Organising a photo library with Lightroom

Having a well-organised photo library is essential, especially as your collection of photographs grows. I’ve had a few organisation schemes over the past 13 years and by a little trial and error I have found what works for me. The following advice is geared towards Lightroom, but the theory can be put into practice with any application that allows to you organise images into folders.

Folder Naming and Structure

lightroom filing system

My folder structure is pretty simple. I have a folder for each year: 2011, 2012, 2013 etc. Inside each year folder I have folders for each month of the year named numerically and with the name of the month: 01 January, 02 February etc. I put the number before the month’s name because otherwise April would come first.

Inside the month folders I have separate folders for each film roll and camera import. The folders where the image files are stored are named according to the date they were imported, camera used, and if film was used the film type. So a typical folder name will look like this: 12-11-09-lomo-lca-portra. The first part is the date, camera (lomo-lca) and film type (portra). The date is always year-month-day because that way when the computer sorts them the folders will always be listed in date order.

Renaming image files

I also rename my image files because as you shoot more and more it is conceivable that you will have images that will have the same name because file numbers roll over after you shoot 10,000 photos on a digital camera. That sounds like a lot but if you start shooting time lapses you can get through 10k of images no problem. I rename my files to match the folder name they are in and add the original file number on the end. That way file names are guaranteed to be unique. A generic file name of IMG_1345.jpg will become something like 12-04-10-eos-5D-1345.jpg. If you used film and it was scanned by the lab it is even more important to rename files as every time a 35mm film is scanned you will receive a CD with the same 36 file names. I also label the negative sheet with the folder name where the scans are stored in my library. That way my physical filing system matches what’s on my hard drive. If in the future I need to scan one of the negatives at a higher resolution, I will be able to find the negative really easily just by knowing the file name.

2013-01-03-16.36

There are two options when it comes to batch renaming files in Lightroom. Files can be renamed on import or once they’re in the library. If you do it on import click “Rename Files” on the import screen, then from the “Template” drop down menu choose “Edit” to make a new renaming preset.

In the Filename Template Editor you can start to put together your custom file name using the drop downs and insert buttons. Once you’re done you can save it as a preset by clicking the top drop down menu and choosing “Save Current Preset as New Preset”.

Once you have made a preset you can easily reuse it on your next import by selecting it from the File Renaming dialog on the left of the import screen.

To rename files once they are imported select files that you want to rename in the Lightroom library and click on Library > Rename Files. From this dialog choose one of your previously saved file name templates or make a new one. There is also a handy option to rename them by combining the folder name that they are in and their original file number.

folder name and file name

Using the file names outside your Lightroom library

Using this naming system I can tell what camera or film were used to take a shot and roughly what date a picture was taken just by looking at its file name. For this reason whenever I upload an image to the web, whether it be Flickr or Tumblr, I’ll always add the original file name as a tag. If a Flickr image is tagged with the original file name it means that if someone refers to an image online I can very quickly get to the original file in the Lightroom library. This is very handy if they need a higher quality or an edited version.

Folders and Collections

Knowing the difference between the “Folders” and “Collections” is a really important thing to get you head around if you want to stay super organized in Lightroom. Folders are where your image files are physically stored; the folder structure in “Folders” is mirrored on your hard drive and if you move or rename something in “Folders” it happens in the operating system too.

When deciding on a filing system there is always a temptation to name a folder of images something like “Germany 2012” because the images were taken in Germany, but sometimes you will be shooting a mixture of projects and subjects on one memory card or film. When you import those images what are you going to call the folder? I find it best to have a rigid filing system for each import and then use collections to file your images in a more meaningful way. For example, you could have a collection for “animals” and “cows”, if you took a photo of a cow would you add the image to both collections? When moving an image to collections in Lightroom you’re not actually copying it anywhere, Lightroom just makes a new reference to that image, so added one image to multiple collections wont eat up any extra hard drive space.  I am not going to go into much detail into how I use collections in this article as I want to concentrate on the organization of folders.

ligtroom collections

Summary

If you think you are going to implement this new system, great. Start with your next import and don’t look back and you can look forward to having a super simple library. You may think; “What do I do about all the images that are already on my system?” Well, you may notice in my library that before 2005 there is one folder called 2000 – 2004, and if I am going to be totally honest this folder hides a multitude of sins of previous filing systems. I have not gone back and changed them to anything new. If I had infinite time I might, but I don’t.

If you enjoyed this, check out my 5 hidden tips for Lightroom. You can also read more of my tutorials on my blog and in my books.

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17 Responses to Organising a photo library with Lightroom

  1. Steve says:

    After quite a bit of thought and a couple of false starts I settled on a similar structure but have the subject first with each folder then containing date sub-folders (yyyymmdd, so they sort neatly).

    I’ve found that most of the time I want to go back to something I shot in, say, Barcelona, so having the subject first works best. Then in that folder it’s easy to pick out the files from last year or whenever.

  2. Thanks,
    Its really useful!

  3. RonenRC says:

    This is really great. Thanks for the tips.
    Quick question. For some reason, at a very late night hour, I organized my folders NOT in LR, but in their original location (using “Locate Original file”). And now my LR library is a mess… IS there any way to correct this?
    Thanks!

    • lomokev says:

      “I organized my folders NOT in LR” oh dear.

      The easiest way to fix this would be revert to backup of your image files / folders. I am guessing you would not be asking the question if had a backed up!

      Lightroom gives you ability to relink externally moved / renamed folders one bye one so it could take you some time to fix. In Library mode right click on a folder you want to relink and click “Find Missing Folder”. “But in their original location” < what do you mean but that? Did you just rename the folders but leave them in the same location?

    • Kris says:

      Because of the way Lightroom works, you need to rename / move / make any alterations to your folders INSIDE Lightroom, that way the folders stay connected.

      Renaming / moving / adding folders in Lightroom is just as easy as doing it in the Finder (mac) or Explorer (windows).

      To add a folder, right click on the root folder you want the new one to live in and select “Create new folder in …”

      To rename a folder, right click said folder and select “rename”

      and to move a folder, just left click-and-drag the target folder to the new location.

      This will keep your folders in Lightroom sync’d with your your folders outside of Lightroom.

    • Ronen says:

      Thanks Kris.
      That’s what I did (changes on root folder) but it didn’t synch.
      It left a bunch of shaded folders with the photos still in them, as well as it didn’t change the names of folders…
      Is there a manual way to synch? That would be very useful!

      Ronen

    • lomokev says:

      When you say shaded does it have a little question mark on it as well like in the screen gabe below? If so all you have to do is right click on the folder, click “Find missing folder” and then navigate to the folder with the images on your system.

  4. ben spark says:

    hi kev – i am currently importing my photos in LR v5 and intend to follow your naming structure as it makes sense to me. Which is fine for all my photos up until 2011 because Iphoto allows you to see the individual Jpegs. The problem I have is that after this date I have been using a latest version of iPhoto which packages the photos into a file called “iPhoto library” But when I go to import, LR cannot see this file as it is ghosted. Do you know a simple way to get around this. Currently using LR help to investigate myself but thought you might have encountered this previously.

    • lomokev says:

      Sorry for late reply but in the finder you can right click on the iPhoto library file and then select “inspect package contents. This will allow you poke around the contents of your iPhoto library and copy out the files you want to import to desktop so they can be imported in to Lightroom. Alternatively you could just export the images form iPhoto and then import them in Lightroom, this might have the added advantage that it will import keywords and location data that you added in iPhoto.

  5. Trish says:

    I shoot in RAW and each new camera creates larger files. My image library is on an external hardrive but I have so many photos that my current HD is full. Can you suggest what is the best next step. Buy a larger HD and transfer all photos there – eventually that must become impossible!) Set up a new catalog on a new HD? or is there a better option?

    • lomokev says:

      You can use Lightroom with Multiple drives and best part is that don’t have to have them plugged in all the time, when a drive is not plugged in you can still edit meta data on images but not make edits unless you have made something called a smart preview of the image you want to edit (Lightroom 5 and higher).

      What you must do is make sure everything on that drive is backed up to another drive, drives can suffer from mechanical breakdown so always always back up.

      You did not mention how big your library is in Gigabytes so I can’t make any suggestions for storage. If it’s over 3TB then you might want to look into a RAID system as the sky’s the limit with RIAD, if you run out of space just add another drive, it’s a really cost effective way to scale your storage needs. One of the easiest options for RAID storage is Drobo check em out on Amazon.

      I’ve actually written a tutorial on Dealing With Missing Files / Folders and Working With External Hard drives in Lightroom, you should check it out as it will help you when dealing with files in multiple locations and the previously mentioned smart previews.

  6. Sarah says:

    I had a similar file structure for years and loved it. How would you adjust to being the archivist of the images of several people, i.e. I am importing images from cards of multiple cameras of multiple people. I was continuing date based system and it has created a mess of the library. I believe it over-wrote some files that imported under the same folder name (because they were date-based). So I have smart previews and no longer can find links to originals. I’d be very interested in your opinion. Thank you. S

    • lomokev says:

      I would do pretty much the same but just add the photographers name to the files to keep everything unique and folders so you have:
      14-01-23-5d-mrk3-kevin-meredith
      14-01-23-5d-mrk3-sarah

      The files inside those folders would like:
      14-01-23-5d-mrk3-kevin-meredith-0001.jpg

      That way you can always tell want images where taken by which photographer.

  7. Albert says:

    Re: JPEG and RAW (NEF, ARW, . . . ) Downloading and File Management
    Hoping to find some sage advice / recommendation on how to manage / files & folders when one has both a jpeg and raw file of the same image(s) ?
    Using Lightroom 5 and Windows 7

    Thanks!

    • lomokev says:

      I’ve never understood why you’d want to keep both Raw and JPG versions of an image, I am sure there might be a reason for it but I have never come across one. I know that most cameras tweak the colours, correct barrel distortion, fix chromatic aberration etc in JPGs but as the name implies the RAWs are left alone. When I teach workshops I shot both RAW and JPG so that I can download / go throw just the JPGs quickly, once the workshop is done I delete JPGs and download the RAWs. My Samsung NX 300 will only send JPGs to my phone wirelessly for that reason I show RAW and JPG but always dump the JPGs before Lightroom import. Why do want to keep both versions?

  8. annette says:

    Thanks for all this useful info. Do you have all your images in one LR catalog? Or separate catalogs? Thanks again

    • lomokev says:

      All in one catalog. 160,000 images. No point in splitting it into separate catalogs, Lightroom can handle it and you are only making extra work for yourself if you have separate catalogs.

Questions or Comments?