9 Essential Lightroom Organization Tips for Photographers

It's funny.  The main purpose of Lightroom is to help photographers organize their photos; yet, most photographers struggle to keep Lightroom from turning into a disaster and losing your photos.

I spent several months last year tweaking the process that I've developed as a professional photographer, and I feel like I have an organization system now that has fixed the issues I was having.

My goal in Lightroom is (1) To keep photos so organized that I can find any photo I've ever taken within 1 minute, and (2) Minimize the risk of losing a photo to nearly zero.

If you really want to get your Lightroom catalog fixed and completely organized, check out Lightroom Medic.  It's a video tutorial that I put together for people who want to have COMPLETE CONFIDENCE in the way they organize their photos.  It walks you step-by-step through all of these and many more methods in a way that is easy for beginner or advanced Lightroom users to understand.

Use Facial Recognition (The fast way!)

Facial recognition is one of the most useful features that has been released in Lightroom in the last 10 years.  It uses smart software to recognize faces and apply tags with the person's name in the metadata.

With this, I can do a search for all photos in my huge catalog of photos of “Emily Harmer, Cole Harmer” and in seconds I can have a list of all of the photos in my catalog that have both my wife and my son in the shot.  Or, if I'm looking for a photo of the family to print, I can do a search in Lightroom for photos with the tags “Jim Harmer, Emily Harmer, Ruger Harmer, Cole Harmer, Faith Harmer.”  It's really cool!

However, Lightroom's facial recognition works extremely slowly if you don't use one additional tip.  Most photographers were excited about this feature, tried to use it, and found it very clunky and slow, so they quit.  Here's the tip: if you select a group of 500 photos or less and drag them into a collection, and then run facial recognition on those 500 photos, facial recognition works quite quickly.

I recommend only tagging people with facial recognition who you frequently have in your photos.  If you start tagging every bride, model, or other person in your photos, it makes it harder for Lightroom to tell whose face it is seeing.  I only tag my family and close friends.

I can run facial recognition and tag over 1,000 faces in under 2 minutes, which I demonstrate in Lightroom Medic.  But this will only work if you're using the trick to put them in a separate collection.

Facial recognition in Lightroom REALLY helped me to get organized in Lightroom.

Never Move Photos Outside of Lightroom

For those of you who may be beginners, this tip is essential.  Lightroom works like the card catalog in an old library.  The photos aren't in Lightroom.  Lightroom simply knows where to find the photos on your hard drive–just like how a card catalog just has information ABOUT the books which can be found elsewhere in the library.

If you go in Finder (Mac) or Windows Explorer (Windows) and move the location of a photo, it's like moving a book in the library to a new shelf without writing a note in the card catalog.  The card catalog (Lightroom) will no longer be able to find the book (the photo).

If you need to move or change a photo on your hard drive, you HAVE to use Lightroom to move the location or the name of the photo or it'll be lost.

Don't Fight Lightroom's Folder Structure

This is a matter of personal preference, and by no means do I think this is the only way to organize your Lightroom; however, my personal opinion is that the best way to organize your folders of photos is by simply using the default upon import in Lightroom.

The default Lightroom import creates folders by the year and then sub-folders in that folder for the specific day.  This keeps all of your photos in a neat and organized spot–all in one larger folder.

Some photographers recommend naming the folder to remember the shoot.  For example, “JimAndEmilyWedding.”  I don't recommend this approach because photographers so often have photos from more than one shoot on a memory card.  This places photos from the wedding, AND the photos from your kid's birthday which was later that night, in the same folder and names it as if it's just the wedding.

The folder naming structure actually matters little in Lightroom.  The whole point of Lightroom is that you don't need to use just folders for organization.  However, I do think a sensible structure keeps things neat and tidy.

Every “Keeper” Photo Needs Keywording and Other Organization Metadata

Suppose you take a photo of your daughter's soccer game today.  5 years later you want to find that photo.  The only way to find the photo will be to scroll through tens of thousands of photos–unless you have good metadata in the photo.

If you had keyworded the photo, you could simply do a search for “Ruger Harmer soccer” and the photo from my Lightroom catalog will come up immediately.  I can find all of my important photos within 60 seconds or less.

However, keywording can take a long time if you don't have a good process.  In my Lightroom Medic video training, I share my process for keywording any shoot in less than 5 minutes.  Basically, you just batch the process.

  1. First select all of the photos from the import and attach keywords that apply to the whole shoot.  For example, “Vacation, Ireland, Family”
  2. Next, Select Groups of photos by holding shift and put in keywords that apply to all of the photos in those groups.  For example, “Fanad Head Lighthouse, Nature, Storm.”
  3. Last, go to ONLY THE INDIVIDUAL PHOTOS that are keepers–your best shots.  Apply keywords specific to those photos such as “Selfie, Portrait, Jim Harmer” etc.
These are a FEW of the recommended settings that I'd give you for Lightroom.

Backup These Three Things On a Separate Drive

Three things need to be backed up in Lightroom.

  1. Your Lightroom Catalog file.  This is a file with the extension .lrcat.  This is your “card catalog.”  It remembers all of your edits and where you put your sliders in Lightroom, and remembers where on your hard drive the actual photo can be found.
  2. All of your photo files.  Remember, if you just backup the Lightroom catalog, you won't have your photo files.  If you fail to backup the photos, they'll be gone forever.
  3. Presets and templates.  Just backing up your .lrcat file will NOT backup your presets.  If you move to a different computer, you'll lose the presets if you haven't saved them separately.

There is a setting in Lightroom that you can check to save your presets together with your Lightroom catalog, however I do NOT recommend this setting.  After working with thousands of photographers in Lightroom, I have seen and verified several instances where this caused issues.

All of these three items need to be backed up on a separate drive.  By having two copies of the data–each on a separate drive on a different machine–you're extremely unlikely to lose any data.  You can feel confident that all of your work is backed up properly.

Keep All Photos on the Same Drive–No Exceptions!

Where I most often see photographers getting into trouble and losing data is when they outgrow their internal hard drive on the computer.  Once all of your photos don't fit on the internal drive, it can be tempting to put some of them on an external drive.  Then you outgrow that and put more photos on a second external drive, etc.

When you have photos in multiple locations, it's difficult to backup.  Also you can't search and find your photos unless you have all of your externals attached.

If you grow your internal hard drive, I believe the best practice is to buy one single HUGE external drive and move all photos from your internal drive to your external drive.  You'll also need another external of the same size which you can use to backup the original external drive.

If you shoot a lot and your photos eventually outgrow even an external drive, I recommend the Drobo 5C from Amazon.  This allows you to put multiple hard drives in one box and make it appear as one drive on the computer.  I run a Drobo 5C with 8 terabytes installed to backup all of my work.  Each year as I shoot more, I take out the smallest drive and replace it with a larger drive.

However, as we'll discuss later, you still need to have your .lrcat file on the internal drive of the computer to help with speed and organization.  Just the photo files go to the external.

Use the Three-Key Star System

I have been using the Three-Key Star System for a number of years, and since then it has become popular among the Improve Photography audience as many people have found it useful.  Here's how it works.

As soon as you import photos into Lightroom, you put three fingers on the 1, 2, and 3 keys.  Then put one finger on the right arrow key.  As each picture pops up, you press the appropriate number key for how many stars you want to give it, then press the right arrow key to go to the next photo.  Just go with a knee-jerk reaction and quickly star rate all of your photos in a minute or two.

Then, once you've done that, you sort your photos by star rating.  The 1 star photos can be deleted if you like to work that way (personally I just keep them).  2 star photos are good but not worth spending the time to edit.  3 star photos mean it's a good shot and you should take the time to edit them.

After you've edited your 3 star photos, you decide if they can be upgraded to a 4 or 5 star.  In my system, a 4 star photo is publishable and professional.  A 5 star rating means it's one of the best photos I've ever taken.

This system works well because it's fast, and when you want to pull up your portfolio images, just sort your catalog by 5 star photos and BOOM!  You have them right there in seconds.  When I'm looking for a photo I can share on social media, I sort by 4 and 5 star photos because those are publishable (won't embarrass me if others see them).

There are obviously lots of other ways you can organize your catalog such as by color, but for me the simple star system and keywords does the trick.

Keep Your Lightroom Catalog On Your Internal Drive

Although your individual photo files can be moved to an external drive if you outgrow your internal drive, the .lrcat Lightroom Catalog file must remain on your internal drive on the computer.

Lightroom does not work well with a Lightroom Catalog on a separate drive from the program.  I've seen this cause countless issues with corrupted databases.  It can be done, but it's risky and should only be done by power users.  Lightroom even warns you when you try to do this.

Also, keeping your Lightroom Catalog file on the internal drive is the fastest way to run the program.

Put Every Photo You've Ever Taken in a Single Lightroom Catalog

It used to be that Lightroom would work faster if you separated large catalogs of photos into a few different smaller catalogs.  Wedding photographers, for example, would put each wedding (or each year of weddings) into a catalog.  However, this has not been necessary for a number of years.

Working with any version of Lightroom released in the last few years, you'll see almost no difference in performance in working in a small catalog compared to a large catalog.

Jeff Harmon, host of the Photo Taco Podcast, did some testing on this and found that the time it takes to do a database call in a Lightroom-like database is only 4 milliseconds difference in a catalog with 600 vs 60,000 photos.  Four milliseconds is not enough of a difference to move the needle.

The trouble with having separate catalogs is that you are much more likely to lose photos, less likely to have good backups since the backup process involves backing up multiple catalogs, and it makes it impossible to search for photos from years ago quickly.

Check Out Lightroom Medic

If you found this post helpful, I really want to encourage you to try out Lightroom Medic.  It's inexpensive and I feel confident that if you're confused or frustrated with your Lightroom organization, this can totally fix the problem in just an hour.  Watch the video and follow along in your own Lightroom and your Lightroom will be nice and tidy.

Disclaimer: Improve Photography is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program among other affiliate programs, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and other websites.

17 thoughts on “9 Essential Lightroom Organization Tips for Photographers”

  1. As much as I appreciate what you and others write about organization, I gotta say: why so dogmatic? Why not discuss other options which work as well?

    Not every photographer shoots weddings. A fact most online overlook.

    I have over 300,000 photos, stock photos, and clip art. Some I created, many I bought/licensed. I stun people I am able to pull up images so quickly. Cos I’m very very organized.

    I photograph THINGS like flowers, objects d’art, food or events. Oh yeah, I’m so gonna remember when I photographed that wisteria that was around the corner til they replaced it with drought tolerant succulents.

    Nah, I have a flowers folder, with a purple flower folder, with a wisteria folder in it (and subfolders like best, rest, original, jpgs to post, etc). Easy peasy.

    Or the local store who lets me photograph events and their stock. I know I photographed a beautiful green lotus lamp one night. Orange one another time. Then there’s the white Buddha. Or the jewelry. Or the crystals. Or that time I shot the hanging banners, the folded cloth, the clothes, the beaded shoes. I’ve shot there a dozen times. Musicians too. So I’m gonna find those crystals mixed in with the musicians, the jewelry, the whatnot? See where I’m going?

    I put each item I mentioned in its own folder and sub-folders. Makes like so much easier!!

    I photographed early punk rock. Ya think most people can remember exactly when they photographed the Ramones or the Clash, or the many times I photographed X and the Germs? Nah. So I have folders with each band, and sub-folders.

    My high res ARE by date (I shot, not scanned), because I know those 300 or so photos well. WHY should I cull through thousands and thousands of photos during a particular date when I am asked if I have photos of this person or that band? Of course I’m going to look at that person or that band’s FOLDER. Not the date! SMH.

    **PLUS dear Lightroom actually thinks some of my photos are from 1969 or 2043. Been scanning photos since 2002 or so. It simply has a terrible time dealing with older scanned photos (on both Mac and PC, although primarily Mac).

    AND how does a photo scanned in 2016 reflect the FACT I shot it in 1976? SO there goes dates out the window.

    Using dates is so backwards for me. WHY must people all over the net INSIST on that? It’s why I would never use iPhoto.

    DATES? We don’t need no stinkin’ dates (paraphrasing Treasure of the Sierra Madre).

    STORAGE: I can’t fit all my clip art, stock photos (licensed and my creations) and my punk photos on my 4 TB drive. So I finally move the Punk to its own 3 TB drive. NO loss in performance.

    Sure, I’d like a RAID or drive you suggested. But it’s more affordable for me to add a 3 or 4 TB drive. Ya think everyone can afford a big old setup? SMH.

    But I do use only one catalog. Can only have one catalog open at a time. Since I flip from newer photos to my classic punk pix all the time, it makes sense to have one catalog.

    STARS? Too tiny. Gimme colors! WHY must lists ONLY tell people to use ONE option? We have the choice of stars or colors. Date or Subject.

    KEYWORDS: hate them. I name the folder and often the files. You can search by ANY text ANYWHERE in your library. WHY force keywords on people if that’s not to their liking? Not saying I don’t or won’t ever use them, but not usually.

    Since when do we IGNORE options, don’t even discuss them, and lay down the law it must be done OUR way?

    I am one of the most organized persons you’ll ever meet. People are blown away by my ability to pull files from my many boxes and cabinets. I always say, if I can’t find it, why keep it?

    BACKUP: Yes, I always backup catalog, presets, and files. Basic computer use 101.

    Been using LR since version 3. I pay for CC merely to stay updated w/LR (although been using and taught Photoshop since 1990, version 1, no layers!) I live by it, I swear by it and swear at it.

    I am merely sharing to show there’s MANY options. If ya can’t see the stars or find them annoying, use a color! If you can’t remember dates or too hard to cull through various dates, use categories which make more sense to some.

    I appreciate what you wrote, but telling people to ONLY use stars or dates causes as much harm to some as it helps. I taught many computer programs, including Photoshop, at colleges, universities and computer training centers. I often talked about organization. This was pre-LR. But people need OPTIONS.

    Let’s OPEN the dialogue. Otherwise, why does Adobe bother to give us so many options?

    You take care!

    (PS My punk photos are collected by performers and fans. My work used by or in Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian, Grammy Museum, Rock Hall of Fame, Experience Music Project, major gallery shows and more. Published in just about every rock (and many mainstream) magazine since 1976. Internationally published and exhibited.

    I hardly promote my work. Since using Lightroom, my workflow has improved a million times! I only wish I had it in the 90s!!)

    1. @Jenny – Did you actually read the whole post, or did you just read the subheadings? Because I mentioned many of those same things in the post. For example:

      Your comment makes it seem like I’m cramming stars down everyone’s throats and “telling people to ignore other options and do it [MY] way”. That’s not true at all. I said right in the post “There are obviously lots of other ways you can organize your catalog such as by color, but for me the simple star system and keywords does the trick.”

      You also said I was too dogmatic about saying that folders by date was the only way to organize. That’s not true either. In the post I even said “This is a matter of personal preference, and by no means do I think this is the only way to organize your Lightroom; however, my personal opinion is that the best way to organize your folders of photos is by simply using the default upon import in Lightroom.”

      I’m glad you found a system that works for you. As I said MULTIPLE times in the post, there are lots of ways to approach it and each person has their own personal preference; however, after teaching Lightroom to THOUSANDS of people over the last 7 years, I find that this simple system works for many photographers and is easy to understand rather than bombarding people with thousands of options before they even figure out ONE system that can work for them.

      1. I’m going to agree with Jenny that there is definitely more than one way to organize Lightroom. Like her, I don’t do “photo shoots” so organizing by date makes no sense for me. I’m certainly not going to say my method is the only One True Way and neither should anyone else.

        I use all 5 stars but I don’t apply them on import. Usually I drag a few hundred at a time into a collection synced with Lightroom Mobile and star some photos when I have a few minutes waiting at the dentist or for a plane. It’s a great way to be productive when you only have a few minutes.

        I don’t use the colours at all.

        Most of my photos are of trains, so each railway gets its own folder, and then I organize under there by type.

        I totally agree with most of your recommendations, Jim. Keep the catalog on the internal drive – preferably an SSD – and you made a great point about the three things you need to back up. One catalog – yes.

        I don’t use facial recognition at all – I keyword photos with the person instead.

        Great tips and thanks for posting this!

    2. I must have missed the part of the article that said it was the ONLY way to do it.

      Incidentally, keywording would solve about 99% of your problems. What does one do when one shoots a landscape shot on a family vacation to Italy and then shoots some street photography in Venice on that same vacation, followed by a macro shot of a beautiful flower in Florence? Folders by subject would be a disaster and prevent one from ever finding that macro shot unless they remember they shot it on vacation. You can’t be bothered by keywords yet you rename files individually?

      I also scan a ton of old photos, having grown up with a dark room in our basement, there are 1000s of family photos. There is only one answer to GOOD cataloging them…change the captured date when you scan them (LR can do this quickly and in batches). That way LR will know when they were shot. (Lightroom doesn’t “think” at all. It just reads metadata which reflects the user’s input.)

      Sure, no need to follow every tip here but I think your suggestions seem very inefficient.

  2. Hi Jim, I enjoyed reading your article but wondered if you could make a practical suggestion for my problem. I live 6 mths in one country and 6 mths in another. In each residence I have MacBook Pro and I take my seagate 4tb external hard drive which has my LR Catalogue and the photos, however I always seems to have missing photos each time I start up on the the different laptops. I think the problem sits with my import method?

    1. Hi Carol. I used to have the same problem–because I had Lightroom on my laptop for when I’m traveling and desktop for when I’m home. I ended up finding that what worked best was to pick one as “home base” and the other as a temporary until it gets moved over. Then doing a catalog import/export. I walk through the process in Lightroom Medic.

  3. Jim,

    Great list. Here’s an optimization for you that I use all the time. For your 1, 2, 3 tip, you say: “As soon as you import photos into Lightroom, you put three fingers on the 1, 2, and 3 keys. Then put one finger on the right arrow key. ”

    If you put the CAPS LOCK key on, when you hit 1, 2, or 3 (or flagged, or what ever other rating), LightRoom AUTOMATICALLY goes to the next photo after applying the rating. No need to use the arrow key at all. Try it out! Makes rating photos that much faster (and one-handed).

    Keep the good blogs coming (and more MV photos too!).


      1. you can actually set lightroom to automatically go to the next photo without having to have caps lock down. It’s auto advance go to in the library module go to photo and then scroll down to auto advance and check it. This will always auto advance when using stars or colors.

  4. My Lightroom folder is 277 gbs, and I’m sure will grow. I have a 1 TB internal drive, but I would like to move the LR image folder to an external drive. What is the best, safest way to move this folder off my computer, and onto an external drive?

    1. Mary,

      Others can chime in as this is my first comment on the site, but as mentioned in Jim’s post, you will want to do this move from within Lightroom (any photo move). When you connect the external drive to your computer, it will appear as a storage location within the left hand pane of the Library view. You can then drag and drop the folders from the internal drive to the external drive in the library view.

      Note: I did this a while back with my library (about 200 GBs) and found it smoother to move one year’s worth of photos at a time (depending on how many photos you take in a year, 6 months at a time, etc). Transfer speed will vary depending on your current computer setup and external drive connectivity (e.g., USB 3.0, Firewire, Thunderbolt).

      I personally recommend having a backup of your data before making such a big move in case there are any issues in transfer.

  5. Jim,

    This has been extremely helpful. I’m just starting out using lightroom and I’ve found myself frustrated with trying to control the filing system. I learned a lot here and luckily I don’t have much to fix as of yet. I do have one question. You suggest having one catalog. Does this mean all of my photos, no matter their subject, would be in the strip on the bottom? Do you create separate collections for each event, location, subject, etc?

    I just started listening to the podcast this week and I’ve been delighted. I have about 15 different tabs on my phone with all the doodads so I can research them later.

    I recently picked up an EOS M3 and have enjoyed learning the art of photography. My background is motion graphics and visual effects. Being behind a camera is foreign to me, so it has been a love-hate relationship so far. 🙂

    Thank you,
    Dustin James

    1. Dustin your catalog will be organized into folders and possibly even subfolders. You can select a particular folder or subfolder and only the images in that folder/subfolder will show in your filmstrip at the bottom.

  6. Jim, I’ve been backing up my catalog to an external drive. But I need to move all those photos over to a second, larger external drive. I know I need to do it from within Lr. But how? Do I go to export and select the whole pictures folder? Then at the top center, select “move”? Then select the external drive I want to use? This sounds right but I really don’t want to screw up. Any help would be appreciated. Thank you in advance.

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