Organizing Your Photos, Part 4: Smart Collections

Lightroom’s Smart Collections are a powerful tool to gather images based on their stage of development, file type, custom keywords and more

Figure 1. There are many ways to “get organized.” In this final article in our series on organizing images with Lightroom Classic, we’ll look at organizing photos by their state in the overall processing workflow.

I was in a bit of a hurry this morning. I took a shower, got dressed, ate breakfast, threw my dishes in the sink and darted out the door. I left my bed unmade and the dishes for when I got home later in the day, and I’m pretty sure I left on a light or two.

Life does this to us—sometimes we have time to finish what we’ve started, and other times we need to do things piece-by-piece. That’s life when we get busy, and it can impact what we do at home, at work and with our hobbies. And yes, it’s like that with our photo libraries, too. Truth be told, and much to my embarrassment, it seems like it’s always like that with my photo library.

Personally, I often work in stages, piece-by-piece. Sometimes, for example, I’ll import a set of images into Lightroom Classic, do a little flagging and developing, come back the next day and do some more, and even revisit the import a few more times before I’ve moved on to the next shoot.

Staying organized—staying on top of our responsibilities—has ebb and flow to it. Sometimes we have ample time to handle it all, and sometimes we don’t. When it comes to our photo libraries, which can contain tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of images, keeping track of what we’ve done and what we haven’t done can be tricky. For many of us, it can be more ebb than flow.

Thankfully, Lightroom Classic does provide ways for us to organize by “state.” What images in my library still need keywording? Which images have been developed and which have not? Which images are RAW, which are JPEGs, and which are PSDs? Can I easily separate my videos from my stills? The good news is that Lightroom Classic provides a simple way of keeping track of all of these and much more.

Looking back to the very first article in this series, one of the things I covered was the Library Filter, which is arguably the most important tool in your organization toolbox. The Library Filter is the hub, the center of it all, and where you actually find the images you need to find and filter out groups of images you want to filter out.

With the Library Filter, you can search for images or groups of images in an almost endless combination of ways. You can search by filename, file type, color ratings, star ratings, flags, date, keyword, camera used, lens used and on and on. In short, you can isolate images or groups of images by any kind of metadata that is attached to your file. Such a tool makes it almost impossible to lose your images if you have a basic understanding of how to wield it.

Bearing all this in mind, there is a way to save and organize search criteria. Please allow me to say that in a different way because it’s so very important. Lightroom offers a tool that allows you to create parameters to search for groups of images in a huge combination of ways that can be saved and organized.

Lightroom’s Smart Collections

As we covered in article three of this series, image Collections are a great tool for organizing images for a particular type of end use. I can create subsets of images by selecting them and placing them in a Collection for slideshows, printing, submissions to clients, social media…the sky’s the limit. In any instance, creating Collections takes time and effort. There’s a curation process that happens, and images need to be added to the Collection during the process.

Enter the Smart Collection. For starters, a Smart Collection will populate itself. There is no time required by you to populate a Smart Collection. It’s all automated. Better yet, a Smart Collection is essentially a way to save a Library Filter configuration and can organize your images by the state they are in. And again, it does it all automatically.

how to add a smart collection in Lightroom

Figure 2. Click on the + icon in the Collection panel header and then select Create Smart Collection to launch the Create Smart Collection panel.

To create a Smart Collection, go to the Collections panel header and click on the “+” icon. Next, click on Smart Collection to bring up the Create Smart Collection panel, as shown in Figure 2. Next, name your new Smart Collection, then decide if you want to place it in an existing Collection Set or not.

Next comes the interesting and fun part. Let’s create a Smart Collection that will filter out a specific set of images I find useful.

Many photographers today take both stills and video. And many photographers often ask me if there’s an easy way to separate still images from videos. Trying to find everything by scrolling through thumbnails in Lightroom’s grid view is tedious, to say the least.

Figure 3. Here’s a Smart Collection configuration that separates all of your videos from your stills.

So, notice that I’ve named my Smart Collection “Video.” In Figure 3, you can see a dropdown menu that provides a series of search criteria. I’ve selected File Type, and then selected “is” in the dropdown menu to its right, and then selected “Video” in the dropdown menu to its right. As a last step, I’ll hit the Save button in the lower right of the panel. From here on out, Lightroom will automatically place all of my video files from my whole catalog in the smart collection. So, there’s no need to sift through all of my thumbnails to find my hidden videos.

As you create something similar, your new Smart Collection will show up in the Collections panel along with your regular Collections. You can distinguish a Smart Collection from a regular Collection by the presence of the small asterisk that accompanies the Collection symbol, as shown in Figure 4. Additionally, Smart Collections and regular Collections are both listed alphabetically, with the set of Smart Collections first, followed by your regular Collections.

Figure 4. Smart Collections can be distinguished from regular Collections by the presence of a small asterisk. Only Smart Collections have the asterisk.

Organizing Collections Versus Smart Collections

In article three of this series, I showed you how to organize Collections using Collection Sets. Collection Sets allow us to group sets of our images and create hierarchies. Not surprisingly, I suggest doing the same with Smart Collections.

Figure 5 shows a hierarchical arrangement that commingles regular Collections and Smart Collections. To build on the Collection Sets I showed you in article three, I’ve placed my Regular Collections in a Collection Set, including Collections for Application and others for maintaining categorical organization.

Figure 5. Here’s a screenshot illustrating how I organize my Smart Collections. I separate them from regular Collections with Collection Sets and then maintain hierarchies in all of my sets for more organization.

Similarly, I’ve created a Collection Set to house all of my Smart Collections, which also includes a series of subsets. My Smart Collection subsets consist of: Developed Smart Collections that “Has Adjustments,” that are “Undeveloped,” and that are “Undeveloped Alaska.” Yes, Undeveloped Alaska may seem specific, but we can customize Smart Collections to be that specific. More on that next.

Smart Collection Recipes

Let us create a few Smart Collection recipes to organize groups of your images by different states. These recipes will provide you with a feel for how to begin creating your own Smart Collections and illustrate some of the potential filtering combinations you can create.

One question I get asked about frequently is how to separate still images by file type. As your library grows, you will collect JPEGs, TIFFs, PSDs, RAW files and more. Some of you who shoot RAW plus JPEG will have a variety of file types right off the bat. Fortunately, separating them for quick viewing is simple.

Again, begin by going to the “+” icon in the panel’s header to open the Create Smart Collection dialogue. In this example, I suggest naming your Smart Collection RAW Files. Next, go to the same dropdown menu, as shown in Figure 3 above, and again select Filetype. Then select “is” in the dropdown to its right, and then “Raw” in the dropdown further to the right. Next, click on the “+” icon to the right of the dropdown where you selected Raw. This adds another line of criteria for you to configure.

Proceed to configure it in the same way as the previous line, except instead of choosing the filetype Raw, choose the filetype Digital Negative (DNG). Needless to say, if you use only DNGs, or only original RAW formats, you don’t have to create two lines of filtering criteria. But if you’re like me and have both, and want all your RAW files in one place, then create the criteria for both. Most importantly, if you were to hit Save with this configuration, no images would propagate your new Collection. There’s an important step I overlooked, on purpose.

There’s another small dropdown menu we must pay attention to when creating Smart Collections with multiple lines of criteria. We have to set the Match criteria. For this Smart Collection in particular, you’ll want to change it from its default “all” to “any.” Doing this tells Lightroom to populate the Smart Collection with any of the created criteria. If you left it set to the “all” default, only files that matched both criteria would be collected, which by definition in this case would be zero files.

Pro Tip: When I’m in the field, I want a speedy import. So, I don’t convert my images to DNG. Instead, I do it after I get back to my studio. I’ve made a Smart Collection to house all of my non-DNG RAW files. Then, when I’m ready and have the time to convert such RAW files, I can simply go to the Smart Collection, select all of those images, and convert them to DNG by going to the Library menu at the top of the screen and selecting Convert Photo to DNG.

Here are a few more recipes. Open the Smart Collection dialogue and name this Collection “Developed.” Next, go to the dropdown menu where we previously selected Filetype, but this time go to Develop, then go to “Has Adjustments.” Then choose “is true” in the following dropdown menu. After you click Save, your new Smart Collection will be populated with all the images that have been developed. Conversely, you can create another Smart Collection and name it Undeveloped to have a collection of images that need developing or haven’t yet been developed. To make such a Smart Collection, all you would need to do differently than the previous Smart Collection I suggested would be to choose “is false” instead of “is true.” After hitting Save in this case, your new Smart Collection would be populated with images with no adjustments.

Of course, you can get creative and make combinations of criteria. With my workflow as described earlier in this article series, there are two things I do after importing images into Lightroom: I separate my good images—my images that are worth my time in the develop module—from my bad images, and I organize my imports categorically by adding keywords. Bearing that in mind, here’s how you create a Smart Collection that targets undeveloped images from your most recent trip.

Let’s say your last trip was to Alaska. Create a Smart Collection and name it “Undeveloped Alaska.” The first set of criteria I would create here would be the same as the last recipe: select “Has Adjustments,” then select “is false” in the dropdown menu to its right. Then hit the “+” icon to the right to create a new line of criteria. Next, go to the dropdown menu and select “Pick Flag,” then select “is” in the dropdown to its right. Then select “flagged” in the dropdown menu to its right, and then click the “+” icon again to create another line of criteria. Select “Any Searchable Text” in the first dropdown menu on the new line of criteria. Then select “contains” in the next dropdown, and then type “Alaska” into the available text box. With this Smart Collection, you’re going to want to set Match criteria to “all” as you only want to collect images that meet all of the conditions (see Figure 6).

Figure 6. Here’s a recipe for creating a Smart Collection that allows you to automatically set aside undeveloped images from a recent trip (Alaska is used as an example here) that have been flagged because they have potential.

Setting your Match criteria to “all” is so very important. If Match is set to “any,” then your Smart Collection would populate with undeveloped images whether they are flagged or unflagged, whether they’ve been keyworded “Alaska” or not. It would also contain images that are flagged and that are either developed or undeveloped. By choosing “all,” you’re telling Lightroom that the image in the Smart Collection must adhere to all of the specified criteria.

Needless to say, I can go on and on with different combinations of recipes. But this is where you get to play and create your own organization to fit your needs. But considering that first dropdown menu where we set our Smart Collection criteria, the list of things at our fingertips and the combinations we can create are seemingly endless. We can create Smart Collections for Star Ratings, Color Labels, Smart Previews, specific folders, RAW files, different types of RAW files, by date, camera, camera lens, camera settings, and the list goes on and on. As powerful as the Library Filter is, Smart Collections will take your ability to organize your archive to a whole new level.

Setting The Stage

A.A. Milne, creator of the beloved bear Winnie-the-Pooh, once said, “Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it is not all mixed up.” Organization sets the stage for us. As we invest in our gear, endlessly practice our craft in the pursuit of a compelling frame, spend countless hours in front of our screens sifting through our work to find those hidden gems and devote even more blood, sweat and tears to developing our images, it would be nice to know there’s a reward for all of our efforts.

`That reward differs for all of us. For some, it’s simply making a fine print. For others, it’s generating well-crafted images for a commercial client, and, for others, it’s producing heaps of content for distributing on social media. Whatever the reward, we now know, looking back through this article series, that organization means many things. We can organize our images categorically, organize for application, by quality and by state. And the more organized we are, the more time we put into keeping our house in order, the better our stage is set, the less mixed up we are as we output what we’ve produced, then the more we’ve maximized our potential as we exhibit what we love and share with others our vision for our craft—the ultimate reward, indeed. Stay organized, everyone!

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.