There are lots of great options out there for digital imaging applications, but the ones I like best do multiple things and do them well. Take Lightroom, for instance. It’s certainly useful for editing raw image files, but lots of other apps do that. Heck, I could use Adobe Camera Raw or Capture One and make great RAW image conversions. But the reason I use Lightroom is because it also does something else—it organizes my entire digital image catalog. This combination makes Lightroom a natural one-stop shop for a big chunk of my photographic life. In fact it’s the way Lightroom helps me keep my images organized that I appreciate the most.
Every once in a while, of course, my system breaks down—or I make a mistake that breaks my system, more likely—and I need to pay a little attention to getting my images better organized in Lightroom. Here’s a look at the most common issues I run into when organizing my photos in Lightroom, and how I keep the application humming along as the hub of my photo workflow.
Adding keyword metadata to make images searchable
I must grudgingly admit that I don’t do enough with Lightroom’s useful keywording functions to make an image library especially searchable. Sure, I name files and folders in a way that makes them pretty easy to find, but that’s largely because of the nature of my client-driven work. (i.e. It’s natural to name a folder of images after the client for whom they were made.) If I were a street photographer, though, or a travel photographer, or especially if I were building a varied library of stock photographs, it would be really silly not to make more of lightroom’s keywording tools. To add keywords, start by navigating to an image in the Library module, and scroll down in the right-side panel until the Keywording section appears. Then simply start typing in keywords pertinent to the selected image, separating each keyword by a comma. When you’re happy with the keywords you can shift-click on the last image in a section in order to select a group of image, then click the button that reads Sync Metadata to apply those keywords (as well as any other updated image information) in exactly the same way as you apply batch corrections to a group of images in the Develop module.
Finding missing folders and image files
Because Lightroom doesn’t actually store my image files (it just keeps track of where I have stored them) it’s possible that sometimes I fool it into losing where those photos have gone. This most often happens because I’ve moved a folder of images to an external hard drive for long-term storage. Well, when I do that and then go search for the originals in Lightroom it can’t find them. In such cases it will indicate the lost image files with a question mark over the folder icon in the Library panel’s Folders section, and exclamation mark icons in the top right corner of each image’s thumbnail. Clicking on that icon opens a popup window with the following message: “The file could not be used because the original file could not be found. Would you like to Locate it?” If you click Locate you’ll be taken to the finder or file explorer where you can navigate to the appropriate folder and point the application to it, so then Lightroom will once again know where the images are stored. (You can also right-click the folder icon with the question mark and follow the same process to locate a missing folder.) I do this by default on a monthly basis when I move my working files to their long-term backup location on an external drive, and then simply point lightroom to that drive so everything stays neatly organized no matter where the image files move to.
Creating new libraries and catalogs
Before photographers get started creating an organization system in Lightroom, I recommend that they give some thought to how they want to use image libraries and catalogs. Because I also recommend finding a system and sticking with it, you’ll want to ensure the approach you take works for you in the long term. For a particularly prolific shooter, for instance, updating catalogs after large projects or big trips might make good sense. I find, though, that simply organizing catalogs for a couple years at a time works for me. Libraries, though, I make annually. At the start of each new year I create a new image library in Lightroom simply by creating a new file folder—called, for instance, 2023 Photo Library—and then start putting my client- and subject-based subfolders beneath that. When I’m ready to create a new catalog—which some users may prefer over my homemade library system—I simply go to the File menu and choose New Catalog from the top of the list. Then I give that new catalog a new name and location (the Pictures folder is always a good place by default) and click Create when I’m ready to generate a new empty catalog. To switch between catalogs (for instance, to search for an image in an older catalog) simply click on the File menu and choose the second menu item: Open Catalog. If you change catalogs too often it can be problematic to search and easily find older images. But too infrequently and the catalog will get too large and work too slowly.
Dedicate a drive for storage
No matter what great images you have made in the past, if you can’t find them today what good are they to you? Yes, Lightroom can help keep your images organized, but you’ve got to help the application too. I like to dedicate a specific hard drive, or even a series of drives, to be the place I store my images. Maybe your computer situation means you don’t have lots of extra drives to choose from. That’s fine. When setting up your internal hard disk, consider partitioning it to dedicate at least one part of that drive for images and only images. Short of that, put your lightroom Catalog file and image files and folders in the Pictures folder, and then make a point of importing all of your image files to that dedicated location. (Not some of them, not most of them, not the best of them, but all of them.) Keeping things simple like this makes it easy to find images. If you know where your image files are always stored, you’ll know where you can always find them. This makes it easier to consistently sort, organize and back up files, without ever having to think about where they might be.
Be sure externally edited images stay with the original raw files
One of the biggest benefits of Lightroom is its ability to create one “master” file from which other deliverable or printable files are output, and thus keeping your library to a more efficient size without duplicating large image files. To do this effectively you’ll need to be sure files edited externally—in Photoshop, for instance—are stored with the original raw files. To do this, check the “Stack With Original” checkbox in the External Editing pane of the Lightroom preferences. This way when you send an image to Photoshop, when it’s time to save the new file Photoshop puts it into Lightroom automatically so you don’t have to wonder where you saved it and there are no additional steps to move the file to where it should be. It automatically goes where it makes most sense—in the library, right next to the original raw file.