, you can adapt this to you own needs. If you don’t take many photos during a shoot, you may only need two Collections to narrow them down. On the other hand, if you want to convert some of your photos to black and white, you could create an additional Collection to hold those images.

Using Lightroom Collections

As you can see, I ended up creating five Collections for the above shoot.

The process is outlined in full here.

Technique 2: Using Smart Collections

Using Lightroom Collections

The previous technique relies on you adding photos to each Collection manually. But it’s also possible to use Smart Collections that Lightroom populates automatically. Photographer Rob Knight has the following system:

  • Create a Collection Set – give it a relevant name (in Rob’s example he uses ‘Landscape’).
  • Create two Smart Collections inside the Collection Set. Rob names his ‘Landscape picks’ and ‘Landscape stars’. All he has done here is add the words ‘picks’ and ‘stars’ to the name of his Collection Set. The article (link below) explains what rules to set.
  • Go to the Folder containing the images, and flag the best as picks. They are sent automatically to the ‘Landscape picks’ Smart Collection.
  • Go to the ‘Landscape Picks’ Smart Collection and give the best images a one star rating. Lightroom adds them to the ‘Landscape stars’ Smart Collection. This Smart Collection contains the best images from the shoot.

You can read about it  here.

Over to you

If you have an interesting way to use Collections yourself, then why not leave a comment? I would love it if readers could share some of their ideas – I’m also curious to see how other people use Collections.

Mastering Lightroom Book One: The Library Module

Using Lightroom Collections

My latest ebook Mastering Lightroom Book One: The Library Module 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!

  • I use smart collections to organize photos of my family – especially my children. By tagging who is in every photograph I can have a smart collection which instantly shows all the photos of Joshua (my eldest) no matter what folder they were saved in.
    I have actually setup multiple smart collections (within a collection set called “Joshua”) that uses the capture time of the photo in conjunction with the tag to show photos of him aged 0-1, 1-2, etc.

  • Aankhen

    I really wish Lightroom had full?fledged support for the Person Shown IPTC field. I use Daminion to manage my photos’ metadata in bulk. This way every photo includes a list of people shown in it. Unfortunately, this is practically useless in Lightroom. There’s the Any Filter plugin, which lets you search a bunch of fields that Lightroom doesn’t recognize, but it’s not quite the same thing.

  • Great read! This is something I’ve been thinking about utilizing for a while now. Right now, I have a large file structure on my hard drive. I’ve only recently (within the past few years) started using Lightroom so I had previously needed a means of organizing photos. (ie: Glacier National Park 8-24-13, or 4th of July 2009)

    Do you have any thoughts on how to transition from what I have today into the collections structure? I have read more than once that it makes sense to simply have ALL of your photos in a single folder on your hard drive (or several folders based on date to make the backup workflow easier) and then use collections to organize within Lightroom. That makes sense if starting from scratch, but what about the several thousand photos I currently have? Should I break down the structure I have on my hard drive in this transition?

    Maybe a better way to ask would be what does the hard drive structure look like in each of the two techniques above?

  • Good question, Josh. The thing to understand is that the folder structure on your hard drive is irrelevant when it comes to organising your photos into Collections. There’s no need to change your current folder structure unless you really want to. But it does make sense to put all your photos in a single master folder as it makes it easier to back them up. I also recommend you keep your Raw files in a master folder, and your other photos (jpegs, tiffs etc.) in another master folder. Your Raw files are like negatives – make sure they are backed up to at least two hard drives and you should never lose any due to hard drive failure.

    If I were you, I’d put all my Raw/photo files into two master folders, import them all into Lightroom, then sort them into Collections as needed. If you want to use a folder structure based on dates to make backing up easier, you can always do from this point forward.

  • I agree with Andrew that you should keep all your files within a master folder, just to keep them together – however you can have as many sub folders under the master folder as you see fit. A lot of people created dated folders, one for each “shoot”, while others have strict categories such as “Events”, “Vacations”, “People”, etc. It’s really up to you. You don’t have to use folders or collections exclusively – use whatever feels right for you and will help you find your photos.

    For automatically maintaining backups I use Crashplan. The free version allows you to automatically backup to another folder/drive/computer or – crucially – a friends computer (all files are backed up encrypted, so your friend can’t access them). Having an offsite backup is essential in my opinion.

    You can pay a subscription if you want more options, including space on the CrashPlan cloud (if you don’t have any friends!).

  • Tom

    I have just started using lightroom and have made a “New Import” Collection.
    I have then made a Collection Set called “Import WorkFlow”, in which I have 4-5 steps (can’t remember now, on a different computer)
    I have a smart collection set called “1 – RAW (Flag/Reject)” which I use to flag keeps and flag rejects for deleting later.
    The next Smart collection is “2 – Rejects (delete)” which obviously holds all photos I flag as rejects
    The next I think is “3 – Flagged for edit” which I use to edit photos, once edited these automatically populate in “4 – edited flagged” but I do not remove the flag until I have finished the editing I want to accomplish.
    “5 – Complete” holds just edited photos without flags so I know I have finished with them. I use the “any” matching criteria in here and have 1 star photos enter the “5 – complete” smart collection in case I do not want to edit them, I just add a 1 star and they filter into here.
    All smart collections have the rule so that if 1 star is on a photo, the photo is removed from the collection so I know this is one I am not going to edit.

    When completed fully I export the photos to a new folder and remove them from the “New Import” collection. I can then go back and add them to other collections based on the photo content.

    This seemed a bit messy at first but I only use the Collection set for New Imported photos and is actually not so bad,
    I am yet to sort my photos into other collections yet so need to do this this weekend.

    Any one else have ideas/suggestion they use for workflow smart collections?

  • Bill

    Excellent article. Helped me immensely. One question. After I set up a collection, with sub collections and I process a photo, do I export it to the collection, or somewhere else. I have a Flickr and FB folder, but I am wondering about collection sets for prints. Thanks

  • Hi Bill. I use Scott Kelby’s method. Create a Collection Set for the shoot. Place three Collections inside it (Full selection, Picks, Selects). Only the photos that I want to process end up in the Selects folder. From there you can create more Collections if you wish. For example, if you process some of your photos in black and white you may wish to create another Collection called B&W to contain them. You can add the same photo to as many Collections as you like, which gives you the flexibility to adapt these systems to whatever your needs are.

  • Brett Swift

    A bit late to the game here. I haven’t been using smart collections that often but I like the posts here and will probably try Scott Kelby’s approach, or a form of it.

    I’ll likely blend what I’m doing now with the picks and selects method.. although dumping an entire shoot into a folder I probably don’t need. I typically do a single shoot in a day, as I’m a hobbyist. The first folder I would have is a picks folder. How do I get there?

    1. Go to the daily shoot, and rank anything that has a slightest chance a 3 star. This means all panoramics, all burst shots. At the same time I reject ones I know just are crap, like out of focus or bad exposure that isn’t recoverable.

    2. set a view filter of 3+ stars. Then I rinse and repeat step 1, looking at the images more closely for focus and composition. These get 4 stars.

    3. bump the filter to 4 stars and find ones that are only good enough to publish or print.

    Now, to blend Scott Kelby’s method, I think I will do step 1 of mine, and dump my “picks” into a collection for the shoot.

    From there, I can create a print folder, or smart collections etc.

    I’m crap at tagging photos with value, otherwise I’d use that for Flickr auto publish smart collections. For now i just create those manually. I don’t really care too much about flickr organization so I could just create smart collections for each shoot, or just dump everything with 5 star on my photostream.

    Anyways, my 2 bits as a hobbyist who wants an easy workflow that won’t get in the way of my motivation to shoot. 🙂 Lots of learning to do behind the lense!

  • Robert Carter

    Very informative, Andrew . . . thanks for all the help you give in your various articles.

Join Our Email Newsletter

Thanks for subscribing!

DPS offers a free weekly newsletter with: 
1. new photography tutorials and tips
2. latest photography assignments
3. photo competitions and prizes

Enter your email below to subscribe.
Get DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS feed