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Organizing Your Photos, Part 2: Using Keywords

To keyword or not to keyword, that is the question
Screen shot of using keywords in Adobe Lightroom

Figure 1. Categorical organization is the key to being able to find your images when you want to find them. You can name your folders, you can use Lightroom’s Collections panel, you can keyword, and this article explores the best path for you.

Welcome to part two of an article series on organizing your photos with Lightroom Classic. In part one, we talked about what organization means and what types of organization a photographer should consider. Now let’s talk about categorical organization and the advantages of using keywords for this purpose.

Imagine you’ve just returned from a big shoot. You’re at your computer and importing your new images into Lightroom Classic or migrating them over to a set of folders. What do you do after the import is done? Are you supposed to keyword first? Are you supposed to flag or rate your images by stars or colors, and is starting with one over the other more efficient? Are you supposed to create Collections, and if so, what’s the proper way to organize by Collection, and what do you name them? Where should you begin and what should you do?

Believe it or not, there is not a “right” way to do this nor a best tool to start with. The reality is that it just doesn’t matter. There are lots of ways to approach organization. It’s about having a deeper understanding of the tools at hand so you can choose the right path for you. Good organization fits the way you work. So let’s begin by talking about ways you can tailor organization tools to suit your needs.

Generally speaking, there are two “needs” one has to consider when creating a workflow. First, consider your ability to adapt to the difficulties of working with a program as complex as Lightroom. Is learning new things on computers challenging for you or easy? If it’s the former, then diving right into a hierarchical keywording workflow—and knowing all the tools and potential pitfalls that come with it—may be a lot to ask. It may instead be smarter to weave that sort of thing in over time.

Using keywords can get quite complex, with large lists of keywords organized hierarchically, but you can also keep things simple. Photographers with modestly-sized libraries may only ever need a small set of descriptive words to stay organized, while a seasoned pro with a large stock library will require a lot more. In fact, there are many companies that you can hire to assist in creating and maintaining complex keywording workflows because they can be quite time consuming.

Whatever your skill level or size of your photo library, you want to get comfortable using keywords. Even though I’ve stated there is no right or wrong, keywording is the most efficient way of organizing your archive categorically.

Are Folders Obsolete?

Personally, I don’t bother naming my folders and care very little about folder organization. Instead, I have Lightroom automatically organize folders during import by date, with little concern even for the date format. It just doesn’t matter to me. But I understand why so many photographers do name their folders. It makes sense to label the containers we put our things in so we can identify them later. It’s how we organize all kinds of things in our lives, so why not adopt that for our images, too, right? Well, as simple and straightforward as an “organizing-folders-by-category-workflow” is, there are a couple issues that arise with it, especially when using a database like Lightroom Classic.

Managing folder hierarchies can be tedious. When I first started working with digital images, I made folders with subject names, geographic locations or project descriptions. Needless to say, as the size of my library grew, so did my need to deal with subcategories, nuance and complexity. I needed to create a series of subfolders and sub-subfolders.

For example, any image I took of any kind of animal would go into the “Animals” folder. As more images came in, I needed to differentiate the different animal types such as sharks, pinnipeds or marine mammals, and the need for further differentiation grew as I took more and more images. Before long, I found myself managing a folder hierarchy that was big, time consuming and felt out of control. Figure 2 illustrates my dilemma.

Figure 2. As folder organization grows, so does the difficulty of managing and maintaining it.

When Lightroom was first released in 2007, I quickly realized there were different and more efficient possibilities. After importing images into Lightroom, I could create Collection sets, allowing me to use categorical hierarchies in more flexible ways. I could add keywords using different metadata structures like IPTC (International Press Telecommunications Council) or XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform). Or I could add categorical info to the file name itself. But with more options come more questions. Are Collections more efficient? Should I name my files instead of folders? Is keywording the best choice, or is it better to develop a workflow using a combination of these steps? These questions compelled me to learn which was, in fact, the most efficient.

Using Keywords For Searchability

At the end of the day, what matters most in organization is that you can find your images quickly and easily when you want them. Do your categories exist somewhere, so that when you reach for your Library Filter (see part one of this series), you can find any image or group of images by typing in one of your categories or keywords?

Note that all the places you can add categories—folder names, file names, Collection names or keywords—are all searchable in Lightroom Classic. Let me repeat that point because it’s important. In the last article, I highlighted how to use the Library Filter to search your image library. It’s the punchline of everything I’m talking about. Folder names, Collection names, file names, XMP and IPTC metadata are all searchable, which is why there’s no right or wrong place to add your categorical information. However, it does matter in another sense.

Searchability is relative to the tool you use to search. Meaning, if you’re organizing with Collection sets, you’re limiting yourself because Lightroom Collections are searchable in Lightroom only. Additionally, organizing by collection poses the same complications as naming folders. Collections sets can also get out of control as your needs for nuance and complexity grows. And with file naming, you have no ability to create subcategories at all.

Keywording seems to be the most efficient choice. When you add a keyword to an image in Lightroom, that keyword is created in the form of XMP metadata (unless you are purposely using IPTC). Don’t worry—you don’t need to know or remember what XMP or IPTC is. Just know that the keyword has the ability to be saved in two separate locations. It’s automatically saved in the catalog you’re working in, but Lightroom can also embed that keyword with the file itself. This means that if and when you ever export an image out of Lightroom, your categorical organization travels with your file. That’s huge!

Pro Tip: As you export your files, look to the Metadata panel in the Export dialogue (shown in Figure 3) in order to include “All Metadata.” Or select from the dropdown menu for more options.

Figure 3. Selecting “All Metadata” as you export your images ensures that all of your keywords are embedded with the individual images.

When you embed metadata in an image file, that file is now searchable anywhere you put it. Whether you’re using other photo database software or using the image anywhere on the internet, such as your web site, social media or stock sites, if the image has your keywords embedded, then they are searchable. Yes, keywording is also subject to being tedious when adding categories with subcategories and sub-subcategories, but once you get the hang of it, it’s quicker and easier than other choices.

Embedding Keywords In Your Images

To make sure keywords and other metadata are saved to and embedded in our files, we need to cover a couple bases. Go to the Lightroom Classic menu as shown in Figure 4 and select Catalog Settings. (If you have a Windows computer, go to the Edit menu.)

Figure 4. To find where to “Automatically write changes to XMP,” or save all your metadata to your file, go to your Catalog Settings.

At the top of the Catalog Settings dialog box as shown in Figure 5, make sure you’re in the Metadata section. Then make sure that the “Automatically write changes to XMP” box is checked. However, know that automatically saving metadata comes at the price of affecting your catalog’s performance. It tends to slow things down. How much or little things slow depends on factors like how big your catalog is, how much you’re using your catalog, what computer hardware you’re using, and so on. Considering this, many photographers turn this feature off.

Figure 5. Within the Catalog Settings dialogue, look to the Metadata section to find the “Automatically write changes to XMP” checkbox.

If you choose to leave “Automatically write changes to XMP” off, you can save your metadata manually whenever you’re ready. To manually save, look to your image thumbnail for a small arrow icon in the upper right corner. The arrow indicates metadata has changed and needs to be saved to your file. Simply select the image, or select a group of images, and click on the arrow.

I’m afraid I need to point out one more thing. Experience has shown me that Lightroom doesn’t always work perfectly. The arrow icon doesn’t always show up. Therefore, it’s not a bad idea after a session of work in your catalog to save your metadata. Make it a habit. Don’t wait for the arrow to show up. Instead, select all the files you’ve been working on and save like you would in any program. Click Command+S for Mac and Control+S for Windows. Done!

What Is Good Keywording Workflow?

The complexity of a keywording workflow is dictated by how you use it. Let’s take my image library, for example. Many of my images are available online for clients to find so they can search through my archive for licensing. Thus, I need to create keywords that I’ll use to find my images in the future, but I also have to consider how all my clients, present and future, will search through my library. I want it to be as easy as possible for them to find what they are looking for.

When I take a picture of a beach, for example, I won’t just use the keyword “beach,” I’ll also use “seascape,” “california,” “santa cruz,” and “sunrise” or “sunset” for example. I have to predict how clients both present and future will search my library. Imagine how big a list can grow for just one image, how one can get carried away with what kind of keywords to use, and how tedious keywording can get if you’re keywording all of your files with such complexity.

Pro Tip: Lightroom is not case sensitive, but other places or programs you use in the future may be. As a result, I choose to keep things easy and consistent by making sure all my keywords are lowercase.

Let the lists below simplify things for you. One is a basic list for those who will be searching their own libraries, and the other is an advanced checklist for those who need to consider how others will search through their images. The good news is the vast majority of photographers should only ever need to use the Basic Checklist. It’s easy to remember, it’s only five categories, and it takes very little time to maintain. I suggest, unless you’re the rare photographer who is considering a stock business, to stick to the Basic Checklist.

Basic Keyword Checklist

· General region
· Specific location
· Subject of the photo
· Secondary subject of the photo
· Setting
· Context

Advanced Keyword Checklist

· Continent
· Country
· Region
· State or Province
· City
· Specific location
· Subject of the photo
· Secondary subject of the photo
· Setting
· Context
· Moods or feelings
· Colors
· Photo technique
· Concepts
· Style

Entering Keywords

Using Lightroom’s keywording tools can take up a four-article series all on its own, but I want to at least explain the basics. There are two panels you need to be familiar with when it comes to keywording: the ever-so-creatively-named Keywording panel and the Keyword List panel. The Keywording panel is your workhorse and where you will enter most all of your new keywords, while the Keyword List panel is where all the keywords you’ve ever entered are maintained and managed.

In Lightroom Classic’s Library Module, there are three sections to the Keywording Panel as shown in Figure 6. The Keyword Tags section allows you to view keywords already applied to an image and add new keywords. The Keyword Suggestions section offers keywords you have either used recently or that you frequently use, providing quick access to those keywords; simply click on a suggested keyword to add it to your selected photo or photos. The Keyword Set section offers customized keyword groups. A few sets such as Outdoor Photography, Wedding Photography and Portrait Photography are prepackaged for us by Adobe, but you can certainly create your own.

Figure 6. The Keywording panel has three sections to play with.

In the Keyword Tag section, the dropdown menu offers three viewing options as shown in Figure 7. Selecting the Enter Keyword View option allows you to see only keywords that have been explicitly added to an image. Meaning, some keywords can be designated as private. The Enter Keyword view allows you to type in both text boxes to either correct the spelling of previously added keywords or to add new keywords. In any other view, you cannot edit previously entered keywords, and you can only add keywords by way of the small text box at the bottom of this section. Selecting the Keywords & Containing Keywords View allows you to see keywords that are exportable or private. Lastly, the Will Export View only shows you keywords that you have designated as exportable. You cannot see your private keywords in this view.

Figure 7. The Keyword Tag section of the Keywording panel offers different ways for you to view the types of keywords you’ve entered.

Lightroom’s Keyword List Panel

I consider the Keywording panel my “workhorse” because it’s easier to apply keywords to groups of selected images, but that doesn’t mean I can’t create keywords in the Keyword List panel. In fact, I can do more. Notice that the Keyword List panel comes equipped with a “+” icon on its header. If you click it, you’ll launch the Create Keyword Tag dialogue found in Figure 8. From there, you can create your keyword’s name, add synonyms and manage keyword permissions by way of a series of checkboxes.

Figure 8. Keywords can be managed from the Keyword Tag dialogue. To launch this tool, click on the “+” icon found in the Keyword List panel’s header.

All of the keywords you have ever created are deposited in the Keyword List panel and are automatically organized alphabetically. As your list grows, note that at the top of the keyword list there is a search box that can help you find any keyword in your list quickly.

Also note that to the left of each keyword is an arrow icon and to the right there is a small number. The number indicates how many images a particular keyword is applied to. If you click on that number, Lightroom will automatically filter out all of the images that keyword is applied to—I love that feature. The arrow comes in handy if you are creating keyword hierarchies, or Keywords Containing Keywords, as it is referred to in Figure 8.

Pro Tip: You can also apply a keyword to images by dragging and dropping images directly onto a selected keyword or keywords in your Keyword List panel, or you can drag and drop selected keywords onto your selected image or images.

One way to create hierarchies is to simply drag and drop a keyword in your list on top of another keyword. You can then click the arrow of the parent keyword to reveal its containing keywords. Another way is to first select a keyword in your keyword list before clicking the “+” icon on the panel’s header. Then the Create Keyword Tag dialogue will offer you a checkbox to put the keyword you are creating inside of the selected keyword.

Do What Works For You

Any way you slice it, categorical organization needs to be integrated into your workflow as your image library grows. With each import you make, it will get increasingly harder to sift through what you have to find what you need. Categorizing your work by a set of shared characteristics is the key to keeping your house in order. How you’re categorizing is up to you, as long as you’re doing something.

If what you’re doing now works for you, change it only if it makes sense. Whether you’re adding categories to filenames, folders, Lightroom Collections or with keywords, all paths are searchable in Lightroom. So you can’t go wrong there. Begin weaving keywording into your workflow over time and as you become more comfortable with the complexities of the program and its procedures.

What I don’t suggest is abandoning what you’re doing now if it’s working just because I preach about the efficiency of keywords. I’ve seen many photographers do that instead of slowly working it into what they do, and in such cases many photographers get lost and frustrated. I wish you happy categorizing, and in the next article, we’ll begin to discuss Applicative and Qualitative organization.

Read Part 3: Tags, Ratings And More.

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 to see more of his work and find info on his upcoming workshops and expeditions, and to learn about his fine art printing services.