Timothy Armes' blog

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Organising a Lightroom catalog

There are probably as many ways to organise your image database as there are photographers. How your images are organised will depend on your needs, the number of people accessing the database, the type of clients you have, etc.

Here are some considerations to take into account when cataloguing with Lightroom.

Multiple Catalogs vs A Single Catalog

Should you create lots of catalogs for your images, or keep them all in one single catalog?

This question doesn’t have a right or wrong answer – you’ll need to consider your needs carefully. I personally use a single catalog for all my images, personal and professional. I do this for a number of reasons:

  • A don’t like having to switch between catalogs to find images.
  • A single image can be both personal and professional. For example, the gymnast shot uses a background image that I happened to take while on holiday in New York. By having all my images in a single catalog I can maintain an entire reference of material that I can call upon.
  • I also use both my personal and professional images when considering shoot locations, so once again it’s useful to have all my images in one place.

There are also good reasons to maintain separate catalogs, such as:

  • If you’re working in a team environment, it obviously makes sense to limit the catalog to images have been taken with the context of the organisation.
  • If there’s no cross over between the type of photography that you do then it’ll probably be easier to maintain properly organised databases if they’re separated. For example, if you do weddings then it seems sensible to maintain a catalog specifically for this work.

Note however that I don’t subscribe to the idea of photo ‘buckets’, where each catalog can fit onto a CD or DVD – I think that the justification for this has vanished with today’s backup options.

Collections vs Keywords

When should you be using keywords in preference to collections? The choice isn’t necessarily cast in stone, however a well organised library will probably use both keywords and collections. Here are some of the main differences between the two:

  • Keywords may be exported as XMP metadata when exporting a file.
  • Keywords may be stored as XMP metadata in (or in a sidecar file of) the original file. If the database becomes corrupted, your keywords are still intact.
  • Each keyword may have a list of synonyms that are exported with it.
  • Keywords may be used as search criteria from the filter bar.
  • There are many more ways of applying keywords to a file than there are of placing images in collections. They may be typed into the right-hand keyword pane, applied from the keyword templates, applied using the keyword stamper, or dragged and dropped from the right-hand panel. Keywording is rapid.
  • Collections are essentially virtual folders and as such the images in a collection can be ordered.  This will be useful for a slideshow or web gallery. Also, the image flags (flagged, unflagged and rejected) and (optionally) the filter settings are local to each collection.
  • Collections can be exported as a catalog, and reimported at a later date. This can be a very powerful feature in some workflows.

From the above it would seem that keywording offers many more advantages than the collections do, but they really serve very different purposes. Keywords are best used to describe images an collections should be used to organise images.

Be wary of the various tutorials on-line that show keywords being used in a hierarchical structure to organise photos. Something like this:

> People
    > Mike
    > Bob
    > Phil

An advantage of using keywords like this is that it would be easy to find photos of people using Lightroom’s filter bar. With collections, you’d need to find the “Bob” collection to locate all the photos of him, which may take more time (albeit only a little more if the collections are well organised).

However you’ll need to be very careful if the photos will ever be supplied to a third party, such as a stock agency or an end client. Given the example above, “Bob” is meaningless to anyone who doesn’t know who Bob is – it certainly should not be applied to a stock image. You could turn off the exportation of this particular keyword, but this would be a fairly painstaking and error prone approach to the problem.

In the above case I think it’s hard to fully appreciate whether to use keywords or collections, but consider instead a collection of images for an exhibition. The advantages of a collection here are more obvious – the ability to order, flag and filter these images is a powerful aid.

You’ll need to consider the fors and againsts for each method, and to use the tool in the way that’s best for you. I would however recommend the following approach:

  1. Use collections to group photos that intrinsically belong together, creating sub-collections as needed. Examples include photos of friends and family, all black and white images, photos for a particular client, all photos submitted to a stock collection, all finished fine art prints, works in progress, exhibitions, etc.
  2. Don’t create collections for information that’s already provided by the metadata. For example, the IPTC metadata already allows you to store the country, state and location in which a photos was taken, and is conveniently extracted by the metadata browser.
  3. Use keywords to describe the image itself, as if you were giving it to a third party. For example, use “cat” but not “freddy”. Stock photographers and journalists will understand this approach well. Since the keywords are exported with the photo as part of the metadata, this makes the photos easy to find and index by those that’ll be using the photo at a later date.
  4. Use lots of keywords. The richer your database, the easier it will be to find photos at a later date.
  5. Use the hierarchical keywording to increase your efficiency, not to slow it down. For example, you may have a structure such as this:

    > Animal
        > Mammal
            > Cat
            > Dog
            > Fish
            > Shark

    Now when you type “cat”, the implied keywords “Mammal” and “Animal” will be exported automatically.

  6. Make good use of synonyms. One obvious way to do this may be to add the plural form to each keyword.
  7. Think to the future. If you’re not selling your work today then the choice of keywording or using collections may seem less important to you. If one day you decide to try selling your photos through a stock agency or to an art buyer then you’ll be glad to have correctly keyworded images.

9) Consider using David Rieck’s Controlled Vocabulary to help you keywords your images.

Worklists

I use Eric Scouten’s Worklist approach to keep track of which images still need sorting and keywording. I highly recommend reading his blog post on the subject.

My collection hierarchy

Here then is a screenshot that shows a part of my collection hierarchy:

The top level is divided into three main collections sets: the worklists, my personal work and my professional work. Each of these is further sub-divided, grouping my images into things like web site collections, resources, clients, stock, etc.

For the curious, Building Blocks contains photos that include imagery that may be useful when compositing images, and Scouting Resource contains images that may be useful when searching for shot locations.

9 Responses to “Organising a Lightroom catalog”

  1. Paul says:

    thanks for posting this! your blog is really helpful.

  2. Jens says:

    Thanks for the article. I am a new user of Lightroom, so I appreciate your insights.
    Kind regards

  3. TheGooch says:

    Thanks for explaining the difference between Keywords and Collections. I generally use keywords to collect photos from disparate sources into a single view, and then join them into a collection later, after I have most of them. For example, 20 friends and I go to a large event. We meet up a few times, but generally split up and take pictures at different locations/times. After everyone gets home, we publish the pictures on our myspace/facebook/etc. Now each person can download the pictures the others took and add them to their own collection.

    A collection helps me keep these pictures together as they all came from the same event, and keywords let me tag my friends or even myself in case I need to find them later. I include the event name in case I want “all the pictures of my friends from this event….” or maybe one friend didn’t take any pictures and wonders if anyone took a picture of them, then I can find any pics I took of them quickly.

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  6. Pretty great post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really loved browsing your weblog posts. In any case I will be subscribing for your feed and I’m hoping you write again soon!

  7. T N Args says:

    Excellent article, just what I was looking for. However I MUST point out that Fish and Shark do not belong under Mammal!

  8. abhimanyu agrawal says:

    Thankx a lot…..great article

    you solved a few quesitions i had in mind regarding organizing photos using lightroom.

    I like the part which says about using hierarchical keywords ..and a lot of keywords to keep a good database.

    just 1 thing i didn’t understand about your collection hierarchy was the resources collection….i would like to know about it!!

    thankx

  9. Terry says:

    Use collections to group photos that intrinsically belong together, creating sub-collections as needed. Examples include photos of friends and family, all black and white images, photos for a particular client, all photos submitted to a stock collection, all finished fine art prints, works in progress, exhibitions, etc.
    Don’t create collections for information that’s already provided by the metadata. For example, the IPTC metadata already allows you to store the country, state and location in which a photos was taken, and is conveniently extracted by the metadata browser.
    Thanks so much!

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