This is an update to the existing “How to Organize Pictures in Lightroom 2” article that I wrote a while ago for beginner-photographers who are getting started in Lightroom and are looking for a good way to organize their photos and photo catalogs. If you are looking for a generic guide on how to organize pictures without any third party photo software like Lightroom, then please read my “how to organize pictures” article instead. If you do not currently own a copy of Lightroom, I highly recommend purchasing one from B&H or other resellers.
Lightroom 3 has certainly become a very essential part of my workflow. I cannot imagine managing my photo catalog without Lightroom and I use it every day for my Photography needs. In fact, 95-98% of my post-processing work is done in Lightroom and I rarely use Adobe Photoshop for photo editing, which not only simplifies my workflow, but also decreases the amount of time I spend on post-processing. The below process of folder structures and organization within Lightroom 3 is my personal way of storing pictures and working with them for my home and professional use.
1) Where do you store your pictures and how?
The first question is, where and how do you currently store your pictures? I used to store all of my photographs in various subfolders of my hard drive (commonly in “My Pictures” or “My Documents”), but after I got into photography, I decided that it is best to keep all of my photographs in the root folder of my PC’s hard drive that I use solely for storing photos and small family videos. Hard drives are dirt cheap nowadays and you can snatch an external 2 Terabyte drive for under $150. I highly recommend getting a fault-redundant external drive like the Western Digital Studio Edition II though (two hard drives in RAID 1 Mirror configuration). If you shoot RAW like me and have a lot of photographs, the best and the most inexpensive solution that I know of is “Drobo“, which allows you to use up to five 2 TB drives together in a fault-tolerant configuration, allowing a single drive failure. If a drive fails, the system continues to run, but prompts you to replace the faulted drive as soon as possible. Once you replace the drive, the system goes back to regular operational mode.
2) Folder structure and organization
Now that you have figured out where you will be storing your pictures, it is time to figure out what your folder structure will be. There are many ways to do this and everyone does it differently. I will show you what works for me and will leave it up to you to decide whether you want to adopt it or create your own. Here is my current structure:
In the root of my hard drive, I have one folder called “Photos”, where I store all of my pictures. Inside “Photos”, I create one folder per year. Then inside each year, I store photographs by events. For example, Omar’s birthday in 2008 is stored in “Photos2008Omar’s Birthday”, while our trip to Denver Zoo in 2009 is stored in “Photos2009Denver Zoo”. If you shoot professionally, you might want to have two separate folders under “Photos” – one for your personal pictures and one for your professional work. In that case, simply add another level of folders underneath “Photos” and your structure would look like “PhotosPersonal2008My Event” or “PhotosProfessional2008My Event”.
Go ahead and create the first top level folder “Photos” and if you want to separate your personal and professional work, also create the two folders underneath. Do NOT create any more folders underneath and do NOT move or add any photos yet.
3) Create a new Lightroom catalog
Once you define and create your initial structure, it is now time to create a Lightroom catalog. Start off with a new Lightroom catalog by going to File->New Catalog. For performance reasons, I prefer to store my catalog along with image previews in my primary “C:” drive while storing the pictures on an external dedicated volume, but you might want to keep it all in the same drive for simplicity purpose. If you have under 10,000 pictures, you can store them all in a single catalog without much impact on Lightroom performance. If you have over 10,000 pictures, then I recommend creating one Lightroom catalog per year. Just create one folder in the root folder called “Lightroom” and store all of your catalogs there.
4) Modify Lightroom Preferences
For every new catalog I create, I slightly modify the default settings to fit my needs. Although you can do this later, it is probably best to do it in the beginning, as you might forget to take care of it later. The first thing I make sure is set up right (you only need to do it once) is Lightroom Preferences. Go to Edit->Preferences and under the “General” tab, set similar settings as shown below:
There are two settings that I changed here. I modified “Default Catalog” option where I set it to “Prompt me when starting Lightroom” – this basically makes Lightroom prompt which catalog I want to load up when I start up Lightroom, which is convenient if you use multiple catalogs. If you only have a single catalog, there is no need to change the default setting. The second option is “Show import dialog when a memory card is detected”, which simply tells Lightroom to automatically fire up the import screen when you insert your memory card.
The next tab is “Presets”, where I typically leave everything by default. The only thing that is worth mentioning on this page is the “Location” where you can check or uncheck “Store Presets with Catalog”. Lightroom allows storing your user presets (such as default import settings, file naming convention, copyright information, etc.) either in a general folder that is used for all of your catalogs, or in each of your Lightroom catalogs where you can set different presets depending on the catalog. I personally use one preset for all of my Lightroom catalogs and recommend leaving this option unchecked as seen below.
The next tab called “External Editing” allows you to specify the default File Format and Color Space for use in external applications such as Adobe Photoshop. If you use RAW format for your images, you should always edit images in Photoshop with the best format that preserves all image details and the color space that uses largest number of colors. I use TIFF format (default) for files and ProPhoto RGB (default) for color space for this reason. Bit Depth should obviously be 16 bits and I leave the resolution at 240 (default), with ZIP as the compression method:
Let’s now move to the “File Handling” tab. This particular tab is very important, because it controls the way your pictures are imported into the catalog. Here is how I have my File Handling tab set:
Pay attention to the “Import DNG Creation” settings on this page. I set “File Extension” to “DNG”, “Compatibility” to the latest Camera Raw version available, “JPEG Preview” to “Medium Size” and left “Embed Original Raw File” unchecked. The important settings here are “JPEG Preview” and “Embed Original Raw File” that control the total size of your DNG files (read more about the DNG format here). By default, every RAW image contains a full size JPEG image inside that is stored as a “Preview” (the “Preview” image is what you see on the back of your camera when you take a picture). By setting the “JPEG Preview” option to “Medium Size”, you are telling Lightroom to generate a smaller version of a preview inside DNG files, which will save you up to 15-20% of space per file. While you might think that it is not such a big deal, it does a make a huge difference when you have tens of thousands of pictures. The only penalty is the fact that the image opens slightly slower when you try to open a full version of it in Lightroom later, simply because it has to generate a full size version from the RAW image. The checkbox “Embed Original Raw File” is something I would always recommend to leave unchecked, because if you check it, your DNG files will actually be much larger than the original RAW file, which is not something you want to do.
The last “Interface” tab should be left at its default settings.
5) Modify Lightroom Catalog Settings
The next thing we need to modify, is your Lightroom Catalog Settings. You will have to do this once for each of the catalogs that you create. Go to Edit->Catalog Settings to bring up the “Catalog Settings” window. I leave everything to default values in “General” and “File Handling” tabs. The most important tab for me is the “Metadata” tab, where I can specify what data is written into my images by Lightroom:
The first two options “Offer suggestions from recently entered values” and “Include Develop settings in metadata inside JPEG, TIFF, and PSD files” are checked by default and I do not touch them. The last option “Automatically write changes into XMP” is unchecked by default. This is the one I highly recommend to turn on, because it makes Lightroom write your changes right into the DNG files (or XMP sidecar files that go with your RAW files) as you work on them. Why is it important? Because if your Lightroom catalog was to fail and you lost all of your catalog data, the image file would keep all of your changes that you’ve made in Lightroom! It is also very useful if you happen to open that same file in Photoshop or other Adobe applications, because all changes will be immediately visible as you work on the file. Another plus of leaving this option checked, is that Adobe does not provide an upgrade path from one version of Lightroom to another. Therefore, if you were to upgrade from Lightroom 3 to Lightroom 4 when it is available, you could do so with ease and not worry about re-processing every single image again.
Some photographers say that it creates unnecessary overhead and that you could manually write this metadata to files when needed. But why bother? I leave this option on and I never have to worry about going back and manually updating anything…
6) Import your photos into the Lightroom catalog
Your preferences and catalogs settings have now been modified. Let’s start importing your pictures! Fire up the photo import catalog by going to “File”->”Import Photos…” or press CTRL+SHIFT+I on your keyboard. Once the import screen comes up, it will look like the following:
The entire import screen is organized very similarly to Lightroom 3 itself, the left side being the location where you will be grabbing the files from, while the right side serves as the destination side, along with import settings. The middle section shows all images to be imported. The “From” section has been redesigned completely, with Lightroom being able to differentiate between permanent storage and your device or card reader. The nice thing is, the import screen is dynamic, meaning whatever changes happen in the system, the screen gets updated in real time. For example, if you open the import screen and then disconnect your camera from the PC, the device will simply disappear from the screen. Reconnecting the camera will add the device back into the screen.
Since I use DNG format, I always leave “Copy as DNG” selected in the top middle section.
The right import menu consists of several sections: File Handling, File Renaming, Apply During Import and Destination. Let’s take a look at the first two sections – File Handling and File Renaming:
6.1) File Handling Section
The File Handling section consists of three choices – “Render Previews”, “Don’t Import Suspected Duplicates” and “Make a Second Copy To”. I leave the render previews on “Minimal” to save time and leave both fields checked, with the backup location being my external drive that I use for storing backups. As you can see from the above screenshot, my photo backup folder is located in “G:Photos_BackupImports”. When the “Make a Second Copy” field is checked, the system will copy files into two separate locations, which means that the files will be duplicated for backup purposes in multiple locations.
6.2) File Renaming Section
The File Renaming section consists of variables that are used for renaming you files. I always rename my files to the following format: “YYYYMMDD-Custom Text-Sequence Number.DNG”. The first part is the file date, for example “20100916″, which stands for September 16, 2010. Then a dash is followed with a custom text that I type during each import, which is then followed by an incremented sequence number. I like renaming my photos, because I do not like to keep photo names like “DSC_1000.DNG” that mean nothing and get duplicated over time. By renaming the photos, I know that I could simply take all images from all folders and put them all into a single folder without running into duplicate file names. I highly recommend taking the same or a similar approach and uniquely identify every image you import.
If you have not already created a rename template, take a look at the following:
Create a similar template, then save it as a Preset and click “Done”. Then simply select your preset under the “Template” dropdown.
The next field under “File Renaming” is Custom Text – the text you can type to identify images. For this example, I used “Botanic Gardens” as custom text, which means that my first file will be named like “20100916-Botanic Gardens-001.DNG”. The “Start Number” field lets you type the first number that the system will use, so if you type “500″, your first file name will have a sequence number of 500 and all consecutive numbers will be incremented by one. This is very useful during multiple imports into the same folder structure – I simply look at the total number of photographs in my memory card and put the number in that field. I always leave the extension in Uppercase.
6.3) Apply During Import Section
This section is another important one, since it lets you choose an import preset with your Lightroom settings, write Metadata and Keywords into each image as it gets imported. I have already made some changes to the way I import files and being able to choose what you want before the import process starts is a great idea, because it saves tons of time for me during the image editing process. Once you make changes to an image and save the preset, it will immediately show up on this screen.
The next field is called “Metadata” and it is used for writing additional data into each imported file. For example, if I wanted to include my copyright text in every image (do not confuse this with a watermark), I would need to create a new Metadata preset and make some changes:
I wouldn’t waste time by filling out every single field and only pay closer attention to IPTC Copyright and IPTC Creator fields, where you can provide your name and contact information.
The last field is Keywords and I always type two keywords on every import – the year when the image was taken and the name of the event (for sorting purposes). For example, for the above example I used “2010, Botanic Gardens”, which adds these keywords to each file and Lightroom database.
6.4) Destination Section
The last section identifies the location of where the import process will store files. The first field is called “Into Subfolder”, which I always leave checked, since I do want Lightroom to create subfolders for me. The next field is a drop-down with two options: Organize by Date and Organize Into one Folder. If you select “Organize by Date”, you will get an additional field called “Date Format”, where you can specify the format of the subfolders that will be created by Lightroom. Since I already have a folder for each year and my file names already contain the full date, I do not feel the need to create subfolders for year, month and day. Instead, I like to keep everything simple and organized, instead of having many different subfolders in the system. Therefore, I always choose “Organize Into one Folder” and then type the name of the subfolder:
Since I store all of my images in a master folder called “Photos” and then subfolders by year, I simply select the year under “Photos”, as shown below:
As you can see, the system is set to create a folder under “D:Photos2010″ called “Botanic Gardens”, where I store all images related to Botanic Gardens. If I pay another visit to Botanic Gardens, I will choose the same folder and the system will create files with a different date, so I won’t ever run into any problems with duplicate file names.
I always sort my import images by “Capture Time” under “Sort” drop-down. Once you choose the destination folder, simply click the “Import” button to start importing your images. The import window will go away and you will start seeing the images popping up in your Lightroom catalog.
7) Post-import check
Now that you know how to import your images with custom templates, go ahead and import all of your pictures into Lightroom and make sure that everything gets transitioned correctly. Do not forget to change the folder names along with “Custom Text” and “Keywords” fields upon each new import in the “Import Photos” screen going forward. Otherwise, you will end up with a bunch of unwanted folders and incorrect file names and keywords. If you accidentally imported your pictures with wrong settings, it is not a problem. Just select the imported pictures, then change the keywords under “Keywording” section in the “Library” module, then rename the folder to the correct event name and press “F2″ or go to “Library”->”Rename Photo” to mass rename your pictures. If your pictures go out of sequence for whatever reason (for example your sequence numbers are repeated, but with a different name), then simply select all pictures and batch-rename them all by pressing “F2″ on your keyboard. Give it a new sequence number and it will start renaming them based on the age of the image or your selection criteria.
8) Perform full backup
By now, you have done a lot of work to re-organize your photographs and you have completed importing all of your pictures into Lightroom. It is definitely a good time to perform a full backup of both your Lightroom catalog and your pictures. Many people assume that the backup functionality in Lightroom backs up their photographs too. That’s a very wrong assumption! Lightroom does NOT backup your photos – it only backs up your Lightroom catalog, which is useless without your images. You can afford losing a Lightroom database, but you cannot afford losing your pictures. Therefore, you should always backup your photographs first, then worry about Lightroom.
Here is how to perform a full backup:
- Close out of Lightroom.
- Get your external backup drive ready, plug it into your computer and turn it on.
- Go to the root folder where you are keeping your photos. In my computer it is “D:Photos”. Select all yearly folders and drag and drop them into the backup drive’s “Photos_backup” folder or something similar, which should start the backup process.
- Wait until all pictures are backed up. Make sure that you do not have any errors and the copy process is completed 100% successfully.
- Now backup your Lightroom catalog. Locate the Lightroom catalog file in your hard drive (which should have an extension “lrcat”) and also copy it to the external drive.
The above process could be easily automated by special backup programs such as “Norton Ghost” or with some built-in tools within your operating system. I highly recommend to set up an automated job that backs up your computer as often as possible. I also recommend backing up your data to at least two different locations every time.
I hope this basic guide will help you to keep your pictures organized in Lightroom 3. Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below.