Lightroom IconIn Part One of this two-part article series, we learned about basic on-disk directory structure and organization.  In Part Two–which assumes that you’ve already read Part One–we’re going to cover how that on disk structure works with Adobe Lightroom and some additional tips & tricks you can use for even faster photo findin’.  I’ll be using Lightroom 4 in this tutorial but you should be able to follow along using any of the previous versions.  This is going to be a long post; buckle up and get comfy!

 What We are Going to Cover

Before we take any further steps, let me say that Lightroom is an extremely capable and extremely expansive software package.  It would be very easy to get off track and start to discuss topics apart from image and file organization.  Therefore, I am going to limit the scope of my discussion to the processes of importing, tagging, and finding photos in the Lightroom catalog.  I’ll also take a quick moment to point out the limitations of my method and how to correct those things that I know I do wrong.

First, a few quick definitions:

  • Lightroom Catalog (or just “Catalog”) — This can mean two things.  Very strictly, it means the physical file (database) that Lightroom uses to keep track of all photographs, photograph locations, the edits to those files, and other metadata. More generally, the catalog just refers to the database that Lightroom uses plus all of the photos on the computer hard disks that have been imported into Lightroom.  For clarification, the database does not actually contain the photo files–it just stores information about them.  However, when I say something like “I’m looking through my Lightroom catalog for a photo of a frog.” I mean to say I’m using both the database and the files that came out of the camera to do this search.  Clear as mud, right?  😉
  • Metadata (sometimes “Meta Information” or just “Meta”) — All of the information associated with a file that is not the actual photograph.  For example, when you snap a photo, the camera automatically includes the photo settings like shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, etc.  All of this information is contained in the JPG or RAW picture file but does not help the computer render (draw) the photo.  This extra information is metadata…and there’s a ton of it in every photo.
  • Import — The process of adding photos to the Lightroom catalog and attaching additional metadata to each image.  This is essentially telling Lightroom, “Hey, I’ve got these photos over here in this particular spot on my hard drive.  Keep track of them for me.”
  • Tags (or “Keywords”) — Tags are single words or short phrases that describe the photograph.  They can be anything you can dream up–no limitations.  Tags are often used to help you search for photographs of a particular subject so they can be very powerful if used correctly.

Importing Photographs

To even be able to use Lightroom to track and edit my photos, I first need to import them into the catalog.  When I perform the import, I use Lightroom to create my directory structure in the same way I would if I were adding photos to my hard drive manually.  I intentionally do this so that my photos are as easy to find using a file browser as they are using a dedicated image cataloging / developing software package.  The image below shows the directory structure of my Lightroom catalog in a side-by-side comparison with the screenshot of the actual on-disk directory structure we used as a demo in Part One.  (Click to enlarge this photo.)  You’ll notice that they are nearly identical.

Finder versus Lightroom Folder Structure

 How do we use Lightroom to do this?  Let’s start with the import window.  If Lightroom is open and active, the import window should automatically open once the camera card and card reader are connected to the computer.  If the import window does not open automatically, the keyboard shortcut SHIFT + COMMAND + I (for both PC and Mac, I think) will open the window manually.  Take a look at this screenshot of my import window.  I color-outlined the areas that we’ll talk about next.  (download full-sized image — 1,658 x 1,229 px / 285 KB)

Adobe Lightroom Import Window

Side note:  This is Lightroom 4 so the import window looks like what is shown here.  Previously, I was using Lightroom 2 and the import window was much different.  It had basically the same fields–it just looked different.  Anyone should be able to follow along regardless of which version of Lightroom they are using.  Let’s dive in…

Red Area — The red area is my source area.  This lists all the cards and hard drives on my computer and tells Lightroom where to look for the photos to import.  Notice that my camera card (EOS_DIGITAL) is selected by default but I could just as easily select any of the hard drives or network drives on this computer if I wish to import images from one of those locations.

Blue Area — These are thumbnails of the images that Lightroom has discovered in my source area.  In this case, photos of me and my cute daughter Reese.  I can select which images to import by checking or un-checking the boxes in the upper-left corner of each thumbnail.  Being able to select which images to import is important because I may have several days worth of photos on one card and wish to import them into different directories.  Selecting specific images will also allow me to use different metadata presets and/or different tags for different image sets.

This is where things get interesting and the functionality of Lightoom starts to become apparent…

Green Area — This is the metadata / preset area.  I use this feature to automatically set a great deal of information about each photograph automatically as the photo is imported.  The information I personally choose to set mostly pertains to copyright but there are dozens and dozens–perhaps even one hundred or more–fields that can be set.  Additionally, I could make several different profiles for different purposes and select the profile to use for any particular import.  Later, we will see how to search the Lightroom catalog for specific images based on metadata–both metadata in this group as well as others.

Lightroom Preset Window

Yellow Area — The yellow area is for keywords or image tags.  You can put anything you like in this field and the more tags / keywords you add, the easier it will be to find these images later.  Each word or phrase should be separated by a comma.  I like to include at a minimum multiple location words, names of people in the image, the reason for the image, predominant colors (if there are any), and anything else I think might help me search for these images later on.  For this image set above, I would probably use these tags or something very similar:  texas, lubbock, house, home, office, jerod, reese, karam, first year, photo project, picture project, 365 days, smile, smiling, baby, cute.  In other cases, I may include words like “abstract” or “landscape” or “wedding” or whatever else might be important to that particular image set.

Purple Area — The purple area is the photo destination.  This is location on my hard drive to which Lightroom will copy the photographs.  This is how I instruct Lightroom to build the directory structure as I have been describing.  In the expanded image below, I have captured how I would set up this photo set for import.  I have drilled down through my directory tree into the correct disk drive, main folder, year, and month.  Now I have checked the “Into Subfolder” option at the top and specified the date and the event title–25 – Reese and Daddy.  Lightroom has confirmed that it will add a new folder by placing a light grey italic folder name underneath “07 – July”  This folder name is identical to the one I typed.  If you need to create a new folder–for example, you need to create both “08 – August” and “NEW DATE – NEW EVENT NAME” at the same time, simply right-click on the year 2012, select “New folder…”, and create the folder for your month.  Then use the “Into Subfolder” option to create your date folder.

Reese & Daddy Import Settings

Once all of this is set up, I can click the “Import” button in the lower right of the window and Lightroom will begin the process of adding all of my photographs to the catalog.  This can take a long time if there are a large number of photos.

Searching for Photographs or Photo Sets

Now that the photos are all in the Lightroom catalog, I can perform all sorts of edits and categorization and so forth.  Since I am just focusing on file organization, though, we will only look at how to find photos once they’re in the catalog.

The easiest way to find a photo would be to know the date (or close to the date) the photo was taken and navigate through your directory structure until you find the correct photo set.  This should be easy and self-explanatory.  But what happens if I have 39,504 photos in my catalog and am looking for something specific?  This is where the tags work their magic.

First I go to the Library Module of Lightroom by clicking the “Library” link on the upper right portion of the window.  I press “G” to show all my photos as thumbnails and then, in my “Folders” section I select my one root directory that holds all of my images.  Mine is called “The Warehouse.”  (Remember I told you it was a good idea to have one single directory that holds all of your photos?  😉 )  This allows Lightroom to search every photo in my collection.  (If I only wanted to search within one year or one month or even just one shoot for a particular tag I would select the appropriate directory at this point.  For this example, I want to search the entire catalog so I choose the top level directory.)

Next, I click on the “Text” button on the “Library Filter Bar” at the top of the window above all of the image thumbnails.  That will make available some search options.  I can choose which part of my metadata to search and I can provide a search term.  If you allow Lightroom to search “any available field” which is the default setting, every single piece of metadata in every single photo will be searched for a match to the text you provide.  This will take a surprisingly short time…but it’s a very powerful tool.  See the image below for an example where I searched for “baseball.”  (download full-sized image — 2,842 x 1,811 / 914 KB)

Full Lightroom Window

Lightroom tells me that 754 of my 39,504 photos are tagged with the word “baseball” and it displays those photos for me as thumbnails.  This is a much more manageable set to sort through than the tens-of-thousands of images I had previously.

You’ll also notice that I have buttons for “attribute,” “metadata,” and “none” alongside the “text” button.  These allow me to search on different parameters such as the camera body used, the lens used, image labels / flags / colors (all of which are beyond the scope of this article), and other metadata.  The “none” button allows me to quickly negate all of my search filters at once so I don’t have to turn them off individually.  These filters can be invoked individually or in conjunction with one another to further narrow the image set displayed.

For example, I sometimes use the “pick” flag to denote images of which I am particularly fond.  If I keep my “baseball” text filter enabled and also select the “pick flag” from my attributes list, I’m now presented with this very short list of my favorite baseball photos.  Pretty convenient, eh?  (download full-sized image — 2,805 x 1,833 / 746 KB)

Lightroom Window Baseball Pick

Notice that there is a photograph of flowers included in this set.  This is exactly how my Lightroom catalog is set up–I did not alter it for the purposes of this tutorial.  That brings me to the shortcomings of my method and how those shortcomings can be avoided.

The Downside of My Method (and How to Avoid It)

The downside of what I have explained in this article is this…  When I import a set of photographs from my camera card into Lightroom, I try to save time by importing the entire card at once.  This means I give every single image in that import the exact same set of tags.  When I imported the images that you see in this example, I had spent time taking photos at both the farmer’s market as well as the baseball game.  Therefore, my farmer’s market photos received tags pertaining to baseball and my baseball photos were tagged with keywords appropriate to the farmer’s market.  If you are a person who is very strict with your labeling then this might drive you crazy.  If you have a little more tolerance for things being out of place then you might be OK with saving a bit of time and having flower photos show up alongside your baseball pics.

How could I avoid this situation?  Several ways…  Remember how Lightroom 4 allows you to use check boxes to select the images you would like to import off the camera card before assigning tags?  I could use this to perform my imports in batches with the appropriate tags for each group of images.  Another way to do it would be to import the entire card at once using only very minimal tags and then go add additional tags to the images later.  (Part of the reason I got into this mess is because these photos were imported when I was using Lightroom 2 which didn’t allow you to easily break up your imports.)

In a perfect world, I would have the time and energy to tag each image individually and perfectly with the most appropriate keywords for that one photo.  But this world ain’t perfect…and I ain’t got that kind of time…so I make due with the method I’ve described here and it seems to be working relatively well for me so far.

Wrapping Up

If you have read this far through the article I commend you for your patience.  This was a long one and I hope it has helped you understand a little more about how to use a program like Lightroom to make cataloging and searching your photo collection just a little easier.  If you’ve got other suggestions or tips & tricks that you use, please share them in the comments!  I’d love to hear how others manage their photo collections.

Until next time…

–Jerod

Categories: Featured, Tutorial

3 Responses so far.

  1. Excellent explanation, Jerod! As I get more an more reliant on LR for my organization, I’ve been using the star ratings, flags, and color codes to offer more help when identifying things (on top of using keywords).

    I may post a reply on the LCC forum explaining my use of those in case anyone finds them useful.

    Thanks again for taking the time to post these very thorough cataloging guidelines!

    • "Sir RedGrooves Alot" says:

      Thanks for taking the time to read them, Brian. I do have my own personal system of identifying and tracking photos through color codes and flags. I’m really not very consistent with my use of star ratings, though. I can’t figure out why there would be a star rating system because why would anyone actually keep a one- or two-star photograph? Just delete the thing if it’s no good and recover that disk space! Just my opinion, though.

      I look forward to hearing / seeing your additions on the LCC Facebook page!

  2. […] I don’t believe it’s overly complicated or difficult to execute.  Check back soon for Image & File Organization — Part Two where I integrate this technique into Adobe […]

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