One of the biggest advantages to incorporating Lightroom into your post processing routine is it’s fantastic organization and cataloging system. From the Import options to Collections and Maps, even if you never touch the develop or various output modules, it is reason enough in my opinion to install and learn Lightroom. All of my editing starts and ends in Lightroom, allowing me to easily organize what photos I have and have not edited, find those images either when I want to work on new edits, or need to locate an image to prepare for print or other distribution. The goal of this article is to help you achieve the same organization levels for your own catalogs so you spend more time creating and sharing your work rather than finding them on your computer.
With today’s high resolution camera sensors demanding more and more storage, getting a week’s worth of images from your memory cards to your computer as efficiently as possible matters. I use a Kingston high speed USB 3.0 card reader rather than plugging into the camera for transfer. With a much faster transfer speed than running a cable from the camera with no draw on the camera’s battery, meaning it’s ready to go when you need to run out the door on a moment’s notice shoot. I also make a point of not putting a card back into the camera until I have confirmed that the images have been transferred over, cutting the risk of deleting images that have yet to be transferred. A full write up of my back up strategies can be found here.
I import all of my photos via the Lightroom Import Module, and I have my Windows file system setup to detect RAW files and open the Lightroom Import dialog automatically if it is not already running. The left hand side of the dialog shows information about the source of the files being imported. With Lightroom already running, inserting a memory card into the reader is detected by the software and the Import dialog is automatically opened, with the newly detected SD card already selected as seen above. Note the two checkboxes that are selected: Eject after import – this will remove the ‘removable media’ from your Windows operating system for safe removal once the transfer is complete, and ‘Include Subfolders’ makes sure all images on the drive are pulled over.
The right hand side of the Import Module has all the information about the destination for the files being imported – and as you might guess the middle is consumed by showing thumbnails of the actual files being imported. From top to bottom:
Build Previews – I select this depending on how quickly I plan to be editing images from the batch, minimal is fastest, but slows down going through the images in the Library and Develop Module, 1:1 is the slowest to compete and can bog the system down for a bit until completed, but makes going through images at high resolution very fast after it is completed. Don’t Import Suspected Duplicates is always checked for me since I make sure that my various cameras have different naming conventions and might not clear the card after every single import run.
Under ‘Apply During Import’: I created and apply a base level develop preset that makes sure that Remove Chromatic Aberration is checked and that the Detail Sharpening settings are configured to where I want them (or select another one of my import presets based on the needs, I’ve created several for myself). Second option is a Metadata preset which I highly recommend setting up with your basic Copyright and contact information. Ensuring the Import module sets this preset automatically cuts time and ensures all your photos have this important information attached to their EXIF information. To setup a Metadata Preset – select ‘Edit Metadata Preset’ from the Metadata Menu when on the Library Module.
The import step is also a great time to add tags and other information that is common across the entire import set. Remember though, if you are importing multiple days’ worth of photos from multiple shoots, only add tags common across everything. You can bulk add tags to each folder, group of photos, etc., after the import.
I edit on a custom Windows desktop computer and have my images segregated into different drives based on their status. If you have a laptop or single-drive computer, you can do the same by just creating different folders rather than entirely different drives. For me, I have a folder in my ‘Import’ drive simply called ‘ImportTmp’ that contains all ‘incoming’ images. Under this is a directory level for the year just so I can collapse groups of folders into clearer sets and I can see how many images from two years ago that I’ve yet to edit. Under the year folder selected, the Import module is set to put each day’s photos into a separate folder in an YYYY-MM-DD format keeping the oldest working folders at the top of the working directory. For major trips or specific shoots I’ll use the Lightroom import ‘sub-directory’ option to further organize the working photos, so I might have something that looks like: ImportTmp/2020/DVNP/2020-02-28 , etc.
Stars and Rejects
With all of the photos now into a temp folder organized by date and if needed shoot, I quickly scan through the photos, what I call the first pass. Any photo that is technically flawed: out of focus, blurry, poor composition, wrong exposure beyond saving and not part of a bracketed set, etc – I hit the ‘X’ key and move on to the next photo. These are the rejects. I do not worry about deleting each photo as I can quickly delete them all in one click at the end of the first pass. Any photo that stands out from the crowd gets a star rating, I use 2-stars as my default ‘good’ photo, I typically use 1-star to denote a set of photos for panoramic sets, long exposure stacking, etc. Really good photos that I want to make sure get noticed above the ‘good’ shots get 3 or maybe 4 stars so I know to go back to those first. This is also useful when I take 5 or 6 of the same composition and 3 are good and one is spot on perfect, I will not have to go back to each of the starred photos looking for the best of the best to work on. Having both 4 and 5 stars allows me to also group up very similar compositions that have been focus stacked into sets that I can quickly identify later.
While the purpose of this first pass through the photos is intended to separate the wheat from the chaff. However, there is nothing wrong from taking a break from this first pass to process one photo that sits well beyond the 5-star category.
With this first pass complete, under the Photo menu, down at the bottom you will find the ‘Delete Rejected Photos’ option. Poof all rejected photos disappear in a single go. You can also use the shortcut key Command or Cntrl + \
With the worst of the photos gone off to the Recycle Bin and the rest more or less organized into sets of worthiness for editing, I can proceed to choose what images I want to start editing quickly and easily by filtering on attribute star ratings to find the best of the best immediately.
After the work is done – Archive Directory Structure
As I mentioned previously, all of my photos start and end in Lightroom. While a few never get out of Lightroom, only needing a simple edit well within the scope of what Lightroom can do, many these days go all the way through Photoshop for detailed and selective editing. Photoshop edits can quickly create very large files when working with many pixel containing layers, as when working with focus stacks, dual processing of RAW files in Lightroom that are then blended in Photoshop, Milky Way blends, etc. It is not uncommon for me to have completed Photoshop files that even when the file itself and layers are saved with zip lossless compression still consume multiple Gigabytes of storage. I like to keep these ‘Master’ files separate from my Lightroom catalog, more for my own organization and how I do things than anything else, but I’d like to think that it also helps keep Lightroom a little more zippy, but that’s probably a baseless assumption on my part. In Photoshop, once I’ve completed the edit, I will use the Save-As option to save the master file with all the layers to a directory structure not tracked by my main Lightroom catalog with a descriptive name of the image, on a drive that is specifically used for image archive and is routinely backed up on a daily basis. Once the master file with all of the layers is saved, I only then do I merge all layers of the image and save a final flattened TIFF file that gets added to the Lightroom catalog along side the original RAW files. It’s this flattened file that I use for export for web sharing or other social media uses.
How you choose to organize your photos for storage is very personal, and will vary greatly depending on what type(s) of photography you focus on. Someone who shoots weddings or portraits may have very different needs for organization than a Landscape photographer. It comes down to how you can easily locate and segregate images for later use. My top level image archive folder is on a 4TB drive that I use strictly for image storage and is named to match the Lightroom catalog file. This way I know ‘Photo Archive 2016’ goes with the Lightroom catalog ‘2016’ (the last time I started a new catalog.) Under the root I have folders for each primary type of photography or event type. One for transportation photography, one for portrait shoots, local parts and nature, and one for big photographic trips. Below that level I have a higher level granularity of folder for specific shoots, locations, etc. My goal with the structure is to be able to drill down through the archive folders to find the image(s) I’m looking for if I want to edit additional images that were never worked on or find an image to be sized and prepped for a custom print order.
- Pictures2016 – top level of the Archive directory
- Airshows, Events, Parks&Nature, PhotoTrips – major category level of organization. If it was a day trip to a state park, I’ll put it under Parks&Nature, if it was a week in Death Valley I file it under PhotoTrips.
- 16_02_BVI, 17_03_TexasRoadtrip – these are individual trip folders so that all images from a trip are organized together. I prefix the folder with year/month so they are sorted chronologically.
- For large trips, I save more than I edit, for those I often create a folder of ‘non-edits’ that group up images that were good enough to hold on to, but hadn’t been touched yet. I’ll also create folders for other large groups of image that need to be groupped up such as star-trails, panos, etc.
Collections – Sets of images within your catalog
Another powerful tool within Lightroom’s Library module for organizing and finding your images are Collections. If your folder structure is the physical location of each image file on your computer’s hard drive, collections are shortcuts to those photos within the catalog. Collections can be automatically maintained based on meta data or attributes (all images with 5 stars, or all images edited (in Lightroom) in the last month), or collections of images that you specifically choose.
I have colleagues and friends who use their collections far more than I do, and it’s probably an area of my organization that I really should take a longer harder look at improving. I have a collection that is a shortcut to all of the TIFF files (completed edits from Photoshop), ones that were recently edited, and a couple for various events or working sets that I needed to group up from multiple folders but didn’t want to actually copy or move the images into a new location. It also points out how infrequently I use the keywording feature of Lightroom to me every time I expand the Smart Collections folder.
Safeguarding from failures and mistakes
No discussion about organization would be complete without a few words about physical storage and backup. My primary storage hard drive is a 4TB NAS grade hard drive, which is engineered and tested to higher standards than normal consumer grade hard drives. This is the first level of protection against data loss. It is well worth it to me to spend a little extra on a better grade drive. I also keep all my programs, both the operating system and all other software off this drive. If anything happens to the operating system or a program that requires me to rebuild the system I can pull the data cable off the storage drive and ensure nothing I do while preparing the other drives for a new operating system will accidentally wipe the data storage drive. Once everything is back in place I can reconnect the data cable and it’s back where it was completely untouched during the reload.
The second level of protection is a local external backup drive. I have several drives these days, mainly because I backup with multiple backup software applications and external drives are cheap. I use both Code42’s CrashPlan for a local and cloud backup that is a continuous encrypted backup, as well as Memeo Backup Premium for local backup – I will note that I’ve had problems with Memeo lately not picking up new or changed files, which is point as to never have one single point of failure for anything. Between the two software options, I maintain multiple backups of everything from my Lightroom catalog (and their backups), the Temp folder, Master edit Photoshop folders, and Archive folders. Having both continuous and periodic backups are also a great idea for folders that contain files that you might actually modify more than once, such as my master photoshop folders. I have a backup plan on that which only updates once per day. So if I accidentally save over a previous version that I didn’t intend to, as long as I realize it, I can go grab the backup and restore it.
Speaking of Lightroom catalogs, in addition to the real-time backup of the current file, I have Lightroom prompt me for weekly backups of this file. I keep 5 or 6 of these files on the local drive, with a mirror stored away on the external drives as well. The lightroom catalog file is the only thing I have ever had issues with **knock on wood**, so ensuring I have multiple sources of recovery for this file with all of its information about my photos is crucial.
An overlooked advantage of external hard drives, especially for those of us who live in areas with electrical storms on a very regular basis is that its a lot easier to completely unplug these external drives from anything and everything hooked into the electrical grid of the house or office. My computer is hooked to the wall in at least 3 different ways, network cable, power cable, and through peripherals which are in turn plugged into the wall. With rapidly approaching storms, or sometimes just having to work during some day-time storms, it’s a big relief to just unplug a single USB cable that all of my backup drives run through, and a single surge protector from the wall to completely physically isolate all of my backup drives from potential surges.
The most important thing is to have a process before you need a process. Waiting until you accidentally delete files from an SD card before you import them, or after your working files are mixed in with your finished edits, or worse yet spread across multiple drives and folders with no sense of organization. Aiding in this organization is probably Lightroom’s greatest functionality. I encourage you to take a closer look at what Lightroom can do for you in terms of your organizational process, allowing you to spend more time taking the photos and editing them to perfection.