Have you ever struggled to find photos quickly and efficiently in Lightroom? You won’t be surprised to learn that you’re not alone and that it’s a common problem. The good news is that Lightroom’s Library module has lots of tools to help you find the photo you’re looking for fast. One of the most powerful of these is keywords. You’ll already be familiar with the basics of keywords if you use photo sharing websites like 500px or Flickr, or submit images to photo libraries or agencies. In this series of lessons we’ll take a deeper look at keywords and the various ways you can use them in Lightroom.
What is a keyword?
A keyword is a word or phrase added to a photo that helps people find that image through search. Keywords are embedded in the photo’s metadata and can be read by websites and post-processing software.
For example, if you open a photo in Photoshop and go to File > File Info and click on IPTC you will see a field called Keywords. Any keywords embedded in the metadata are displayed here.
Getting started with keywords
If you have no previous keywording experience, then I suggest that you don’t use keywords at all to start with. The reason is that you’ll get much more value from keywords if you use them consistently, in a way that’s useful for you. Time spent now working out a good keyword strategy will be rewarded later by a super-smooth keywording and searching workflow. Reading all the lessons in this series will help immensely.
Lightroom keywords vs. Collections
Before we get into the reasons why keywords can help you, let’s have a think about the main reason why photographers use keywords – to search for photos quickly and easily.
What you may not have realized is that you don’t have to use keywords for searching. An alternative is to use Collections and Collection Sets instead. It’s arguably easier to use Collections, although they do have limitations and there’s no doubt that a good keyword system will help you search your images more quickly.
Here, for example, you can see that I use Collections Sets to organize my photos by year and subject. It’s fairly easy for me to find the photos that I need as I can remember when they were taken and know where to look for them.
If you have a lot of photos in your Catalog and find the thought of adding keywords to them all daunting, then you’ll probably be better off using Collections to organize it. But I still recommend you read these lessons as you may want to gradually start using keywords as you get more comfortable with the concept.
Reasons for using keywords
Before we learn how to use keywords, let’s look at some of the reasons why photographers use keywords. Once you understand some of the benefits of using keywords you’ll be more motivated to learn to use them properly!
1. Keywords help you search your photos. Let’s say you take a lot of photos of somebody called Sarah. If you add the keyword ‘Sarah’ to every photo you’ve taken of her it’s a simple matter to search for photos of her. You can search for every photo that contains the keyword ‘Sarah’, or combine it with another search criteria. For example, you could search for all photos with the keyword ‘Sarah’ that were taken in 2017, or have a rating of five stars, or that are flagged as a Pick, or taken with a certain camera or lens – the possibilities are endless.
This screenshot shows a Filter bar search for photos containing the keyword ‘Sarah’ and that have a five star rating.
2. Keywords are vital for stock photography. In this case, it’s likely you already have a keywording system that works for the agencies or photo libraries that you submit photos to. If you add those keywords in Lightroom the software used by your photo library or agency should pick them up automatically.
3. Keywords are used by photo sharing websites like Flickr or 500px. Again, these websites pick up the keywords that you enter into Lightroom. Note this doesn’t work for Instagram, which requires you to enter hashtags separately.
This screenshot shows how 500px picks up the keywords embedded into an uploaded photo’s metadata.
4. Keywords are more likely to be recognized by other digital asset management software than Collections. None of us know what software will be available to us in the future, or whether Lightroom will be used as widely as it is now. If you ever transfer your photos to another photo library application, it should recognize your keywords as they can be added to the photo’s metadata. But it’s unlikely to be compatible with Lightroom’s Collections.
5. Keywords complement the other options in the Filter bar. You can search your photos very quickly if you have a good keyword system.
6. Keywords and Collections work together. Just about any search criteria you use in the Filter bar can also be used to create a Smart Collection. Filter bar searches are temporary – the results disappear as soon as you change the search criteria. Smart Collections are permanent (unless deleted).
This is a Smart Collection that uses the same search criteria as the Filter bar search shown above.
7. Keywords help you keep track of personal information. A good example is using external plugins to develop your photos, like those made by Nik Software, ON1 software, AlienSkin, Topaz Labs, DxO and MacPhun. If you use more than one plugin it’s easy to forget which one you used on a specific photo. You can solve that problem by adding the name of the plugin as a keyword.
8. Keywords let you add vital metadata to scanned photos. If you scan photos from slides or negatives you can add information such as the camera and lens used and the year the photo was taken (if you know them) to the photo’s metadata in keyword form.
9. Keywords help you keep track of non-electrical lenses. When you use a lens that’s designed for your camera the type of lens used is recorded in the photo’s metadata. Lightroom reads this to help you search your photos. But what if you use a lens that doesn’t have electrical contacts, such as a Lensbaby optic or an old manual focus lens with an adapter? In this case your camera doesn’t know what lens was used (or the aperture) and doesn’t add those details to the photo’s metadata. But you can add it to the photo’s keywords to enable searches.
Practical uses for Lightroom keywords
Here are a few creative ways you can use Lightroom keywords to make your life easier.
Photos of children and keywords
If you have kids, add their name as a keyword when you import photos of them. You can create a new Smart Collection for every child and every year that passes.
This is what the search criteria for a Smart Collection designed to gather all photos of somebody called John taken in 2017 looks like.
Create a yearbook with keywords
How do we preserve our photos for posterity? We spend so much time on our craft that it would be a shame if our photos ended up on hard drives and not seen by future generations or younger family members.
Prints are great, but there are only so many that you can make. I’m convinced photo books are the way forward. You can add hundreds of photos to a single book, and it’s much cheaper than making prints. You can print multiple copies and give them to family members and friends.
A simple way of keeping track of photos that you’d like to use in a yearbook is to add a keyword like ‘favorite’ or ‘book’ to candidate photos. Then it’s easy to perform a search or create a Smart Collection to find these images.
You can even use Lightroom’s Book module to create the book (as long as you use Blurb).
Create a portfolio website
Most photographers would like to create a portfolio website to show off their best photos. Every time you develop a photo that could potentially be used in your portfolio add a keyword like ‘portfolio’ or ‘website’. When the time comes it’s easy to find these keywords in a search.
Hopefully this lesson has given you some good ideas for using keywords. If you haven’t used them before it will help you decide whether they might be useful to you. Make sure you read the next lesson in the series, where you’ll learn all about keyword lists. I’m also working on a series of related articles about searching for photos in Lightroom.
Here’s a list of all Lightroom search and keyword lessons published so far.
The next steps
If you’d like to learn more about Lightroom I suggest you sign up to my Introducing Lightroom free email course (see below).
You can also click here to see all our Lightroom tutorials.
Mastering Lightroom Book One: The Library Module (2nd edition).
My ebook Mastering Lightroom Book One: The Library Module introduces Lightroom and shows you how to use the Library module to import, organize and search your images. It covers everything you need to know in depth – I even show you how to use Lightroom mobile to view your photos! Click the link to learn more.