How To Organize Your Photos in Lightroom
The Folder Wars
If you ever want to start a good debate among photographers, ask a group of them to talk about their strategy for importing photos from the memory card to disk. Some folks will regale you with great details of how they carefully create a folder structure and file naming system with meticulous attention to the date they captured the photo.
It seems like such a simple thing, yet I've seen some nearly violent responses if you tell these folks it's a mistake.
It's as if you hurt their pride and insulted their intelligence. They have folders by year, month and date. The photos are carefully nestled inside, but it doesn't stop there. Some folks even repeat the same structure for the filename of each photo, with a three or four digit numeration code at the end. The whole path ends up looking like this:
Or worse, this:
Folders embedded into folders. You can point to any date in history and they can tell you if they took a photograph that day by using this structure.
The Descriptive Deficiency
Date-based folders can't tell you is anything about those photos. Were they personal or for a client? Were they portraits, events, travel, commercial or just snapshots? Were they good or bad shots?
For most of us, our photos are much more than mere historical records. So why insist upon treating them as records to catalog and store in a meaningless organizational system?There are no relationships between your photographs under this hierarchical calendar approach.
Let's take an example. Suppose you slip into one of those folders and you find a photograph of your trip to Las Vegas. Maybe you spent a few days there, so there's a good bet that some of the folders next to this one contain more photographs from Las Vegas.
Now what about your other trips to Las Vegas? How do you find them? I can tell you that I rarely remember the exact dates that I visit a place once, much less when I visited at other times. All I know is that I want to show someone a photograph that I took in Las Vegas because they asked about the view from The Bellagio. Your calendar hierarchy becomes a failure because it doesn't describe the information you really want to know about your photographs.
Cameras have clocks built into them. They record the time and date when you took the photograph. You aren't really solving a problem by creating a hierarchy by date. You're just spending time recreating something that a computer inside the camera already recorded.
If you shoot with film, it makes much more sense to add the date as an attribute to the photos on import than to name the folder.
The Archival Argument
I know, this is your favorite retort. You buy a new external drive every year and load it up with your photographs. When the year is up, you put it on an archive and get another drive for your current photos.
It has the same problem, though. If you want to look for your Las Vegas photos, you're still stuck wondering which drive has the image you want to find. So now you have to look through different physical drives, and then explore the folders of each one to locate that photo of the Bellagio for your friend.
This isn't why you bought Lightroom.
The Myth Of Photo Organization
There's something I've heard photographers bring up over and over as I peel away the layers of their date-based argument. The truth is that they don't really want to trust Lightroom to manage their photos. They think that the file system is the real manager of their photos.
What if the Lightroom Catalog gets corrupted? All of that organizational work is gone. I gotta see my photos on the disk!
No, you don't. The truth is that you could toss every single photo into one folder and it would be perfectly fine. You're supposed to manage your photos with Lightroom, not the Finder on your Mac or Explorer on Windows.
Lightroom users have no choice but to load their photos into a folder. The Finder is a nice tool, but it's not the one you want to use to organize your photos at a microscopic level. Even though Lightroom doesn't store photos in a database, you still don't have to create an elaborate file system folder structure to use it. Lightroom only needs a pointer to the folder where you store your image.
Lightroom has its own, internal organizational structure. You build collections inside of Digital Asset Management programs to organize your images. Even then, there's no real value to giving those containers a date-based name. Otherwise, you may as well go back to using the Bridge.
Using The Power of Metadata
The date and time information stored in your photograph is metadata; information that describes part of your image. There's more metadata to go along with it. Each image knows what model of camera and lens you use. It knows the exposure variables you chose for the photograph. It knows the white balance. If your camera has a GPS attachment, it even knows exactly where you were when you took the photo.
That, and quite a bit more information, is a good start. However, you can add your own metadata. You can tell Lightroom information to describe your photos.
- This is a portrait of my wife
- This is a processional shot of the bride at the MacArthur wedding
- This is the Hoover Dam
- This is my big toe in the Gulf of Mexico
You can add keywords to describe your photos, and then search on them later when you want to find that perfect photo of your big toe and all the places its been.
Do you care what day or time it was when your big toe was in the Gulf of Mexico?
You don't have to stop with Keywords, though. There are other useful tools that don't necessarily describe your photos, but perhaps they describe where they are in your workflow process. I use color labels in Lightroom to help my workflow.
- Every imported photo starts as Purple – To Be Reviewed
- Photos I don't like get a Red label – Rejected
- Photos I think have potential get a Yellow label – To Be Processed
- Finished photos get a Green label
- Photos I want to put in my Portfolio get a Blue label (I wish it looked like a ribbon)
Creating Conditional Albums
Between the built-in metadata and the information I've added, it's easy to search for anything I want to find. If I feel like reviewing photos, I only look for the ones with an Orange label. If I want to see my photos of Las Vegas, I query keywords for Las Vegas or search for photos taken in that area of the Map feature.
Lightroom can create Smart Collections. You don't have to keep searching. You essentially have a saved search that points to the photos you want to find. If you have one for your Big Toe, then all you have to do is add they key word “Big Toe” to the photos you import
Breaking Up Your Imported Photos
While you could store everything in one big folder, I don't go to that extreme.
I have an iMac with an external RAID array, where I've moved my home profile. When I click on the Pictures folder in the Finder, it isn't looking at the small internal drive. My profile is on the external RAID with 12 TB of space.
Under Pictures, I have a folder called Lightroom. That's where I keep my Lightroom Catalog. I also have a small set of sub-folders for my photos.
This is how to organize your photos in Lightroom. Use the power of the tool to eliminate tedious work and speed up your workflow.
All of my Las Vegas photos are inside a folder called Travel. It doesn't matter where I've been, they all go in this folder. Photos from Las Vegas, Cuba, St. Lucia, Amsterdam, Washington D.C., New York, etc. It's all travel and I lump them in the same place.
I know that's turning some stomachs out there, but it works.
When I import my photos into Lightroom, they go into this Travel folder and I tag the images with keywords describing the location or trip. Then I can easily find them later using keywords and Smart Collections.
I don't need folders by date because the photos already have the time and date metadata stored inside. You do keep your camera clock set properly, right? I knew you did.
On import, I also use a Color Label to mark the photos To Be Reviewed. That makes it easy to do the editing process to cull the photos later when I'm in the mood to work on editing. I simply create a Smart Collection for photos tagged with Las Vegas and a color label of To Be Reviewed.
When I review my photos, I'll add keywords to identify the images I want to find later.
To find that view of the Bellagio, I just type “Bellagio” in the filter.
Note that I didn't name the photo or a folder “Bellagio.” All I did was add a keyword. Only had to type it once, and then it's just a Drag & Drop affair to associate it with the photos of the Bellagio. Quick and easy to prepare, but extremely powerful and useful to find images later. If I really needed to find the photo by date, no problem. That info is already inside the photo. I don't need to recreate it. Neither do you.
Organizing Your Photos By Date Relies On The Wrong Tool
The heart of the matter is trusting your tools. The people who create these elaborate and redundant file structures and naming systems are doing things the hard way. They think that the file system is the tool for the job.
I have news for you. File systems can get corrupt, too. That's why you always need a backup. I don't just have backups. I have multiple backups. Generations of backups. I have backups of backups.
You see, I've experienced the nightmare of a crashed RAID system. I've experienced a damaged Lightroom catalog. Lightroom give you a quick and easy way to backup your Catalog. You should use the backup frequently. You should also use other backup tools to make sure your photos are as safe as you can make them.
There's an old maxim – Trust, but verify. So trust Lightroom, but use your backup to verify the safety of your images. Now stop wasting time with those elaborate folders and file names.