9 Essential Lightroom Organization Tips for Photographers

In Post-processing by Jim Harmer

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 5 years, in my opinion.  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 (you can find them up to 8 terabytes now), I recommend the Drobo 5D.  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 5D with 25 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.

About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. He blogs about how to start an internet business on IncomeSchool.com..