Finding photos you've shot on your computer has long been a challenge. As soon as you have more than a couple hundred photos shot over time, which for many readers happens from just one trip—even one day of that trip—locating specific images as you need them can be problematic. Digital photography lets you organize photos much better than you could with film. Adobe Lightroom can help. (Many of the ideas I'll describe also will work with Adobe Photoshop Elements Organizer, Adobe Bridge, Apple Aperture and a variety of dedicated filing programs.)
The Hard Drive As A Storage Room
In the past, you could have stored photos in a storage room, putting them into file folders, then into file cabinet drawers, then into file cabinets and so forth, as a way of organizing photos. Think of your computer's file folders as virtual file cabinets, cabinet drawers and file folders. (By the way, you should be storing your photos on a separate drive, not the main hard drive of your computer.)
Everyone files important information differently. Use the information here and adapt it to come up with your own system that works best for you. The most important thing is to have a system.
An Underlying File Structure
You need to have a file structure to help your software find your images. I've seen photographers start importing into random folders that have no consistent naming pattern or order. That can be a real problem to work with. If you've already done that and have a confusing file structure, it's not hard to fix, but it will take some dedicated time and work. It's a lot like dealing with cleaning out a garage that has had things randomly thrown into it for years. Also think about basing your structure on how you file anything in a file cabinet so you can find it later. Here are some ideas on how I do this.
Start by creating an overriding or top-level folder. I use a folder called Digital Images. I don't use the Pictures or My Pictures folder that comes with a computer for two reasons: 1) This is on the main hard drive, and no photos go on that drive; and 2) This folder is used by a number of programs to file things other than your photos. I want my "storage room" or overriding folder to have only my photos in it.
Next, what do you want in that folder? I use years as the next level of folders. This results in my Digital Images folder holding individual folders named 2012, 2011 and 2010. The Digital Images folder would be the parent folder for the years in this case, and the year folders would be parent folders for the next level of folder organization.
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I create folders based on location and month, so I might have a folder that says "CA Humboldt Redwoods 0611." That would tell me these photos were from California from Humboldt Redwoods State Park shot in June 2011.
That works for me. You might create folders based on subject matter, such as birds, mammals, flowers, etc. Or maybe you might base them on months in a year. The important thing is to devise some sort of fundamental, simple structure.
If you've never done this before, you can set up folders and drag and drop your old images into them. Then you can have your software simply import the new set of folders using the hierarchy you set up. When you do this with Lightroom, you're only adding photos, not copying or moving. If your images are already in Lightroom, you also can set up these folders and drag and drop images from old folders into them.
Lightroom has a simple importing interface. The location of the images you want to import is on the left, the location you'll be importing to is on the right, how you import them is on the top, and thumbnails of the actual images to import are in the middle. I've set up Lightroom to recognize when a memory card is inserted into my computer so the Import interface shows up when a card is recognized (Preferences > General). Otherwise, you can click Import at the bottom of the Library module.
Now that you have a structure set up, simply select Copy at the top of the Import interface if you're bringing in new photos to your computer from a memory card. When Lightroom recognizes a memory card, you'll see it listed on the left with its photos in the middle display. Available folders for the import are shown under Destination in the right panel. You may have to navigate through your drive to find the folder you want. This is another advantage of going to a specific folder on a separate drive: It's always easy to find.
If you need a new folder for your latest shoot, check Into Subfolder under Destination and type in the name for the folder. Be sure the parent folder is selected below so this new folder shows up there. It will first show up in italics. Use the rest of the right panel with the defaults. To rename photos, use the File Renaming section of the right panel.
Select Add at the top of the interface if you already have images on your hard drive that you want Lightroom to recognize. You simply select the parent or overriding folder on the left side, and you can leave the rest of the settings at their default.
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Review, Mark And Delete
Once you import your photos, use Library to help you go through your images. You can very quickly go through even large numbers of photos, reviewing them to sort the good from the bad, marking special images so you can find them later and deleting what you don't want.
I like to use the Grid view (type "g") to quickly look over all of my images. Then I use the Loupe view (type "e") and the left/right arrow keys to go through images. Hit Tab to hide the left and right panels while you do this. Type "x" to mark images for deletion (this doesn't delete anything at this point; it only grays out the thumbnails). Type "u" to unmark the image for deletion. When you're done, press Command + Delete (Mac) or Control + Backspace (Windows) to delete the ones with an "x".
You also can add a star rating for images you particularly like or want to come back to. Use the number keys to give 1 to 5 stars. Remove a rating by typing "0". You also can add a color rating with the numbers 6 through 9; press the number again to remove the color.
Keywords In Brief
Keywords are words you attach to your photo that allow specific searches in the Library Filter toolbar above your photos in the Grid display of Library. You add keywords in the Keywording section of the panel at the right. Simply select a photo (or photos) and type keywords into the space listed as "Click here to add keywords." Put a comma in between keywords to separate them (a keyword can be more than one word, such as North Carolina).
Having a lot of keywords can help you find specific photos in a hurry because you can search using a group of words that will narrow down images to just the few that have all of those words, such as: North Carolina, spring, trillium, rain, white, low angle, wide angle, flash. The downside is that doing a lot of keywording can take a lot of time and be rather tedious. I recommend doing at least some, but unless you need to constantly search for very specific types of photos, you don't need to do a lot.
Keywords are kept in the Lightroom database, but aren't automatically saved to your image file. Use Command (Mac) or Control (Windows) + "s" to save them so they're connected to your photo.
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Collections In Brief
Lightroom's Collections function is very useful for sorting your photos.
Collections act like little bins that you can throw photos into for later use, but nothing is actually removed from your original folder. These are only references to your photo, and you can have as many as you want. Collections are handy ways of grouping like images for a specific use or a certain subject.
The Quick Collection is always in Lightroom and is in the Catalog section of the left panel. This is helpful when isolating a small group of images that you need for a specific use, such as emailing someone or for printing. By default, there's a "+" sign after the title that says this is a targeted collection. That means that if you click on a photo and type "b", the photo will automatically go to that collection (you also can click on the circle at the upper-right corner of your photo).
Click the "+" sign to the right of Collections to add a collection. To start, try the standard collection and name it whatever you'd like. You then can drag images from any folder onto that collection to add them to it. Again, nothing is actually moved from a folder, only a reference to the image is made for the collection.
Create collections of your favorite photos, special subjects, photos you regularly print, slideshows or anything that you can group. Later, you can try grouping collections into Collection Sets or use a Smart Collection that looks for certain keywords to automatically put photos into a collection.
Any collection can be made into a targeted collection by right-clicking the collection and selecting Set As Target Collection. I strongly recommend that Lightroom users work with a right-click mouse or touchpad because of the context-sensitive menus you get from right-clicking in different places in Lightroom.
You can see more of Rob Sheppard's photography and learn about his workshops at robsheppardphoto.com.