Organizing Your Photos, Part 1: A Place For Everything

The first in a four-part series to help you master metadata and organizational techniques for your image catalog
organizing your photos in Adobe Lightroom

Figure 1. Lightroom’s Develop module, the heart of the program’s database, offers all kinds of tools for organizing your image archive regardless of the number of images.

Personally, I think I have a fairly average size archive of images for someone who, in part, makes their income through photography—just over 300,000 photographs. I’m not certain that number is fairly average, but I do work with clients that have far more than I do, which helps give me that impression. One client I work with has a catalog of over 5 million images. My point is that digital capture allows us to create a quantity of images in unprecedented numbers. As your library grows, organizing your photos becomes increasingly complex.

And whether you are a so-called pro photographer or not, whether or not you have 5 million or 5,000 images, pixels today are free, as they say. We aren’t burdened with cost of photo development, so we’re all taking more photographs. As a result, keeping them organized is a challenge like never before.

Once upon a time, we photographers had drawers or boxes filled with slides and negatives. We shot a lot less, and managing it all was simpler. Today, we have hard drives, and organizing your photos—knowing how to properly wield the field of ever-evolving software, wrapping our heads around what metadata is, how best to keyword, what folder structure we should use, knowing when to star, flag or color label our images—can be a daunting task, to say the least. If I’m already speaking to you and hitting a nerve; if your folders on your hard drives are virtual dumping grounds; if it takes you longer than it should to find images, to organize your images—keep reading.

Welcome to part one of a four-part article series on organizing your photos with Lightroom Classic. For those of you who don’t use Lightroom Classic, rest assured that the principles I’ll speak of are not software platform-dependent, only the tools I refer to in Lightroom Classic. This is a crucial point to understand when designing an organizational workflow. How and why one uses keywords, names their images or sifts through EXIF metadata doesn’t change when using Lightroom versus another organizational tool. Consequently, learning from the perspective of “why,” in conjunction with “how,” will help you master image archive organization.

For starters, know this: You are not the only disorganized photographer in a sea of organized ones. In fact, quite the opposite. As a Lightroom and digital workflow instructor who teaches both hobbyists and other professional photographers how to get organized, I have found that there is often no difference in the level or organizational expertise between a hobbyist and a professional. My experience shows that the more successful the photographer, the more help they need in getting organized. Point being, everyone needs help in this department.

What does it mean to get organized? “Good” organization is relative; there is no one right way to do it. Organization needs to be tailored to the individual photographer’s needs and workflow. Bearing all of this in mind, I’d like to start by going over what organization entails.

Organizing Your Photos: Types Of Organization

You’ve probably heard the saying, “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” It’s a good one. It implies something vital. Clutter is easier to arrange if you have conceived a way to arrange it. Your socks go in the sock drawer, your shirts in the shirt drawer, and so on. Organizing photos works in the same way.

What are a photographer’s metaphorical drawers? Generally speaking, there are four classifications of organization I suggest you consider: Categorical, Applicative, Qualitative and State.

Categorical Organization

An organized photo library is one that allows us to find the image we want quickly and easily. Our files aren’t lost in a sea of clutter if we are organized. Categorical organization is the key in satisfying this goal, and I bet most of us already use categories in our organization to one degree or another.

Organizing by category allows us to sort images by a set of shared characteristics. For nature photographers, this typically starts with where and when we shot things. I see this all the time when working with other photographers. Most will organize by making a folder by location, such as Yosemite or Grand Canyon or Alaska.  I’ve seen folders named by subject matter or the name of the project they are working on, and I’ve seen them named by the client they work for.

Beyond folders, many organize categorically by adding the date or location of the shoot to the filename, by keywording or by creating categories in the Lightroom Collections panel. There are many ways to categorically organize, and like I said before, there is no right or wrong way. If it works for you and if you’re organized and can find your images when you want to find them, then you’re doing better than most.

However, Lightroom Classic is a database, which does provide opportunities to practice categorical organization more efficiently than relying on filenames and folders to find our work when we need to find it. Databases are powerful tools that can help you quickly and dynamically search through your image archive. The trick is in understanding what metadata is and how metadata and Lightroom work together—more on this later.

Applicative Organization

In addition to needing the ability to find our work, we also need the ability to apply our work. We aren’t just taking photographs to sit on hard drives; we want to do things with them. We photographers need to make prints, create slide shows, send images to contests and photo editors and friends and family. We create photographs so that we can share them and the stories behind them with our community. Thus, we need to find ways to organize groups of images for output or application.

Qualitative Organization

A critical phase of any photographer’s workflow is to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. We all take images that vary in quality. Some images that we take rank as our best, some are good but not the best, and then there are the images that might support a narrative but aren’t “artsy” enough to hang on our walls. Finally, there are the images that are out of focus or have some other fatal flaw and that we should just throw away. Thus, we need to arrange our imagery by its quality.

Organization By State

If there’s anything that one should gather by the fact that I’m even writing a four-part article series on organization, it’s that workflow can be a big task. And to be honest, four articles will just allow me to scratch the surface. Workflow is time-consuming even for those well versed in working with Lightroom or other databases. Oftentimes, I’ll find myself editing and developing a shoot in chunks. During one, I might get through half of my keywording, while in another sitting I may get through half of my developing. There are ways to track your progress and begin to think about organizing things by the state that they are in, or whether or not your work is finished or unfinished.

The Power of Metadata

Most of us have some idea what metadata is, but it’s critically important to understand the concept as we take our organizational skills to the next level. The simple definition is: Metadata is data about data. It’s information that describes other information.

With Lightroom, there are two kinds of metadata, developmental and organizational. Every time you move a slider in the Lightroom Develop module, that adjustment is saved in the catalog as metadata. Every time you add a keyword to an image, that keyword is also saved as metadata. One is used for developing and the other for organization.

Metadata is the fuel that runs a database and the key ingredient in understanding how to organize things in your Lightroom catalog. If you can master what metadata is and how Lightroom uses it, you’ve mastered Lightroom. To breakdown things a bit more, there are different kinds of organizational metadata. There is XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform), EXIF (Exchangeable Image File Format), and IPTC (International Press Telecommunications Council) metadata. There is more, but generally this is what we use most in Lightroom.

XMP is an ISO standard created by Adobe and is where developmental and most of our organizational metadata, such as keywords, are stored. Some of you, I’m sure, have seen that XMP sidecar file that’s generated by Lightroom after playing with your RAW files to some degree (Figure 2).

Figure 2. XMP sidecar files are essentially containers for housing the organizational and developmental metadata generated by Lightroom.

Pro Tip: Never ever get rid of or separate the XMP file from the original file. If you do, you will lose your keywords, your organizational metadata and all of the work you did in the Develop Module.

EXIF metadata is camera-generated metadata. Every time you take a picture, stored with that picture are all of your settings, the date and time, and the lens used. It also tells you if your flash went off, how far you were from your subject and the resolution of your image.

IPTC metadata is a widely accepted metadata platform that’s usually used for descriptive information about your files. It was originally created to help facilitate the exchange of information between news agencies and newspapers. The IPTC metadata platform is a great place to attach personal information such as your name, your website and your contact info to your image files. You can store your copyright and usage terms using IPTC, and it has fields of its own for adding keywords, captions and other descriptive information. This is all information that is good to have attached to your images as you begin putting them on the internet and sharing them. This way if someone wants to use them, they know to whom they belong and how to get ahold of you, and it establishes they are not free to use if you don’t want people just using your images without your consent.

The ultimate point is that there is all kinds of information about our files that’s stored with our files today. Some of it we generate, and some our camera generates, and all of it—here’s the important part—all of it is searchable.

Filtering Through Images In Lightroom

Metadata is meaningless until we understand how to use it. You can add thousands of keywords to your files, but they won’t do you any good unless you know how to search by keyword. Fortunately, one of the best things about Lightroom, which we seldom talk about, is its ability to filter groups of images or isolate individual images by way of metadata. You can filter through images and combinations of images in seemingly endless ways.

First, I need to introduce you to the Library Filter, if you aren’t already familiar with it. Not surprisingly, the Library Filter (as shown in Figure 3) is found in the Library Module. Please note that the Library Filter can only be seen while you’re in thumbnail view, or Grid View, in the Library Module. The filter allows you to search by text, attribute or metadata.

Figure 3. The Library Filter is the key to understanding how to sift through your image archive and find groups of images or individual images at will. The Library Filter is an indispensable tool for image organization.

Pro Tip: By chance, if you’re in the Library Module and in Grid View but still don’t see the Library Filter, it may be hidden from view. To un-hide it, simply click on the “\” key above the Return key on your keyboard

Searching by text is pretty easy to understand; you type the text into the search box like you would if you were searching for something on Google. If you want to search by a keyword, enter the word here. If you want to search by title, caption, EXIF metadata, IPTC metadata, filename—enter any such word here.

Searching by Attribute is also relatively simple. As this article series continues, I’ll show you how to add flags, colors and star ratings to your images. The Attribute filter allows you to isolate any one of these or group these. You can filter all of your flagged images or your flagged images that are labeled green or even your flagged images labeled green with a particular star rating. Point being, you’re not restricted to filtering by one criterion at a time. You can filter by an almost endless amount of combinations.

Figure 4. The Metadata panel in the Library Filter allows you to search through any kind of metadata you can think of that may be attached to your files.

Then there’s filtering by way of metadata. Filtering by metadata allows you to search in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of combinations. Let me attempt to walk you through it. Figure 4 shows you four columns of metadata. The filtering begins with the left column and fine-tunes your result as you move to the columns to the right. Lightroom’s default is to show you four columns, but you can have just one column, or you can have up to eight. To add or remove columns, simply click on the small icon on the right of each column header as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5. You can add or remove columns within the Metadata panel by clicking on the small icon on the right of each column header.

And here’s the part I love: by clicking on the icon on the left side of one of the metadata column headers, you can define the search criteria for that particular column (see Figure 6), and use a huge list of ways to search. You can search by file type, camera, lens, settings, ratings, labels, keywords, date, location…and the list goes on.

Figure 6. By clicking on the small icon on the left of the Metadata panel column headers, you can choose from a large variety of different metadata options.

As I stated previously—and it’s a point worth repeating—if you can master your understanding of what metadata is and how Lightroom uses it, you’ve mastered Lightroom, at least in its organizational capabilities. With this ability to search for images through a variety of metadata combinations, we can not only save ourselves from losing images, but we also can sift through our image archive in amazing, efficient ways. If we do a search by way of a macro lens, we can analyze how we’ve been shooting macro photography over the years. If we search by aperture ƒ/2.8, we can get a feel for how we’ve been shooting scenes with shallow depth of field. We can think up all kinds of new dynamic ways to sift through our catalog that could help us find images when we want to find them and  evolve our craft. It’s actually quite exciting.

A Place For Everything

Now that we have some idea of what’s possible, we need to begin conceiving ways to arrange our photo archive. We have to create that metaphorical “place for everything.” As we continue this article series, we will explore how to add all that organizational metadata to your images. I intend to cover Categorical Organization by way of keywording, Applicative Organization by way of creating Collections, Qualitative Organization by way of flags, colors and labels, and how to use a combination of the above to keep track of the current workflow state of groups of images within your catalog.

Whether you have thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions of images, the principles for organizing your photos are software platform independent and the same for all of us. Until next time, try not to lose anything.

Read Part 2: Using Keywords.

Jason Bradley has a unique set of skills. He specializes in nature and wildlife photography both underwater and above; he’s the owner and operator of Bradley Photographic Print Services, a fine art print lab; he leads photographic expeditions around the world, and is the author of the book Creative Workflow in Lightroom, published by Focal Press. Visit BradleyPhotographic.com to see more of his work and find info on his upcoming workshops and expeditions, and BradleyPrintServices.com to learn about his fine art printing services.