How I Organise my Lightroom Catalogues

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Fri 16th Nov 2018

This post is quite dry, but hopefully you’ll find it useful. I go through how I structure and organise my Lightroom catalogues for both my personal work as well as the weddings I film and photograph, and how I keep on top of a huge database of photographs each year.

I have used Lightroom for photography for about six years now. I do all of my editing in Lightroom, and it’s really rare for me to bother with Photoshop. That said, if you do use Photoshop then this method will still help you as the two programmes are integrated through Adobe’s Creative Cloud. You can right click on any image in Lightroom and open it in Photoshop.

When you create a new catalogue in Lightroom you will be asked to choose a location for the associated folder. I choose to place my Lightroom catalogue files in the same folder as the image raw files themselves, as it keeps things streamlined and makes backing everything up to an external hard drive much easier.

My folder and sub-folder structure looks like this:

I place my catalogue files (the files that hold the information about the editing you do) in the root of each catalogue folder. So, my catalogues are called ‘0LR Editing’ for my personal work and 1LR Weddings for my wedding work. I like to keep things separate as I back each catalogue up to a different external hard drive, and it’s nice to keep work and my personal life separate.

A workflow for organising digital and film photographs within Lightroom

I shoot both film and digital, and so I also have separate areas for each format. When I want to archive or edit new photos I do one of two things. My film scans from the lab (or from my home scanner) go straight into the appropriate year folder under Archives FILM, and from there I edit them if needed (I don’t edit lab scans), add tags, sort out the aspect ratio if it’s ever so slightly off from 3:2, add them to the map within Lightroom and then assign a colour label (green) to show that I have processed them.

For my digital photos, I copy them off my SD or CF card straight into the two camera folders I keep under ‘Unedited SORT’. My process is then to cull, edit and sort out the metadata for each photo (location, tags etc) before marking them green to show that they are processed. Once the images are processed I move them out of ‘Unedited SORT’ and into the appropriate year/season folder.

How to organise a large database of photographs.

For my personal work I organise my photos by year and by season. I like to do it this way as on average I keep the processed RAW files for about 400 photos each year. That’s a manageable amount to file by season. If you keep more photos than I do, then you might find it easier to file by month rather than season.

I define seasons as starting on the 21st of March, June, September and December respectively, and so to fit the seasons into a hierarchy of year folders, I also add a fifth folder to each year called ‘5 Darkest Days’ which contains the photos I take between 21st and 31st December.

For holidays or where I have a large set of images from one event, I sometimes create an additional folder within the season folder, for example with the photos I took on holiday in Cornwall in Spring 2017.

For the weddings I film and photograph I organise the files by year, and then each wedding has a date prefix in YYYY-MM-DD format to keep things chronological.

Renaming individual RAW files to give them meaningful names

When you take your digital RAW files off your SD or CF card you’ll find they have file names that don’t mean much. DSC10001.CRF isn’t a great description of an image! At the end of every season, I select the files I have kept and in chronological order rename them with the same name as the folder they are in and a number suffix. For example, photos in Spring 2017 would be named ‘Spring 2017 (1) – Spring 2017 (100). It’s possible to include photos in sub-folders when viewing root folders in Lightroom, so you could rename all the photos taken in a season or month at the same time, even if you use multiple sub-folders for events or holidays.

My top tip: Cull your work keeping only your best together with the photos that mean the most to you

As a photographer, you probably find yourself taking a lot of photos. It soon becomes really hard to keep on top of hundreds of RAW files, and so my top tip for you is to learn how to cull your work. It can be painful at first, but you really don’t need to keep 10 photos of the same scene. Pick the best, delete the rest. I keep ‘just’ 400 photos a year. That’s still a lot compared to how many photos people took and kept of their personal lives in the film era, but in the digital era that number looks small. Yes, digital storage is cheap and easy, but keeping hundreds if not thousands of photos means that trawling through them becomes a burden, not a joy.

Being ruthless with how you cull your work in post-production will also change how you approach making the photos in the first place. You will soon learn which photos are worth taking and know a keeper as soon as you look through your viewfinder. I find myself hitting the shutter less. When the light is harsh when I’m on holiday, I just don’t bother taking photos. I know what I like and what will be a ‘keeper’, and my ruthless approach means that I enjoy both editing, and looking through my back catalogue of photos.

There are two exceptions for me. The first exception I have is for photos that aren’t technically perfect, aren’t works of art, but are meaningful to me. Photos of family for instance, or photos of my cat doing silly things. They’re snapshots rather than photographs I’d want to share with the world, but that doesn’t make them any less important. Do keep your snapshots too, just make sure that you don’t end up with thousands of them in an unordered mess!

The second exception is for my Photo a Day diary which is approaching eight years in March 2019. I keep a daily photo diary, but I don’t keep all the RAW files. For the photos that are just snapshots and don’t require RAW reworking, I export a high quality JPG and delete the RAW. I built myself a private website for my photo diary to share it with my immediate family, and I also keep the JPG files on my computer and backed up on my external hard drive.

Of course, my ruthless approach to culling doesn’t apply to the weddings I document. With weddings I photograph everything, and am less picky with the images I present to my couples. I will give them options for the group shots as the photo that is technically best may not be the image that they like the best, and I offer both landscape and portrait versions of the same scene if appropriate, as that gives them options when putting together photo albums and prints. It’s still important to provide them with a consolidated set of images that tell the story of their day in a beautiful way, but I believe in giving people a choice about which images they like best. So long as a photo is in focus, correctly exposed and objectively flattering, it stays in the collection!

Colour labels and star ratings in Lightroom

Photos marked green to illustrate that they are fully edited

Lightroom comes with options for giving photos coloured labels, star ratings (out of five) and also flags to show whether an image is set to keep or reject.

Some photographers quite like the flag system but I don’t bother with it. For my personal work, if an image isn’t up to scratch it gets deleted from the disk no questions asked. For weddings, I rename the original folder in YYYY-MM–DD A&B format and give the files the same title with a number suffix, and then back it all up externally. Once I pull the local copies into Lightroom I delete from my (local) disk the images that don’t stand up to scrutiny before doing any colour work. If I want to pull images back from the grave, I have a copy of them on my external hard drive with the correct file names to reimport and slip back into the collection. This also means that in the unlikely event couples get in touch wanting more photos, I still have the full original set.

I do, however, use both the star rating function to mark my favourites (both for personal and weddings) as well as the colour label system to show which images have been processed. My system isn’t complicated. Images are either good (they didn’t get culled) or great, in which case I give them five stars. For colours, my photos are either uncoloured (before and during editing) or green when processing is complete.

Backing up your Lightroom catalogues

What I’ve found really good about the way I organise my photos in Lightroom is that I can always find what I’m looking for. I tag (keyword) each of my film photos with ’35mm’ and the film stock they were taken on e.g. ‘Portra 400’. Photos of family and friends are face tagged with their first names (and I include my cat within the family category! It’s lovely to be able to pull up a search with every photo of her I’ve kept, and it amuses me that I’ve managed to fool the face recognition into recognising her face as I’ve so many photos of her!) I also use the map feature in Lightroom so that I can see where I’ve been or find photos from a certain location. I don’t geotag photos taken at home though.

Lightroom connects with Flickr, so I can upload my photos to Flickr from within Lightroom itself, and push changes to the photos on Flickr without needing to reupload them. I’ve set it up so that the photos are copyright tagged just how I want them, and uploaded at the correct resolution. All I need to do in Flickr is give the photos tags and titles.

It’s really easy to make external physical backups of Lightroom catalogues when they’re well structured. All I need to do to keep the backup upto date is copy and replace the latest catalogue files (the .lrcat and .lrdata files) and make sure that I also copy across new photo folders. I try to do this every quarter, and in between backups I use cloud storage space to keep things safe.

This has been a really detailed post, but I hope you’ve found it helpful. I started organising my files and photos this way a few years ago after seeing a video by Dave Powell of Shoot Tokyo where he shared his setup. I’ve taken a few things he does into my workflow, and then customised it to suit how I work. I recommend watching his video too (and checking out his photos!)

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