How to Organize Your Lightroom Catalog in 1 Hour Or Less

Welcome to the Cloud
Welcome to the Cloud

On October 18th, 2017, Adobe announced that Lightroom CC is now Lightroom Classic CC. They also announced a completely new Lightroom CC that is cloud based. The announcement sent shock waves of opinion all around. For me, it was a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Much as I was excited about a new, cloud based, Lightroom, I was dreading the process of learning how to manage my files and find my photos.

Today, I want to tell you that this new Lightroom CC can be organized in an hour or less. The features to help you keep your photos organized may not be as robust, but there are lots of steps that you can take to keep your catalog squeeky clean. You will be able to find your photos quickly. I will also give you my recommendation for backing things up and limiting the risk of lost photos. I believe that my process is a good one, but not the only one. If you have a different idea, let me know in the comments!

Basic Rules

  1. Use a single drive. Despite new Lightroom CC being cloud based, most of us still want to keep offline copies of our files. If you are going to do this, keep all your photos on one drive. The idea of having separate external hard drives for each year or some system like that may seem appealing, but it is not a recommended system. It is too hard to keep track of where everything is, and too easy to forget to keep everything backed up. If you are going to go completely in the cloud, this is a non-issue, but many of us are not ready to not keep an offline copy of our work.
  2. Be ready to work from a single catalog. Jim and Improve Photography have long recommended the use of a single catalog, so this may not be a change for you. Regardless, with new Lightroom CC, you only have one catalog, so be prepared to keep organized in that one place.
  3. Keep your files and presets backed up. A huge advantage of the new cloud based Lightroom is that the program backs up your full resolution files to the cloud. If you are willing to pay for the appropriate amount of storage for your catalog (essentially $9.99/month per TB), you have offline backup built in already. Once you get past the price tag, this is a big advantage over the old system. Keep in mind though that you may not be comfortable relying on this system only. On my internet connection, it takes some time to get everything up to the cloud. If I have a big shoot and I experience drive failure during upload, I'm out of luck. Additionally, while it may be highly unlikely, it would not be impossible for Adobe to experience a glitch that could result in you losing a photo. For now, I am still keeping a copy of my work backed up locally. You will need to make a choice depending on your aversion to risk. You will also need to back up your presets, as those are not synced to the cloud.
  4. Anticipate how you will need to find your photos. Everyone's need to search back through his or her photos is different. Sensei, the new artifical intelligence search functionality from Adobe seems promising, but it will not do everything that you need. Keeping albums of categories too specific for Sensei, such as family, may be a good idea for you.


The import functionality is stripped down compared to Lightroom Classic. About the only option you have is to add the photos to an album. I recommend that you add your import to an album if you have reason to group them together. I have been adding my images to an album that I've named “To Edit.” After culling and editing, I have moved them off to their more long term homes in various albums.
If you are keeping an offline copy of everything as I am, you will probably want to change the default home of your files. You can do this by opening the preferences dialog from the edit menu. Select “Local Storage,” and then select “Change Location.” This will allow you to store everything in the place that you would like. Storing in a more obvious location will help when it comes time for backup.

Finding Photos

The first four images in my filmstrip when Sensei searches for “lighthouse”
In previous versions of Lightroom, we've had tools such as keywording and facial recognition to help us find our photos. Adobe has stated that they are pursuing feature parity between the two versions of Lightroom. This means that it is possible that these features may come to Lightroom CC. The best way to find your photos right now is to use date, albums, and Adobe Sensei.
  • Date: To find photos by date, click the icon on the left that looks like a filing cabinet. This opens the “My Photos” panel. You'll see “by date” as an option below “All Photos” and “Recently Added.”
  • Albums: These are analogous to collections in Lightroom Classic CC. While before I only used collections as temporary places for storing images, I have changed my workflow a bit. Since we cannot keyword in this new version, I have started using albums in the place of specific keywords such as places or people. Time will tell whether this is a sustainable practice for me, but it's working for now.
  • Adobe Sensei: Adobe has put an artificial intelligence based search function into the new Lightroom CC. I've thrown a lot of keyword searches at it, and it does pretty well. I do admit that it's nice to not have to be so diligent about keywording every photo. My concern is that at this point it doesn't know specific people or places. I am having to replace keywording with heavier use of albums (formerly collections), and I think this is not going to work long term. I was also a heavy user of geotagging with the map module, and I have not yet found a suitable replacement for that part of my workflow.


My culling process from old to new Lightroom is completely unchanged, and so long as I have kept the files offline, moves much faster. Here are the recommended steps, as Jim has taught in Lightroom Medic and in other places.
  • Use a star rating system. Unlike pick flags, programs outside of the Adobe family can read these.
    1 StarWorthless, this could be deleted
    2 StarsAverage photo
    3 StarsI'm going to come back to this and work on it
    4 StarsGood, publishable photo
    5 StarsPortfolio quality
  • Work through your photos with one hand on the number pad to type the star rating (1, 2, or 3). Use your other hand to use your arrow keys to move through the photos.
  • Once culled, you can work on your 3 star photos and move any to 4 or 5 stars that are worthy of those ratings.


As I mentioned in the above section on finding your photos, albums are the direct descendants of collections. These are groups of photos that you arrange by any scheme that you choose. The strength of albums is that unlike folders on your computer, you can keep a photo in many collections. If I have a photo of a bridge at night, I could keep in albums dedicated to architecture, night photography, and the location of that bridge. The weakness of albums is that this can go on and on forever, and where it may be easy to add 25 keywords to a photo, keeping 100 albums around for the various categorization you may need is generally not a good idea. My advice is to keep it simple. Use albums for photos that you're working on, or want set aside for some special purpose. I've also been using albums for categorization that I know Adobe Sensei won't handle well, such as family photos.
In new Lightroom CC, you are able to create folders in which you can store your albums. This is like collection sets in Lightroom Classic. This will help with the proliferation of albums. I recommend that you make a plan early for how you will use your albums and stick to it. It will make it easier to keep things organized.
You can create both albums and folders by hitting the plus button next to “Albums” in the “My Photos” menu on the left side of the screen.


Enable offline file storage and change its location here
Despite new Lightroom CC being a cloud based product, I am still maintaining a 3-2-1 backup. If you are unfamiliar with 3-2-1, it means 3 different copies of the data, 2 of which are kept onsite on different media, and one of which is kept offsite. Cloud based Lightroom is taking care of the one offsite backup, but it is still a good idea to keep two local copies. If you have a drive failure, it will be so much faster to recover your files with the other drive than to download your original files. This is especially true if you have a slower internet connection, limited bandwidth, or terabytes of photos. On top of that, if you accidentally delete a photo from Lightroom, it will be gone forever. Any changes you make to your primary copy are also made to your offsite backup. Keeping a local backup will allow you to recover a photo if you make a mistake.
Here are the steps I'm taking to maintain 3-2-1 backup:
  1. Enable the option to “store a copy of ALL originals locally.” This is in the same settings menu as the location of your files.
  2. Back up the folder where you are storing your files. Periodically copy that folder to a separate external hard drive or a RAID system. Even if your primary file storage is on an external hard drive, use a separate one. You want two distinct copies of your files.
  3. Back up the folder where your presets are stored (see “Organizing Presets,” below).
  4. Lightroom CC will take care of your offsite backup. You can check on the status of the uploading by clicking the cloud icon in the upper right.
For a full treatment of backup workflow for photographers, read Jeff's post: The Ultimate Backup Workflow for Photographers.


If you're working on timelapse or HDR photography, or doing anything where you are accumulating lots of photos of the same scene, stacking is for you. With stacks, you can group images together and see the only the image on the top of the stack in the filmstrip.
To make a stack, select the first photo from the strip at the bottom of the screen, then hold down shift and select the last photo. Right click and select “Group into Stack.” You will now see the top image with a number in the upper right corner. That number is the number of images in the stack. If you click on the number, you will see the contents of the stack in the filmstrip. You can ungroup the stack by right clicking on it and selecting “Ungroup Stack.”

Organizing Presets

Unlike your image files, presets do not sync in Lightroom CC. You will need to have a copy of presets locally on every computer which you will use to edit.
The first step will be to find where your presets are stored. Here is how:
  1. Click the edit panel on the right side of the screen (it looks like three sliders).
  2. Select “Presets” at the bottom of the panel.
  3. Click the “…” in the upper right of the presets panel and select “open presets folder.”
  4. Double click the User Presets folder, and you are in.
Any presets you drop into this folder will show up in Lightroom once you restart. You can (and should) group them by folders. This is done by creating subfolders in the User Presets folder, and saving the presets in those subfolders. These will show as groups in Lightroom.
If you acquire some new presets, for instance from Improve Photography's Lightroom Steal that happens every Black Friday, bring them all in and cull them over time. Don't forget to try a preset a number of times on various images before you assume that you don't like it. Different presets will work better or worse on different images. I keep a folder of favorite presets that I add to over time, drawing from the presets in my other folders that I use most frequently.

Plan ahead

In the end, I think the best thing that we can all do is try to anticipate how we will need to find our photos in the future. With the ongoing development of Sensei and with the goal of feature parity between Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic CC, organization in the new Lightroom will likely be ever evolving. We stand on the brink of an exciting, cloud based era. In the meantime, focus on using date based searches, keeping organized albums, and practice searching with Sensei. Keep as much backup as your internet connection and risk aversion require of you. Keep presets organized and backed up. With these tools, you will build a Lightroom workflow that will keep out of your way and allow the tool to be what you need it to be.

11 thoughts on “How to Organize Your Lightroom Catalog in 1 Hour Or Less”

  1. Great advice on these, however, I have always and always will use a separate catalog for each shoot I do. Much more easier to manage that way and keep the clutter down.

    1. Christopher Mowers

      Thanks Reginald! I do know that some people have preferred to use multiple catalogs. At this point, the new Lightroom CC does not support the ability to keep multiple catalogs. I’ve always used just one, but I would like to have the ability to import and export photos and metadata. It would be nice for collaboration, or honestly to cut down on the need for so much cloud storage. Archival stuff that you don’t need could be backed up elsewhere more affordably, then brought back if needed.

    1. Christopher Mowers

      At this point, everything that you import into LR CC is going up to the cloud and counting against your storage limit. You can be selective about what you keep locally, but not about what gets backed up.

  2. I guess my biggest question is logistics. It seems that my basic cc membership gives me the ability to use both. Can I go back and forth to both? Can I upload files to either or and the other program will read them? It seems like all my synced collections are also in cc…but not my unsynced collections. I do see a place to add keywords, are you saying that does not work? I have gone into it, but haven’t used it yet, because I am afraid I will mess something up.

    1. Christopher Mowers

      Yes, you can use both, but what you’re seeing in CC right now are your smart previews. You can edit your smart previews in CC just like you could previously with Lightroom Mobile; however, you cannot upload a full resolution file to CC and see it in Classic, nor can you get one of your full resolution files from Classic into CC without doing a separate and distinct import.

  3. Great advice! If I have already “Migrated” my current catalog, is there a way to merge in prior multiple catalogs into the one LR CC allowed master catalog and preserve earlier edits? When I went to add another catalog, it looks like LR CC will now make that my “Master” catalog and bring in my cloud-stored photos from the prior, migrated catalog (but they are not on the local drive with the “new” catalog). I’m unsure how to now integrate this new master with my local LR Classic migrated catalog. Hoping there’s a better way…

    1. Christopher Mowers

      According to Adobe, you can continue to bring in .lrcat files after initial migration and they should all merge into your new CC catalog, with different folders for each Classic catalog.

      “Can I migrate more than one catalog to Lightroom CC? Yes; you can migrate as many Lightroom Classic catalogs (.lrcat files) as you want. The contents of each .lrcat file are added under a folder (similar to a collection set in Lightroom Classic) with that catalog’s name.” from https://helpx.adobe.com/lightroom-cc/using/migrate-to-lightroom-cc.html.

      Another thing that might work would be to merge everything into one catalog in Classic, and then migrate that one catalog into CC.

      All of this is speculation on my part as I have only one catalog to migrate. Do let me know how it goes!

  4. Robert Eastaugh

    Thank you for the roadmap. For the time being, I still use Classic and have a very large catalogue. I put all Older Photos in dated folders on a large drive, and all event photos (there are many) on another large drive, and back up each drive on multiple drives using SuperDuper!
    But not all of the Older and event photos merit careful storage and backup, and having multiple large drives gets expensive.
    Is there a good way to limit the multiple backups to images with specific star ratings (2 and better, for example)?

    I’m asking you because you’ve come closest to addressing my problem of anyone whose comments I’ve seen.

    Many thanks,


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