The Complete Guide to Organizing Your Photos with Adobe Lightroom

By Aaron Geis / September 9, 2014

In the first installment of my Lightroom Workflow tutorial series I emphasized the importance of archiving your images so that you won’t lose them if your hard drive should fail. I also mentioned the idea that you can also lose track of the images that you care about in the confusion of having photographs spread around your hard drive in multiple folders.

Bristol_Catherdral
Photo by Aaron Geis

The Library Module in Lightroom can help you organize the photos that you have nested in various folders across your system. There is also a facility for adding keywords to your images so you can find them more quickly in the future.

Back in the days of film a professional photographer would have filing cabinets full of negatives and slides in plastic sleeves. Each sleeve would be labeled with a filing number, the date and also a very brief description of the photos. Then an Excel spreadsheet would be updated with that information so the spreadsheet functions could be used to find specific photographs by referencing the subject.

The Lightroom Library module takes over the functions of that spreadsheet but it is much more flexible and powerful. With tools like ‘Smart Collections’ you can create groupings of images based on various parameters such as the date of creation, the camera used or keywords. If you’re just getting started with Lightroom then I recommend that you spend some time organizing your photographs using the Smart Collections feature.

For the purposes of this tutorial I’m going to assume that you have images scattered around the hard drive of your computer and that you have taken my advice and purchased a dual hard drive dock with two drives installed. If not then you can adjust the procedure to suit you own situation, maybe you have lots of images on an external drive and you just need to organize them. In that case select ‘Add to Catalog’ in the Import dialog instead of ‘Copy’ when we get to that part.

Create a Master Catalog

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Creating a Master Catalog

As a professional photographer I like to create a new catalog for each job because once I finish with a job I won’t need to access those images very often but I also have a master catalog that I use for all of my personal photos and the portfolio images that I return to more often.

For a hobbyist or an enthusiast photographer you may only need one master catalog for all of your photos.

To get started open Lightroom and create a new catalog (command + N) and name it ‘Master Catalog’ or something similar that works for you. Remember that a Lightroom catalog is just an index to a set of images. You can include the same images in multiple catalogs without having to make duplicate copies of the actual image files.

Select the drive that has images on it and click on the ‘Include Subfolders’ check box in the Import Dialog window. Lightroom will then present you with all of the image files that it finds on the selected drive. This is so useful in helping you extract the image files from wherever they may be on your hard drive and backing them up to your new hard drives.

Lightroom will include all of the image files on your hard drive, including the files that the operating system uses. You can go through and ‘Uncheck’ those images in groups so they don’t get transferred to your new drives. If you select the first of a series of images and then hold down the shift key and select the last image in the series all of the images in between will be highlighted, then select ‘Uncheck All’ to deselect that group.

Select ‘Copy’ at the top of the middle panel in the Import Dialog and then check the ‘Make a Second Copy’ tick box on the top of the panel on the right. Choose one of the two drives in your dual port dock. If you already have set up a ‘Photos’ folder select it in the drop down menu. Otherwise you can create that folder now.

Moving down the panel on the right side of the Import Dialog I would not recommend renaming the files at this point. Likewise I wouldn’t be applying any develop settings universally but I would add the basic metadata that identifies you as the creator of your photos.We’ll be adding keywords once the images are imported so leave that field blank for now.

Under the‘Destination’ menu select the second drive in your dock and check the ‘Into Subfolder’ tick box. If you need to create the ‘Photos’ master folder for that drive do that now and you are ready to import the files into your new master catalog.

Keyword Labeling

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Labeling your images with keywords

Now you’re ready to get to work labeling your images with keywords. For this task I like to drag the left hand divider to the right so the navigator image is large. Then I zoom the central image to 1:1. (some important Quick Keys in Library module – G for grid view, E for loupe view, Z for zoom view). And finally I bring the lower divider up a bit so I can see what the images contain more easily.

This set up allows me to see what the images are along the bottom, the navigator window on the upper left is large enough to evaluate the overall composition and the central window is ready to check for sharpness at the 1:1 view.

If you click on the first image on the sliding panel along the bottom you can add keywords that would help you find that image in the future. Let’s say that it’s an image of two of your children on holiday. You could add the names of the children, separated by commas in the keywords field. You could also add the name of the place and maybe something like ‘kids’.

Now looking along the series of photos to the right of the first one you might notice that the first photo was one of a series, all with the two kids on holiday. You can do the trick of holding down the shift key again to highlight all of the photos as a group and now if you select the ‘Auto Sync’ button you will be able to apply the keywords to all of those photos at once.

As you go along you can select images as groups and add keywords from the list of recently used keywords as well as adding new keywords where required.

Using Smart Collections to Organize Your Photos

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Creating a Smart Collection

Now that you have all of the image files labeled with keywords you’re ready to start categorizing them for easy reference. Your new best friend is the Smart Collections function. With Smart Collections you can quickly sort out thousands of images into sets for easy reference.

In the panel on the left of the Library module you will see that there is a drop down menu next to ‘Collections’. Open that menu and select ‘Create Collection Set’. I recommend making a Collection Set labeled ‘By Year’.

Now go back and select ‘Create Smart Collection’. This will open a panel that gives you the opportunity to set multiple parameters for grouping images. You can use combinations of parameters to organize your images in your Lightroom catalog so you can find images more easily.

Select ‘By Year’ – ‘is in the range’ and then enter the dates of the first year that you started making digital photos. Repeat for each year up to the current date.

Once you’ve done this will all of your photos you could create a Smart Collection set labeled ‘By Subject’ and create Smart Collections for all of the photos of your children, all of the photos from holidays, all of the photos of a particular place, etc.

Prioritizing Photos With Flags

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Using the Flag rating system to prioritize photos

I also use the flag rating system as I’m looking through my images to highlight the best photos in a series by marking them with the flag (Quick Key – P) and if I see a totally unusable photo, something completely out of focus for instance, then I’ll hit the ‘X’ key to reject it.

Once I’m done with the flagging and rejecting process I press ‘command + delete’, this brings up a dialog box that gives me the option to either remove the rejected photos from Lightroom or to actually move the master files to the trash. Removing them from Lightroom means that the files will still be available if I ever changed my mind for some reason. Moving them to the trash will result in those photos being lost forever, which also frees up space on my hard drives.

The way I use the flagging system is to reject the photos that I’m happy to move to the trash and then create a Smart Collection of the flagged images so I don’t have to look through all of the unflagged versions each time I reference that set, but those images are still there if I ever need one of them.

Of course each shoot is different but it seems like in many cases I will have flagged about 1/3 of the images in a set and rejected only a few obvious duds.

The other features of the Library module I use sometimes are the ‘Quick Develop’ option to add a ‘preset’ of developing settings to a group of images and also the ‘Publish Services’ but those don’t come under the heading of ‘Organizing Your Photos’ so I’ll cover those features in future Lightroom workflow tutorials, thanks for reading!


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About the author

Aaron Geis

is a professional photographer based near Bristol and Bath. You can read more about him on his photography website!

  • Hi @Aarongies

    Great Tutorial. Will be nice to finally get my photos organized in Lightroom.

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  • Tony Drysen says:

    Thanks for this article. Finally I’ll get my pictures organized after residing this.

  • Robert Pineyro says:

    I have used Apple’s Aperture for my previous workflow. Since Apple recently announced it will not support Aperture in the future, I do not see any advantage in continuing to use this software. So I paid the $10 per month fee (I do not agree with web based software) and downloaded the Creative Suite app and the Lightroom 5 app. I placed the catalog in my internal drive and wanted to use on external hard drive for the photos and a second external hard drive for back up. All folders are named the same in both drives.
    I wanted to import my shots into both drives in one download and I have not been able to do so. I have now been stuck for 2 months. I called support and after 1 1/2 hours of waiting I hung up. I emailed and to no avail.
    Anyway, I can get the pictured/photos into the first hard drive but not into the second back up drive. No one has been able to help. I have tried.
    The other day they notified of an upgrade to Lightroom and clicked on it but it said that Creative Cloud is not working. So another month has gone by.
    I really never had any issues with archiving photos with Aperture. Also, downloading from memory cards was at least twice as fast even when adding a lot of metadata concomitantly.
    Any suggestions?

    • Caroll May says:

      Actually it is quite simple. Just click on the little box that says and tell it where you want it saved. Works very well and provides a copy in Lightroom Library and a on the other external drive you have chosen. Enjoy!

  • James F. Byrnes says:

    I have more than 22,000 images sitting in IPhoto. It has become a monster to manage! I am considering purchasing Lightroom to help get it organized. Where would I begin?

  • morebeli says:

    Ugh, I don’t think I followed instructions! Am I able to delete the master I created and start over?

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  • Doug says:

    Aaron, this is an awesome write-up, thank you!!


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