One of the questions I'm asked regularly by readers is how to use Lightroom Collections to organize your photos.
This is something everybody struggles with at first when they are new to Lightroom. It takes time to work out the best way to use Collections and Collections Sets. Plus, everybody is different, and Lightroom is very flexible, so there is no one best way to use Collections. Just the way that works best for you.
Let's look at some of the options.
Collections vs. folders
The reason why you should use Lightroom Collections to organize your photos becomes clear once we look at the differences between the Collections and Folders panels.
The Folders panel tells you where the photos in your Catalog have been saved. It lists every hard drive from which you have imported photos, plus any synchronized mobile devices.
The small rectangle next to each hard drive is colored gray if the hard drive isn’t connected to the computer, and green if it is.
The folders on each hard drive are also listed (click the gray arrow on the right to show them).
- The Folders panel only shows folders containing photos that you have imported into the Lightroom Catalog.
- It doesn’t show you any other folders.
- You can’t use it for browsing photos that haven’t been imported into Lightroom.
The Folders panel is only available in the Library module. Every other module only shows you the Collections panel. This is a strong hint from Adobe that Collections are its recommended way for organizing photos.
Folders are limited. Without making copies you can only save a photo in one folder.
This falls down as an organizational system almost right away. Let’s say you visited New York City in July 2016 and took some photos that included some street portraits, some landscapes taken in Central Park and a few portraits of your friend John. You then saved those photos in a folder called New York July 2016.
You can’t add those photos to other folders without making copies.
But Collections give you a lot more flexibility.
Using the above example, you could create a Collection called John, another called Central Park and another called New York street portraits and add the appropriate images to each one.
You could create more Collections, perhaps with names like New York 2016, Portraits 2016, Favorite Photos 2016 and so on, and add some of those photos to these Collections as well.
Collections are powerful because you can add the same photo to as many Collections as you want. This gives you near infinite choice when it comes to organizing your images.
For example, whenever I write a new article I create a Collection to contain the photos that I’m going to illustrate it with.
Whenever I write a book I create Collections to contain the photos I want to use in the book.
I have a Collection that only contains photos I am going to upload to Instagram.
Each year I create a Collection containing my favorite ten photos from that year.
Commercial photographers use Collections to organize their images according to job or client.
Wedding photographers use Collections to organize the photos they are preparing for their clients.
Collections are only limited by your imagination!
Setting up a Lightroom Collections structure that makes sense
Here’s the simple three level Collection structure that I use to organize my images.
Level 1: I create a new Collection Set for every year.
Level 2: Within that Collection Set I create more Collection sets with titles based on subject matter.
Level 3: Each of those Collection Sets is divided into further Collection Sets based on shoot details.
You can easily adapt this structure to your needs. Sticking to three levels makes it easier to find the Collection you are looking for.
How to Use Lightroom Collections to Edit Photos
In this sense I am using the word edit to mean select the photos that you want to develop in Lightroom.
Imagine the following scenario. You go out for the day and take 200 photos. It is unlikely that you want to develop all the photos in Lightroom. Most photographers choose their best photos and develop those. Collections can help you do that.
I am going to show you how using some photos I took of my friend Taz.
1. Create a Collection Set with an appropriate title. In this case I used Taz portraits.
2. Create three Collections within that Collection Set. Name one Full selection and make it the Target Collection. Call another one Picks and the third Selects.
3. Add the photos for the project to the Full selection Collection. It should look something like this.
Now it’s time to sort out those photos. This is how you do it.
1. Go to the Full selection Collection, go to Edit > Select All and then press the U key to remove any flags. This ensures that all the photos in the Collection are unflagged.
2. With all the images selected, go to Library > Previews > Build 1:1 Previews. Lightroom will create 1:1 previews for any photos that don’t already have them. You can skip this step if you have already created them.
Note: If there are a lot of photos in the Collection you might find it easier to select Build Standard-Sized Previews. It will be quicker to create the previews as they are smaller, but slower to zoom into any of the photos as Lightroom will have to create a 1:1 preview when you do so. You could also select Build Smart Previews which has the added benefit of making the Develop module run faster (read The Ultimate Guide to Using Smart Previews in Lightroom for more details).
3. Go to the Photo menu and, if it is unticked, tick the Auto Advance option.
4. Click on the first photo in the Collection and press the F key. If you have Lightroom 5, 6 or CC, it goes straight to full-screen mode. If you have an earlier version of Lightroom, use this process:
Press E to go to Loupe View
Press F to enter Full Screen
Press Shift+Tab to hide side panels
Press T to hide the Toolbar
5. Make your first run through the photos. Hit the P key to flag photos you like. If Auto Advance is ticked, Lightroom automatically displays the next photo. If you don’t want to flag a photo press the right-arrow key to move to the next one.
6. Go to the Filter Bar (press the \ key if you don’t see it) and select Flagged from the drop-down menu on the right. Now you can only see the photos that you have flagged as a Pick. Lightroom hides the others.
7. Right-click on the Picks Collection and choose Set as Target Collection.
8. Go to Edit > Select All, then press the B keyboard shortcut. Lightroom adds all the selected photos to the Picks Collection. As you can see, I reduced my initial selection of 177 photos down to 65.
9. Go to the Picks Collection, then Edit > Select All and press U again to remove the flags.
10. Repeat the process, this time much more carefully, making sure you only flag the photos that you want to end up in the final edit. When you have done so, repeat the process above to add the flagged photos to the Selects Collection.
You can go to the Selects Collection, look through it and remove any photos (press B again) that you feel don’t belong there. The idea is to edit the selection down to the strongest photos.
I ended up with 35 photos in my Selects folder.
This method might seem complicated when you read the instructions but is easy to put into practice. It only takes a few seconds to create the Collections you need and then it’s just a matter of selecting the ones you want to Develop.
This is the easiest way I’ve found to do this. I found it on Scott Kelby’s blog (follow the link to read the article). It’s much easier than using star ratings or color labels.
For another perspective, read Lightroom Organization in 3 Simple Steps by photographer Viktor Elizarov.
The point is that you don’t need to be incredibly clever when it comes to Collections. Read up on what other photographers do and use their techniques.
Better still, adapt them to suit your requirements. In the above example, if you only have a few photos to sort through, you won’t need three folders. Two will do.
Or if you end up with too many photos in your Selects folder create another one called something like Final Selects and narrow them down again.
You can create more Collections within the same Collection Set for almost any purpose you can imagine. Do you want to add some photos to a website? Create a Collection called Website. Add some to Facebook? Create a Collection called Facebook. Want to email the photos to John? Create a Collection called For John. Get the idea? It’s a really easy way to keep your images organized.
Hopefully you now understand that Lightroom Collections are a powerful and versatile tool for organizing and sorting out your photos. If you have any questions about this, or would like to share how you use Collections to organize your photos, then please let us know in the comments.
Introducing Lightroom Classic free email course
Learn more about Lightroom Classic by signing up to our Introducing Lightroom Classic free email course. We’ll send you five lessons by email to get you started in your Lightroom Classic journey.
Mastering Lightroom Classic: The Library Module
Our new ebook Mastering Lightroom Classic: The Library Module is available now. This massive 283 page ebook is the ultimate guide to Lightroom’s Library module. It covers everything you need to know, from import to export to organizing and searching your photos.