Creative Ways to use Keywords in Lightroom 5


Andrew S. Gibson is the author of Mastering Lightroom Book One: The Library Module, on offer now at Snapndeals for a limited time.

Keywords in Lightroom 5

One of the things about any software, such as Lightroom 5 that does a lot of things, is that many photographers tend to use only a small number of the available features. For example, I’ve never bothered to use the keywords feature much in Lightroom. I’ve always seen it as a waste of time. It takes time to add keywords to images and I don’t really need keywords to search for images – I know where to find them already.

But since I started writing about Lightroom, and reading what other photographers have written about it, I’ve realised that there are a lot of good reasons to use keywords, and that used wisely they can actually save time.

Like many things, it’s a matter of balance. The more keywords you use the harder it is to keep track of them all and the reasons that you added them, and to maintain a consistent approach (exception: if you shoot stock you will want to use lots of keywords as they are an essential part of your work).

If you use just a few keywords, it’s easy to remember which ones you use and why.

Let’s look at a couple of examples of creative ways to use keywords in Lightroom 5. Of course, if you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments. I’m curious to see how you use keywords.

Keep track of the kids

I really like this one (thanks to Robert Taylor for the suggestion, he left in the comments on Using Lightroom Collections to Improve your Workflow). If you have children, add their name as a keyword when you import the images that you take of them. Then you can create a series of Smart Collections that searches for images with that keyword and organises them by year.

Create a yearbook

Keywords in Lightroom 5

Back before digital photography became the norm, a photographer’s best work ended up as prints or as slides. Today, the finished article is often a digital image stored on a hard drive or uploaded to a website. One of my current projects is organising my best images from every year since I’ve owned a digital camera, and picking the best to create a yearbook. The ultimate aim is to use Blurb to create a book creating my favourite photos taken each year, over the last eight years, and to carry this forward throughout my life. Not just for me, but for posterity. These books will hopefully make great gifts for younger family members.

Method: add the keyword “yearbook” to suitable images, then create Collections to house those images.

Taking it further: This could be applied to all sorts of ideas. For example, I could use it to create a book (or simply a collection) of my favourite images taken here in New Zealand. All I need to do is add the keywords “New Zealand” and “book” to candidate images, then perform a search.

Using keywords

Excited? I hope so, because the more you delve into Lightroom’s Library module ,the more you’ll find ways to simplify how you organise your images. Keywords are no exception. Now let’s look at the different ways you can actually apply keywords to your images in Lightroom. There are several options:

Keywords in Lightroom 5

Adding keywords when you import images

This method works well if you tend to import images in groups, according to subject matter. For example, if you take some portraits one day, some landscapes the next, and import them all in one go you can’t really add subject specific keywords. But if you import the images from both shoots separately you can add keywords at the import stage (for example, the name of the model to the portraits, and the name of the location to the landscapes). You can do this in the Apply During Import panel on the right-hand side of the Import window.

Use the painter tool

Keywords in Lightroom 5

The Painter tool is an easy way to add keywords to images while you are in Grid View. Click on the Painter icon in the Toolbar (it looks like a spray paint can – press the ‘T’ key to reveal the Toolbar if you don’t see it) and select ‘Keywords’ from the drop-down menu. Type in the keywords you want to add (in the box just to the right). Now all you have to do is click on a photo thumbnail to add those keywords to that image. It’s a very fast way of working in Grid View.

Use the Keywording panel

Keywords in Lightroom 5

The Keywording panel is located in the right-hand panel in the Library module. To add keywords, select the image (or a group of images) and type the new keywords into where it says ‘Click here to add keywords’. Any keywords already given to the image are displayed above. You can also add keywords by clicking on any that appear under Keyword Suggestions (populated by keywords you have used in the past).

Use Keyword Sets

Keyword Sets are found at the bottom of the Keywording panel. They are there to help you organise your keywords, and overcome the problem caused by the fact that it becomes more difficult to maintain consistency the more you use keywords.

Keywords in Lightroom 5

For example, I live in a suburb of Wellington called Island Bay. If I take photos here then I should keyword them with “Island Bay”. But what if one day I use the keyword “Wellington” instead? Or even forget to keyword them completely? Then the power of keywording is diminished, because those photos won’t be picked up in any search based on the keywords “Island Bay”.

The solution is to use a Keyword Set. For instance, I could create a Keyword Set called Island Bay, and add Keywords such as Island Bay, Wellington, New Zealand, landscape, portrait. Then, when it comes to adding keywords, I can select the Island Bay keyword set first, then click on the appropriate additional keywords. This ensures consistency by ensuring that I select my keywords from a pre-determined pool.

There are several Keyword Sets included with Lightroom, with titles such as Outdoor Photography, Portrait Photography and Wedding Photography. You can access them via the drop-down menu at the top of the Keyword Set section of the Keywording panel. This menu also gives you the options to create your own Keyword Sets.

Keywords in Lightroom 5

Keyword List

The Keyword List panel lists all the keywords that you have applied to images in your Lightroom Catalog. If you want to see all the photos tagged with a specific keyword together, hover over the keyword and click on the white arrow that appears on the right-hand side. Lightroom brings them together in Grid View. This is one way of searching images by keyword.

Finding keyworded images

The easiest way to find keyworded images is to go the Filter Bar (press the ‘\’ key if you don’t see it) in Grid View and click on the Metadata label. Select “Keyword” from the drop-down menu in the first column. Lightroom displays a list of keywords underneath. Click on a keyword – Lightroom gathers all images tagged with that keyword together. You can limit the search to specific Folders or Collections by selecting them in the left-hand panels (or select “All Photographs” to search your entire catalog).

Keywords in Lightroom 5

Using Smart Collections

Keywords in Lightroom 5

Finally, you can use Smart Collections to gather together images tagged with specific keywords automatically. Go to the Collections panel, click on the ‘+’ icon in the top-right corner and select the Create Smart Collection option. Set Match to All, select ‘Other Metadata > Keywords’ from the drop-down menu in the first column and then type the required keyword in the blank space provided. The example shows a very simple Smart Collection, you can make it as complex as you like by adding extra rules (remember to give your Smart Collection a name, in the example above “Andes” would be applicable).

Additional learning – Mastering Lightroom eBook

Keywords in Lightroom 5

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. It’s available now for a special price at Snapndeals for a limited period.

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!

  • Another good reason to use keywords is for file sharing. For example, you can upload to Flickr and make it much easier for folks to find your images. Thanks for a great article. DB

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    yup exactly!

  • Pinscher

    sorry but what exactly is CREATIVE about this article?
    that´s what you do with keywords… it´s in no way creative.

  • I sort of see your point, but staying organized is a huge part of my creative process. For example, when the author is tagging ‘yearbook worthy’ photos on import it saves him a lot of time. This makes the yearbook creation easier.

    You can call that creativity or not, but if it helps with creation, then it’s worth something. Whatever you want to call it.

  • Pinscher

    yeah keywords are important.
    but the title is missleading.
    it´s nothing creative on what´s described there.
    it´s fundamental stuff everyone does with keywording.

  • This is why I really really wish they would introduce name tagging to XMP. I did so much work in Picasa that moving to lightroom and losing name tagging was a huge negative (no pun intended)

  • Hi Pinscher,

    Here’s a dictionary definition of creative:

    “Relating to or involving the imagination or original ideas, esp. in the production of an artistic work.”

    If come up with an imaginative or original way to use keywords, then you are being creative. If you come up with a new (to you) way of using keywords to make your life in Lightroom a little easier, then that’s creative.

    That’s really the point I was trying to make. Hope that helps.

  • Yes, if you use Lightroom Publish Services to upload your photos to Flickr or 500px then you can add keywords and the keywords are exported as well. It means you only have to add them to a photo once. I’ll go into that in more detail in a future article.

  • Great post very informative good stuff.I like it very much

  • TC Conner

    Very informative article on using keywords. I hope to incorporate them into my workflow! (I’m a Lightroom newbie.)

  • cwalkatron

    If you hold down alt/option, you can use the number keys to apply keywords from the current set. I have a keyword set for family with everyone’s names. This makes tagging very quick.

  • George

    Am I right in saying that keywords searches won’t work between catalogs? My photos are catalogued by year so if I’m in the 2014 catalog it won’t pull up photos from the 2013 catalog.

  • Photography by James

    What a thoroughly negative, unnecessary and unhelpful comment on a very useful article. In the words of Thumper “If you can’t say nothin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all”.

  • Pavol Sojak

    After trying some other ways I’m stuck with using Keyword list in similar way you use Keyword sets. My Keyword list is organized in 4x main topics: Location, People, Subject, Timeline_Events.

    Then the structure goes on:
    under People – I have groups for Family, Friends, Neighbours, School, Celebrities.. under those I have individual name of peoples or just their family names.

    under Subjects – I have groups like Fauna (with some sub-level split for more photographed animals), Flora, Landscape (split by Bridges, Castles, CityScape, NatureScape), Food, and some other generic subjects like Panoramas, HDR, etc..

    under Timeline_Events – I have groups like Christmas, New Year Eve, Easter, TEDx, Vacation, Birthday, or other events I have photos from… no nee to put any date here, hence that’s part of metadata of each picture.

    under Location – I have group per each state, e.g. Belgium, Slovakia, Sweden, Finland, and under each state I have name of cities.. For some cities like Bratislava (where I live) I have additional locations defined, for other cities I do not need this. This could be replaced in future with GPS tags, but it’s still much easier to look-up pictures through location keywords than GPS coordinates.

    So each time I’m assigning Keywords I know I should pick at least one from each main 4x topics – Location, People, Subject, Timeline_Event. After some time using this it’s really straight forward and hence I see the list of keywords in “folder & subfolder like structure” (using Keyword List view) its helps to guide me which tag to pick.

  • Yes, that’s right. You can only load one catalog at a time in Lightroom. You can view and search photos from the catalog that you’re currently using, but not others.

  • I didn’t know that. Great tip!

  • Matt

    Another good tip is that when using Keyword Sets, you can use “Alt+NumKey” (on Windows) to quickly add keywords. This is invaluable when tagging names of kids. I know that “Alt-5” is my son and “Alt-4” is my daughter. It’s muscle memory now so it goes quick.

  • Matt

    Another good tip is that when using Keyword Sets, you can use “Alt+NumKey” (on Windows) to quickly add keywords. This is invaluable when tagging names of kids. I know that “Alt-5” is my son and “Alt-4” is my daughter. It’s muscle memory now so it goes quick.

  • That’s a great tip Matt. Can you please share how do I go about linking/ setting these keyword shortcuts for a predetermined set of keywords.
    Like Alt+1 for ‘Sunrise’ the Alt+2 for sunset etc etc. And also can these be changed later or one time thing only?

  • cwalkatron
  • Thanks for the link.

  • cwalkatron

    You can also hit `alt-0` to cycle through keyword sets. Here’s to not taking your hands off the keyboard!

  • Kevin Gale

    That’s one of the primary reasons why I use keywords – to group and post photos into their respective Sets in Flickr, as well as to set the appropriate access (i.e. Family/Friends/Both/Public) to my photos.

  • That’s very helpful Pavol – thanks!

  • I liked it..

  • Attila

    Are you writing keywords in capital or small letters? Make it any different?

  • It doesn’t make any difference. Key words in Lightroom are not case sensitive.

  • Jesse

    Thank you for making an effort with your punctuation! So many people writing articles today just don’t care about commas. Great content, too!

  • Abe

    Rock solid info in this article.

    Question: will keywords you come up with apply across multiple catalogs, or are they unique to EACH catalog?

  • Hi Abe, keywords are unique to each Catalog. Keyword Sets and Keyword Lists are saved within the Catalog you create them in, and aren’t available in other Catalogs.

  • J_Waller

    But, you can export them and import them. Plus they are attached to the metadata of your images. If you open an image that has a keyword in a new catalog, then the keyword becomes available.

  • jackbaberuth

    another solution could be hierachical keywords: open the list, click and drag the word “Island Bay” on the word “Wellington”, and now, everytime you type Island Bay, you’ll get the two keywords (or three, in case you put the word “Wellington” on the word “NZ”

  • Bouguereau

    This is excellent. I’m about to start keywording my entire Lightroom catalog, and this will help greatly. So logical and neat. Thank you.

  • For more information about keywording, plus some useful free keywording tools, free specialist lists, plus comparisons of all the major commercial keyword catalogs, including mine, please visit:

  • Hi Pavol, I’m not sure if you’ll read this comment after all this time, but I’m writing another article about keywords and wondered if it would be okay to mention your system as an example.

  • Pavol Sojak

    hi Andrew, thanks to email notifications I am reading this. what a beautiful technology we have here 😉 Of course you can use this, I don’t any problem with that. You can as well look into the controller keyword vocabularies, there is plenty of these on internet. e,g, Looking forward for another article.

  • Hi Pavol, thanks, I’ll check out the link. the article will appear on my personal website next month.

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