My favorite tools for organizing photos in Lightroom

Would you throw 10,000 printed photographs in a bathtub to find an image of your child’s first steps? No! So why should you do it with digital files?

Adobe Lightroom offers many tools for organizing your data and finding the image you’re looking for. This is how I organize my photos.

Getting along with data

If I printed all my photographs in 300 dpi, I could completely cover the streets of my hometown with them. But where is the picture of my friend’s sister’s wedding? Was it 2018 or 2019? With the right card, I don’t have to go all the way until I find the image by accident. Using a few tools in Lightroom, you can also guide you through images of family events, shots for clients, and travel photographs that you might one day give purpose to.

By investing a little work up front, you avoid a stressful mess in the future. It is best to apply a system when preparing your reader with new photographs. But you can always organize your old images whenever you find the time. And now? Scrolling through old gems can also be a fun activity that anyone can do from home. It will also have a lasting effect on your time management whenever life speeds up again.

The basics of organizing your photos

Before we look at the possible methods of managing images, we should first talk about the basics:


When dealing with Lightroom and developing a workflow to manage your photographs, it’s important to stay consistent. You don’t want to mix up multiple strategies and create a mess. If you tagged images of weddings orange in 2015, used tags in 2016, and featured your own collection in 2017, you might struggle to find the photo of the couple you wanted to include in your new portfolio.


Even if you don’t print your images, you can still use them. Records love to break when you need them most (which they always do). You should never forget to back up your files and have at least a second version of every image. Some people prefer stable hard drives for their desktop. They often offer a safe solution for a lot of data. I’m constantly on the go and prefer a set of smaller external drives.

Individual needs

While I don’t claim to have a slick workflow, I experimented a lot to be happy with my Lightroom strategy. This suits me because I take a lot of images for different purposes, and sometimes those purposes overlap. My travel images can become editorials, some photographs are taken for clients and used in my blog as well. Others were just a photographic experience but became a portfolio. You might need your solutions, but you can find inspiration here. If you keep your system as open as possible, it is also easier to integrate new projects later.


Lightroom is just software. With alternatives like Capture One becoming increasingly popular, you may one day want to change your development technique. Maybe you won’t even need a computer anymore, because you tell your camera, “Show me the photo I’m looking for,” and you’ll get your sister’s friend’s wedding photo. . Until then, you have to work as best you can with what you have. Current software works well here. Lightroom, for example, is non-destructive and leaves your digital negatives as they are. Switching systems without data loss may be work-intensive but won’t be impossible.

Tools to organize your photos in Lightroom

Several tools in Lightroom allow you to apply different categorization systems. Here’s how I use a few.

Catalog structure

I prefer to have all the images in one catalog. Why? Because I don’t want to open a new catalog each time I search for an image. Although I know photographers who store each session or project in a new catalog, I feel like I’m losing half of my abilities. I understand this in the case of work done explicitly for a client, but I may prefer to have all the photos in one place.

However, there is an exception. As my memory is good enough to remember what I have done during the past year, I use a separate catalog for the current year, which I will integrate into the large catalog each winter. This way I keep my work in progress together and quickly get an overview, which allows me to work on ongoing projects faster. After all, the best system does not save me from the increasing number of photographs in the large common catalog.

Key words

As I import images from my SD card, I start tagging them with keywords. They help me find images for my blog or other posts (like Fstoppers), where I often need to visualize everything I’ve written. Keywords should also be structured. I usually select them from the following areas (mainly 3-5 tags for each session):

  • the name of the place (country, city, site)
  • the style of photography (product, landscape, portrait)
  • light condition (difficult, sunrise, night)
  • feelings (happy, sad, warm)
  • purpose (blog, journal, education)
  • subject (tree, face, bird)

Tagging images with keywords is one of the best ways to find representative images for certain image categories. To search for an entire session, there is even an easier method.

Organize into collections

Collections are the photo albums in your catalog. You can create them as a folder structure on your drive, where you go from general to specific. Collection sets allow you to group different collections together. Each session I photographed will be placed in a single collection, which is subordinate to one of four different collection sets:

  • Clients: Here’s everything I shot on assignment. Whenever I will be hired, I will put the photos here. That’s what I get paid for.
  • Stories: I often use photographs to visualize a written article or what I think might become a story one day. Or I create a story only through images. Potential money makers hang out here.
  • Personal: Snapshots from my cell phone, photos from birthday parties, photos from vacations: they’ll all end up here and stay ready for birthdays, blackmailing friends who want to take over an important office, or annoying my future grandkids. Personal images sometimes become editorials, especially when I travel. I would leave them here if it were unforeseen.
  • Training: Every time I go out to learn something new or photograph for training and recreation (lots of landscape images here) are included in this collection set. Many of them end up in blog posts and Fstoppers articles, some of them become stock photography, and a few remind me of the possibility of failure.

To stay organized, I also add the year to my collections, like “2018 – India”, or “2017 – XY’s wedding”. Thus, I will not get lost in the collections of the common catalog.


Notes are important for large editorial projects, practices and client work. They are however not too important for personal photos, but can also be very practical. That’s why I try to rate all my images, even if it takes time and my tastes often change. Since I work for Fstoppers and also enjoy watching Lee and Patrick’s Critique the Community videos, I tend to apply the same rating to my images (although I’m not too hard on my images, because after everything, I need a wallet). That means:

  • One star: Instant, disappointing myself. I will only keep a one star image if it was the only photograph of a special moment.
  • Two stars: Needs improvement. I will only keep these images if I think I can laugh at them one day or if they have emotional value for me.
  • Three stars: A solid image, which can easily be published with written articles. Some end up on my Instagram.
  • Four stars: portfolio image. I will most likely show them to others or include them in my portfolio.
  • Five stars: My own “world class”. While I probably didn’t shoot an image that would be rated “World Class” in Critique the Community, the five-star images are all that I think are the best I can produce. I am ready to submit these images to contests and put them in my portfolio. At the moment, I have four 5-star images, or about 0.0002% of my total portfolio.

As skills, tastes and experience grow over time, I often reduce the star rating or sometimes rate a photo – whenever I come across an unfair rating. Ratings help me filter out great images quickly when quality matters. It’s vital for news stories and weddings.

color label

Color labels are used in different ways. Because I often have to manage image rights and use images multiple times, I use colors to define the usage of an image. Especially for documentary work, I can give an exclusive license, so I don’t have to publish the image elsewhere. For this reason, my labeling serves as a control system.

  • Red: exclusive rights granted. These images will no longer be exported but will serve as a backup. Work for clients also falls into this category. I might ask to choose a portfolio image from these.
  • Yellow: licensed (not exclusively). I sold these images once and can do so again. But I prefer to find others.
  • Green: Open for use. Photographs with potential.
  • Blue: Private use of blogs and articles. Multiple use is no problem.

Private photographs will simply not be color tagged unless I want to publish them.

Many options

Complicated situations require advanced systems. How do you organize your photographs? Do you use Lightroom? Do you also include other tools? If you found a great system for yourself, feel free to share it in the comments.

About Debra D. Johnson

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