Scott Thomas Images

Organizing With Lightroom

Before publishing this post I kept asking myself why the world needs yet another set of instructions on organizing your photos with Lightroom. After all, there are many excellent sources for the information elsewhere. Ultimately, I decided to publish this for several reasons, including that many of the posts I have seen approach the topic from only one perspective (such as only for professionals) and several are great, but are very lengthy videos (I find text much more user-friendly for things I might use as a reference). So, this will be the first of several posts on organizing photos. The principles will apply to any software, but, because I use Lightroom, the posts will be based on it (and no, I am not sponsored by Adobe – though I wouldn’t object!).

What if you’ve already started?

No problem! When I first started with Lightroom I did what many people do – just dive in! It made it so easy be automatically importing from my memory card, so I hastily created some collections (more on that below) and got going. After a while I realized that I wasn’t really organizing either my collections or my files and folders very well. I started looking for help online, and that’s when the fun began!

After a bit I realized that some tutorials assumed that everyone should organize by client (and sometimes after that, type of shoot, date, or other distinguishing features). But what if you don’t shoot professionally, and don’t have clients? After starting over, I can tell you that it can be done!

If you are not starting with a clean Lightroom installation (once again, you can do much of this with other software, but there will be Lightroom-specific topics that you may — or may not – be able to duplicate), the easiest way to begin is to create a new Catalog (you’ll be able to import your old photos later).

A Bit of Planning

As we get started, we will need to organize files and folders (don’t just go ahead and do this, unless you are very happy with your current organizational scheme) and also Collection Sets and Collections (and possibly other things). So first, some definitions:

  • Files and Folders – no surprises here. These are the folders on your computer (or wherever you store the files), and files which are the actual photos, themselves. Lightroom has the ability to manage files and folders, and generally, you will want to use Lightroom for this, to keep from losing track of files.
  • Catalog – in Lightroom this is the name for the overall set of photographs (think of it as a very large container, which you fill with your photos). This can be all your photographs, if you like, which means that you have, in essence, a single huge catalog with all your images in it. Another approach is to use Catalogs to represent a specific group of your images. There are pros and cons to each way of doing it.
  • Collection – another container, inside a Catalog (and, optionally, inside a Collection Set), which holds photos.
  • Collection Set – a container, inside a Catalog, holding one or more Collections.

Organizing Collections and Collection Sets

A simple set up might have one Catalog (for all our photos), a Collection Set for something (a client, a vacation, an event, a photoshoot, a year or date, or whatever makes sense), and one or more Collections inside the Collection Set, containing images. In a generic sense, it might look like this:

Collection Set
|_________ Collection
|                               |_______ Photos
|_________ Collection
|_______ Photos

… and, of course, you can have more Collections in a Collection Set, and more Collection Sets in a Catalog.

For a holiday photo shoot, you might have:

Catalog (All Photos)
Holiday (Collection Set)
|_________ All Photos (Collection)
|                               |_______ Photos
|_________ Edited Photos(Collection)
|_______ Photos

That example assumes that you want to organize your Collection Sets (and Collections) by an event label. But in reality, that is the first decision you’ll have to make.

Think about the way you use need to access your photos. Of course you can search for them using various fields (date, filename, metadata, etc.), but how would you like to be able to find them? For a pro, it might be by client and job, or even by year, or other date. For others, perhaps it is by location, and, if you return to the same locations often, by year or by date. Another option is by genre – especially if you shoot different types of subjects (landscape, street, portraits, sports, floral, etc.).

You can also nest Collection Sets inside one another, so you are not limited to one level. For example, you might have a Collection Set called Seasons, inside that a Collection Set called Winter, then a Collection Set called “2015-2016”, and inside that a Collection Set for a particular location, then, finally, a Collection for All the photos, and another Collection for your picks, etc.

What About Folders?

You can organize your folders and files any way you like – but you shouldn’t do that! It will be much easier to locate your files if they are organized the same way (or nearly the same) as your Collections.

Setting up your folders and files can be done before you start using Lightroom, or after. If you have already been using Lightroom, you should make changes to the file and folder locations only from within Lightroom, so that Lightroom doesn’t lose track of them.

If you are just getting started with Lightroom, you can click the Import button and import all your photos, then move the files and folders around inside Lightroom, but it may be easier to do your organizing first. To do that, before importing anything into Lightroom, create your folder structure the way you want it, and then import the photos into Lightroom, and set up your Collection Sets and Collections the way you want them, and add the files to the Collections as you create them.

An Example

Lightroom CollectionsThe way that might work is to begin by setting up folders outside Lightroom (if you are not going to create a new Catalog, and you have images in Lightroom, you’ll need to do this from inside Lightroom). Let’s assume we want to set up a style, year, and client or subject as our basic structure.

In that case, we’ll have a folder called “Portraits” with another called “2015” inside it, and another called “Mom-Dad” inside that one. In the “Mom-Dad” folder will go all the image files for the portraits of mom and dad. If you do multiple shoots of them in the same year, you might want to add one more layer of folders for the month, shoot number, or whatever makes sense. If you do portraits of them annually, you may want to put Mom-Dad under the Portraits folder, and “2015” inside it, instead of the other way around.

Since we’re organizing by genre, we’ll do the same for Landscapes, Florals, Sports, or whatever else you shoot.

Once the folders and files are in place, open Lightroom, create a new Catalog (if necessary). Before importing, you should create a copyright preset, so that your copyright information will be automatically added to every photo at the time it is imported. See the instructions here, for creating a copyright preset.

Next, you have two options: (1) you can import all the files, and then create Collection Sets and Collections and add the photos to them; or (2) you can create all the Collection Sets and Collections, and then import by Folder, using the “Add imported images to a Collection” setting in Lightroom to import them directly to the Collection you want them in.

One advantage to the second method is that, since you are importing only a specific group of photos, you can use the import dialog to add descriptive tags to the images. For example, if we’re shooting portraits of Mom & Dad, we can label them with the year, a “Mom&Dad” tag, perhaps the location, occasion, or whatever makes sense. This will save tagging them later, though, of course, any tags specific to a single image will have to be added later.

Next time we’ll talk more about using Collection Sets and Collections.


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