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Working in Lightroom Classic: Using Collections
by Matt Meisenheimer

Adobe Lightroom Classic is an extremely powerful photography-based application. Many photographers are aware of the impressive editing capabilities of Lightroom, but less know that Lightroom is one of the best photo organizing applications available. There are more applications available for processing and organizing photos than ever, but I still prefer and recommend Lightroom for both editing and organizing. 

I want to cover a few basic tips and strategies for organizing your images in Lightroom and give you insight into what my organization process looks like. Editing is obviously one of the most important aspects of photography after shooting in the field, but that is not to say that organization isn’t important…it definitely is. In this article, I would like to cover Lightroom Collections and get into some key organizing strategies that hopefully will help you with your own photos. 

What exactly is Lightroom?
At its core Lightroom is a RAW converter. It was designed to process the RAW data that is captured by our camera sensors. It processes that information and generates a preview, or picture that we can view and make adjustments to. 

Lightroom has two important functions: acting as a database for images and offering the ability to post-process photos. We will focus on the first function in this article. 

What’s a Catalog?
The foundation for Lightroom’s image management system is based around what Adobe calls, ‘the Catalog system.’ A Catalog (and a Lightroom Catalog for that matter) is a database that stores information about images. So when you import images into Lightroom, Lightroom doesn’t actually store the original files in its database, it stores a record of the images. The records contain three important pieces of information: a reference to the location of where the original photo/photo folder is stored, processing data (Develop Module adjustments), metadata – ratings, keywords, color labels, etc.

Here’s a visual of how the Catalog system works:

Because of the Catalog system, we are able to organize and edit images without actually ever affecting the original files, which is one of the key features of Lightroom. 

What are Collections?
Collections are Lightroom-specific and a way to organize your images within Lightroom. They are a GREAT way to organize your images within the application. They are extremely powerful and can accommodate any organizing system you wish to use. 

Collections never alter the location or information of your original images. You can think of Collections like music playlists. You can add songs to a playlist, but those songs are still located in your main music library, their location never changes and a playlist is not doing anything to the original file. But, a playlist IS organizing your songs in a way that you like. Collections are very similar. 

I am sure many of you out there are using Lightroom Collections to organize, but I am also sure that there are many of you who are using Lightroom and not using Collections. I actually just started using Collections recently, and they have really improved my organization, workflow, and general editing efficiency. No matter if you are new to Collections or a seasoned vet, the following sections will have good information that you can apply to your own workflow. 

Types of Collections
Collections are groups of photos within a catalog. They allow for easy access to photos but also represent the best way to organize photos in Lightroom. Collections do not create duplicates of photos, and photos can be in multiple collections. The ‘Collections’ tab in Lightroom remains in the left panel of Lightroom across all modules, allowing for quickly accessing different photos (it is the only tab to stay static from module to module). 

There are four types of Collections:

  • Collection Set
    •  A set that includes one or more collections.
  • Regular Collection
    • A group of any photos you choose to put in a group.
  • Smart Collection
    • Collections based on metadata rules that you define.
    • For example, you can create a smart collection of all photos that have a 3-star rating and red color label. 
    • Smart collections automatically include all photos that meet the criteria.
    • Photos cannot be added or removed manually.
  • Quick collection
    • A temporary group of photos that can be quickly added and removed. 
    • Only one Quick Collection per Catalog.
    • The only collection type not housed within the Collection tab, it is found under the Catalog tab. 

Creating Collections
Creating Collections is easy. You can either navigate to the Collections tab in the left panel or go to Library -> New Collection (or Smart Collection or Collection Set). You can choose to nest (or place) a Collection Set, Regular Collection, or Smart Collections into a previously created Collection Set.

Adding Photos to a Regular Collection
There are two ways to add photos to a Regular Collection.

  • Select all photo(s) you want to be added and then create a Regular Collection.
  • Drag and drop images from Grid View into the Regular Collection.

Adding Photos to a Smart Collection

Smart Collections are populated automatically by Lightroom based on whatever criteria you define. 

There are many different criteria available – Rating, Pick Flag, Label Color, Label Text, Has Smart Preview, Has Snapshots, Source, File Name/Type, Date, Camera info, Location, Other Metadata, Develop, Size, and Color. The snapshot below shows the Smart Collection creation pop-up. 

For instance, if you want to create a collection that includes all of your flagged photos in Lightroom, you would choose -> Pick Flag is Flagged. Lightroom will then automatically add all flagged photos to the Collection. When you import new photos and flag some of those, Lightroom will immediately add those photos to the collection as they are added. As you can see, Smart Collections are a very powerful organizing tool. 

Adding Photos to a Quick Collection
To add a photo to the Quick Collection, Right-Click the photo and go to ‘Add to Quick Collection’ or click the circular icon in the top right of the photo thumbnail in the Filmstrip bar. You can also press ‘B’ on the keyboard to add photo(s) to the Quick Collection. 

I tend to not use the Quick Collection often in my own workflow, but it can be useful. It is a way to quickly group photos. You can convert a Quick Collection to a Regular Collection at any time as well, by right-clicking the Quick Collection. 

How I Organize Using Collections
I use Collections to organize my photos in the following way:

All trips (Collection Set) -> Specific Trip (Collection Set) -> All Photos (Regular Collection) + Favorite Photos (Smart Collection) + Edited Photos (Smart Collection)

For instance, my recent fall trip to Zion National Park is organized like this:

All trips (Collection Set) -> Zion National Park (Collection Set) -> All Photos (Regular Collection) + Favorite Photos (Regular Collection) + Edited Photos (Smart Collection)

My top-level collection is ‘All Trips’, which is a Collection Set. This set contains photos from every single photo trip that I have taken. My specific trips are organized as Collection Sets as well (Zion National Park), but they are housed within my top-level Collection Set (All Trips). I then have one Regular Collection (All Photos) and two Smart Collections (Favorite Photos and Edited Photos) within each specific trip. 

When I imported my photos from Zion National Park, I put all of them in ‘All Photos’ (Regular Collection). I then created two Smart Collections with the following criteria:

Favorite Photos

Edited Photos

The first Smart Collection, Favorite Photos, includes all of my flagged selections from Zion National Park. When I go through my photos from the trip, I turn on Auto-Advance by pressing the Caps Lock key and I then press ‘P’ to flag a favorite, or ‘X’ to reject an image. With Auto-Advance on, Lightroom will immediately go to the next photo in line after I press ‘P’ or ‘X’. All of my flagged photos, which I use to designate my favorites, go into the Favorite Photos Smart Collection. 

I like to keep track of photos that I have edited or am editing so I create another Smart Collection to organize those, Edited Photos. With the set criteria, whenever I make adjustments in the Develop Module to a Zion National Park photo, it will go into that Smart Collection. 

Now, you will notice for the criteria in both Smart Collections, my second rule was ‘Keywords contains all Zion National Park.’ One of the only shortcomings of Smart Collections is they cannot be restricted to a specific Collection Set. So, if I didn’t include that keyword rule, the Smart Collection would contain every flagged photo in my Lightroom Catalog. I get around that by keywording my images during import or in the Library Module. For all the imported Zion National Park photos, I added the keyword tag ‘Zion National Park’ so I could restrict my Smart Collections to only include flagged and edited photos from Zion National Park (or in other words, only photos from the ‘All Photos’ Collection within the ‘Zion National Park’ Collection Set).

Hence, I recommend keywording your images if you use this example organizational structure. If you take multiple trips to a place, you will have to be more specific with your keywords, for example, ‘Zion National Park 2019’ or ‘Zion National Park Fall 2019’. 

Keywording in the Library Module is relatively straightforward. I import all my photos, then add all my photos from a trip to the Regular Collection ‘All Photos’ within the respective trip Collection Set. I then select that ‘All Photos’ Collection to bring up the photos I just added. From there, I go into Grid View in the Library Module and select all photos by selecting one photo and pressing Ctrl+A (Command+A on Mac OS). After that, I go to the Keywording section in the right panel and add my keyword tags. See below for an example photo. 

The Target Collection
Lightroom also has what’s called a designated Target Collection. There can only be one Target Collection and it can be set to any Collection in your Catalog. By default, the Quick Collection is the set Target Collection of Lightroom. When a Collection other than the Quick Collection is the designated Target Collection, a photo is added to the Target Collection when you press ‘B’ on the keyboard or click the circular icon in the top right corner of the thumbnail (instead of the Quick Collection). I leave the Quick Collection as the set Target Collection, but if you want to quickly add photos to a Regular Collection, I recommend designating that respective Collection as your target.  

Collections are straightforward to use and one of Lightroom’s best features. Of course, editing our photos is the number one priority, but using Lightroom’s powerful organizational tools will make your workflow more efficient and save you time that you can put towards actual editing. 

The Collection organizational structure I’ve laid out here is just one of the hundreds of different ways you can organize your photos. If it makes more sense for you to organize your Collections based on a star rating, color label, or specific keywords…you can do that. The possibilities are literally endless.

Let us know if this helped, and also if you use a specific organization system within Lightroom that you have found to work really great. 

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Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin.  His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special.  Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image.

Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world.

As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals.

You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com
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"Backcountry Journeys offers guests the unique opportunity to explore our natural world from behind their own lens. We run a selection of hand-crafted Photo Tours, Workshops & Safaris connecting passionate people to exceptional experiences. Locations include Yosemite, Alaska, Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, Hawaii, Utah as well as Botswana & Costa Rica."
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