Soon after getting my first DSLR camera, it became apparent that I needed a software program to keep track of my photos, as well as to convert RAW files into jpegs, and make basic edits. After researching various options, I settled on using Adobe's Lightroom and started learning how to use it with the help of Scott Kelby's books.
Around the same time, I was given a copy of Stacy Julian's book, Photo Freedom, and I loved so many of her ideas for dealing with all of the "stuff" associated with scrapbooking - especially her approach to managing photos. The one thing that held me back from completely embracing her system was the idea of printing so many photos. For one thing, I have thousands and thousands of photos and for another, when I do print a photo I usually print it in a custom size rather than 4x6... I just didn't see myself printing all those photos and using the storage binders and category drawers.
The more I learned about Lightroom, the more the idea of implementing a version of Stacy's Library of Memories made sense. So far, this has worked out really well... better than I had hoped... and I *finally* feel as though I have a handle on my photos and a plan for getting them all sorted, labeled, organized, and - most importantly - backed up! This is an ongoing process and one that I enjoy working on when I can grab a few minutes here and there.
One of the things that has made this work so well for me is that I now have ALL of my photos in one place and in the same format. I used to have so many film and digital photos, not to mention hundreds and hundreds of slides, that it took me forever to find the photo I was looking for. When I heard that Costco had a service where they would scan your film negatives and slides into high res digital images, I decided to give it a try. I was a bit impulsive - just grabbed my two shopping bags full of negatives and ran out the door - but I was rewarded several days later by a box full of CDs and thousands of "new" digital photos. There are more details in a blog post I wrote on that experience here.
I LOVE having such easy access to my older photos! Well worth the few hundred dollars it cost. This is one of the things that has helped me to make many of the unexpected photo connections that Stacy talks about in her book - with all of them in one place it's easier to stumble across those relationships between photos and stories you want to tell in your scrapbooks.
Another benefit of having all my photos in one format is that I have everything backed up together. (Although I still need to figure out a good solution for off-site backups... does anyone have a system they can recommend for that?)
Lightroom (LR) is a very sophisticated software program that has modules for organizing, editing, and printing photos, as well as modules for creating slideshows and publishing pictures to the web. There are dozens of books and online courses available and I highly recommend investing the time and money in one of them if you want to make the most of the software.
Most of the LR books and articles I have found seem to be geared to the professional photographer that is looking to organize photos from various shoots to sell to clients. That is very different from the way an amateur photographer or scrapbooker might want to organize photos. The system that I have created for organizing my photos is the focus of this blog post. I hope that you can benefit from some of the early mistakes I made and things I have learned to develop an approach that works for you and your photos.
Lightroom is a tool for managing your photos - it keeps track of where they are and which edits you have made - but your photos aren't physically stored inside of LR. Think of your photos as books on the shelves of a library. Lightroom is the card catalog that keeps track of information about each photo, including where it is stored physically. As you add more photos to your library for LR to manage (by importing them into LR), you are building the card catalog.
You probably already have lots of photos on your computer or external hard drive. You might even have photos stored on CDs or DVDs or memory cards or flash drives. You'll notice the first time you enter LR that it is "empty". Unlike Picasa or other programs that search your computer for pictures and automatically populate themselves, you need to tell Lightroom where to find your photos. This is done through the Import function and I have found that it is really helpful to control this process as it gives you a chance to sort and label at your own pace, rather than being overwhelmed by thousands of photos at once.
Once you import a photo into Lightroom it is now "managing" that photo... so if you want to do something to that photo - rename it, move it, delete it, etc. - only do so from within Lightroom. Sounds like it would be more limiting or difficult, but it will actually make things so much easier... trust me... I learned this one the hard way :)
The first thing you will need to decide is how many catalogs you want to start with. A catalog contains all of the photos that you would ever conceivably want to group together in order to perform functions such as "search by keyword". For most of us, that means that we want ONE primary catalog that contains all of our photos. That way when you start trying to make the connections between photos that Stacy describes in her book, all the photos are in one place and it makes searching much easier.
Why would you ever want more than one catalog? well, if you started to notice performance issues from LR managing too many photos in one catalog, you might want to split your photos into two or more catalogs. I have read about people having trouble with this, but I haven't experienced it myself and I have more than 50,000 photos in one of my catalogs. If you are working with photos for a particular project - say a school yearbook, or you are creating a scrapbook for someone and using their photos - you might also find it easier to place those in a separate catalog.
I have a second catalog that I use exclusively for design work. I often have to submit photographs of my work to various publications and manufacturers and I decided that it made much more sense to have those images entirely separate from my "real life" photos. With my old system I would come across a batch of 20 photos of a paper craft mixed in with holiday photos... if I searched on "Christmas" I would not only come up with photos from family celebrations, but also dozens of cards and scrapbook layouts... now with two separate catalogs when I search on "Christmas" I get only the relevant photos.
For the purpose of this blog post, I'm only going to talk about my main photo catalog, not my design catalog. If you have questions about how I have structured things in my design catalog, please send me an email and I'd be happy to give you more details.
Folders vs Collections
Folders in Lightroom are the actual folders on your computer or external hard drive where the photos are stored. Collections are like virtual folders that exist within LR. A photo can belong to multiple collections and a collection can have multiple sub-collections (this will make more sense when I show you how I've set up my collections). To compare this with Stacy's approach, think of folders as your storage binders and collections as the category drawers.
For the purpose of categorizing photos in regards to Lightroom, my photos fall into one of three groups:
- photos that I haven't yet imported into LR
- photos that are currently being managed by LR
- photos that I have exported from LR
I'll talk about these three categories separately and describe the folders I have associated with each.
Photos that I haven't yet imported into LR
You will start building your LR catalog by importing photos from wherever they are stored - your computer, external hard drives, etc. I recommend moving all these photos into a central location to make it easier to keep track of your progress as you import them into Lightroom. This will be especially helpful if, like me, you are starting with thousands of pictures scattered all across your computer and external drives. As you import each photo or batch of photos, you will have the opportunity to add keywords and other information.
To complicate matters a bit - when I decided to start using LR I was also in the process of switching from a PC to a Mac... so I created a folder called "Photos from PC" and moved all the folders of photos that I had stored on my computer underneath this main folder. You could set up a folder called "Photos to be imported" or similar. The main idea is that all of the photos you want to import into LR live here.
If you are importing photos from CDs or memory cards or the like, it is probably going to be easiest to process them one at a time and then make a note of the ones that have been put into LR and which still need to be imported. Depending on the number of photos you have, this will take some time and if you create a process that you can work on a little here and there, you can chip away at the task and not feel overwhelmed. When I was uploading the CDs I got from Costco, I kept an "in" and "out" basket where I could grab a CD from the "in" basket, import it into LR, and then pop it into the "out" basket.
Photos that are currently being managed by LR
When you import photos into LR you have the option to physically move the photo to a new location or leave it where it is - I highly recommend that you choose the "move photo to new location" option. This gives you the opportunity to organize the photos coming into LR in the way that makes the most sense to you, as well as being an easy way to see which photos have been imported into LR and which are still waiting to be imported.
Going back to the library analogy, imagine you have boxes of books sitting on the floor waiting to be put away on the appropriate shelves... the boxes are the folders you created in the previous step ("Photos to be imported"), once you add the book to the catalog you would want to put it on the shelf where it will be easy to find, rather than tossing it back into the box.
I created a main folder called "Lightroom Photos" and then underneath that folder I have a separate folder for each year or group of years that relate to my photos. For example, I have one folder that is "1900-1963" which contains some of the earliest photos I have; one labeled "1963-1984" which contains some childhood photos of my husband and myself; "1984-88" which holds college photos, and then one folder per year thereafter. It is critical that all these folders reside under one main folder (in my case "Lightroom Photos") so that it will be easy to move your photos down the road when you change computers, move to an external hard drive, etc. You can watch a more detailed video explanation of that here. (Note: the video actually shows you an earlier version of LR, however, the concept of setting up the folder structure is what is important and I think he does a great job explaining it)
Depending on the number of photos you take each year, you may or may not decide to have sub-categories under the year. The idea with LR is that you will be searching for photos by keywords or other metadata and within collections, so you don't need to maintain a detailed folder structure. Since it's taking me quite some time to set up all the keywords, etc. I have one additional layer of folders within each year that has a brief description of the photos contained in the folder (this is how I had my photos stored prior to using LR and I figured it wouldn't hurt to keep that level of detail). For example, my 2011 folder looks like this:
Remember, these are just the folders where the photos are physically stored - the real power of using Lightroom comes from adding keywords and creating collections - so don't get hung up on creating elaborate folder structures at this point. If I didn't take so many photos each year, then I would probably just have one folder for each year and leave it at that.
Photos that I have exported from LR
The majority of things you want to do with your photo can be done from within Lightroom; however, there might be some occasions when you need to export a version of your photo from Lightroom. For example, you decide to send some photos to an outside printer, or to send via email, or post to your blog. What you are doing in this case is creating a copy of your photo to be used outside of LR - however the original photo is still being managed by LR (sounds confusing, I know...)
You may decide that you don't want to keep a copy of the exported photo, so once you have exported the photo, you could then delete that version of the photo and know that LR is still managing the original.
In my case, I've found that sometimes I need to use that exported photo more than once and for me, it made sense to set up folders to store those copies. My folder structure for exported photos is very similar to the structure I've set up to hold my collections. The top level folder is called "Lightroom Photo Exports" and under that I have folders for "Family", "Friends", "Fun Things We Do", "Holidays & Seasons", "Home & Garden", and "Travel" (I'll go into more detail about those categories when I talk about the collections I have set up.)
This is where the correlations with Stacy's Library of Memories system really start to take shape. In fact, I think that using Lightroom's collections are even better than the category drawer approach because you don't have to choose which category to put your photo into... a single LR photo can belong to as many collections and sub-collections as you like... this really gives you control over your photo library and the ability to scrapbook photos in ways that make the most sense to you... the same photo might wind up being part of a chronological scrapbook, a theme scrapbook, a mini album, a home decor wall collage, and a thank you card... the options are limitless because you won't lose track of the photo after it's been used once, in the way that you might when using a printed copy.
Using LR's various options for rating, keywording, and commenting, you can even keep track of exactly what you have used a photo for - whether it's already been scrapbooked, or blogged, or sent to a printer... this is a very powerful organizing tool!
Note that all of my photos do not make it into a collection... I only create collections from my favorite photos from an event or topic. Ideally these are the photos that I might choose to scrapbook or create with someday. You might then ask why I bother to keep the other (less favorite) photos if I'm not going to use them... the answer is, I'm not really sure... but I'm not quite ready to hit the delete button on them just yet either.
I used many of the concepts from Stacy's approach to decide on the initial collections I created. These were created as "Collection Sets" so that I could create sub-collections underneath each... some of my sub-collections are also actually collections sets with further sub-collections below them. There is no limit on the number of collections you can create (Well, I'm guessing there probably is some kind of limit... I mean, I doubt you could create a million collections ☺ ... but I haven't heard of an official number).
These are my main collection sets:
I'll explain a bit more about how I have each one broken out...
This is a collection I created last year to hold photos that I wanted to use on CD calendars that I made for family members as gifts. I have sub-collections for each family member underneath the Calendar main collection.
Under the Family collection set I have one collection set for each person in our family, plus one for "Family Pets", "Just Us" (photos of the five of us, plus a sub-category for "Brothers"), "Wedding" (pics from our wedding), "Cousins" (my nieces and nephew), as well as sets for each of our extended families.
I have a collection for some of our long-time family friends. Photos of my kid's friends are stored under their collection within the Family set.
Fun Things We Do
This collection set holds collections of photos that don't quite fit in other categories (such as holidays or travel). Things like going to the circus, concerts, sporting events, etc.
Holidays & Seasons
I thought a picture might be easier here...
Each of these sub-categories are also collections sets. Within each set are separate collections for each year. The fun part is that when you click on a collection set, you see all the photos contained in the sub-collections - it's a great way to see photos from the same occasion over multiple years and a fun way to make connections between the photos and get ideas for scrapbooking.
Home & Garden
I have a set for each place we have lived as well as one for the garden and one for recipes.
This is something that LR sets up automatically. You can also set up Smart Collections of your own where photos will automatically be added to a collection if they meet certain criteria.
We have collection sets for each trip we have taken as well as some for our favorite places that we tend to visit often - such as Maine, Cape Cod, and Vermont. For some of our larger trips I have sub-collections and collection sets. For example, this is one I set up to hold photos from a trip to Disney World:
I hope you can see from these examples that the collection feature in LR is very flexible and gives you the power to organize your photos in the way that work best for you. You can easily add, edit, or delete collections too as your needs change over time.
Keywords and Metadata
The last thing I want to touch on briefly is the incredible keywording capabilities in Lightroom and how this is another tool which allows you to make great connections between your photos. There are lots of options for adding keywords to your photos - and several tools which make it easy to add keywords to batches of photos at the same time - I'm not going to cover that here as there are many great online resources that describe it much better than I ever could.
I want to point out that while not every photo that I keep is put into a collection, I do try to make sure each photo has at least one - and usually a lot more - keywords. I have found that for scrapbooking and connecting photos that the more keywords you use, the better.
I also have created a keyword for each member of my family that turns up in photos frequently. It does take longer to set up initially, but I have found that it works really well when I am trying to locate photos I want. So, for example, if I have a photo with each of my three boys in it, it will get the keywords "James", "Stephen", and "Jack", along with whatever other words make sense. This makes locating photos so much easier and faster when you are looking for a particular subject.
You can also use your photo's metadata as a search criteria. For example, maybe you want a quick way of locating all of the photos you have taken on a particular date (such as a birthday or anniversary)... you simply enter the date in the search field and (viola...) there they appear. Then you can add new criteria to help you narrow the results further.
Questions and Answers
I hope this has helped answer some of the questions you might have about using Lightroom for photo organization. I never imagined the post would get this long when I started.. hope I haven't rambled on too much!
If you have other questions about the system I'm using, I would be happy to do my best to answer them - please post in the comments section and I will reply there as well. I'm hoping that this post can become a resource where we share ideas and suggestions for getting the most out of this tool. Although I've been using Lightroom for a few years now, I still feel like there is so much more that I can learn and features I'm not taking advantage of. I look forward to hearing your ideas and learning from each other!