How to Use Hierarchical Keywords In Lightroom Classic

by Andrew S. Gibson
How to Use Hierarchical Keywords In Lightroom Classic

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In this lesson we’re going to look at how to use hierarchical keywords in Lightroom Classic. We already covered the topic of keyword hierarchies in How to Create Keyword Lists in Lightroom Classic, so let’s start by recapping what we learned there.

What are hierarchical keywords?

Hierarchical keywords are organized in groups. The easiest way to show you is with an example. Here’s one based on location (you may remember it from Lesson Two).

North America > United States > New York State > New York City

The keywords are arranged in a hierarchy following this criteria:

Continent > Country > State > City

Setting up keyword hierarchies takes a lot of time and effort. If you’re using personal keywords it’s probably easier to use Keyword sets and ignore keyword hierarchies. But if you submit your photos to photo sharing websites or stock libraries, or think you may do in the future, then keyword hierarchies, once set up, can save you a lot of work.

Benefits of hierarchical keywords

These are some of the benefits of using keyword hierarchies.

1. Keywords are better organized and easier to find.
Using the above example, it makes sense for continent/country/state/city to be linked in a hierarchy. It groups all four together in the Keyword Lists panel and makes them easier to find. As keyword lists are alphabetical, it keeps similar keyword hierarchies together.

Here’s an example of a keyword hierarchy in action. On the left, is the hierarchy when it’s closed. On the right, is what you see when you click the white arrows to open up the hierarchy. Setting up the keyword hierarchy saves space in the Keyword List panel.

Hierarchical keywords Lightroom

2. You can add multiple keywords to your photos with a single click.
For example, with the above keyword hierarchy when you add ‘New York City’ as a keyword Lightroom automatically adds ‘North America’, ‘United States’ and ‘New York State’. If you click on ‘Toronto’ it adds ‘Ontario’, ‘Canada’ and ‘North America’.

3. Lightroom lets you use identical keywords with different meanings.
Let’s say you’re a stock photographer with photos of a both a chest of drawers and a man’s chest in your collection. A hierarchy lets you distinguish between both types of chest. It looks something like this.

People > body parts > chest

Furniture > chest

When you do a search for photos of a chest, Lightroom lets you select which type of chest you want to search for.

How to create a keyword hierarchy by adding keywords

There are two ways to create keyword hierarchies in Lightroom. The first way is by adding new keywords in the Keyword List panel (see Lesson Four How to Use the Keyword List Panel in Lightroom Classic for a recap on this). Use this technique if you HAVEN’T already added ANY of the keywords you want to use to Lightroom.

1. Go to the Keyword List panel and click the plus icon to add a new keyword. Make sure the Include on Export and Export Containing Keywords are ticked (see below) for this keyword and all the ones you add in the subsequent steps. You can also add synonyms if required (don’t forget to tick the Export Synonyms box either). In this example I’m adding the keyword North America.

Hierarchical keywords Lightroom

2. Lightroom adds the keyword you just created to the list of keywords in the Keyword List panel. Right-click on it and select Create Keyword Tag Inside “(keyword)”.

Hierarchical keywords Lightroom

Alternatively, you can right-click on the keyword and select Put New Keywords Inside This Keyword from the menu. Lightroom now automatically adds any new keywords you create by clicking the plus icon to the keyword hierarchy.

3. Create your new keyword, adding synonyms if required. In this case I added the keyword “America” with some common alternatives, including a foreign language one.

Hierarchical keywords Lightroom

4. Repeat the process to add as many levels of hierarchical keywords you require.

How to create a keyword hierarchy with your current keywords

This is the second way of creating a keyword hierarchy. Use it if you have already added the keywords you want to use in a hierarchy to some of your photos. In this case you can turn them into a hierarchy by clicking and dragging.

Continuing with our example, lets say you have the following keywords listed individually in the Keyword List panel and want to turn them into a hierarchy. Here they are in alphabetical order.

North America
New York City
New York State

This is the hierarchy you want to achieve.

Hierarchical keywords Lightroom

In this case you would need to click and drag New York City onto New York State, then New York State onto United States, and finally United States onto North America.

The Keywording panel

Now, when you add the keyword New York City to a photo, Lightroom adds all the keywords above it in the hierarchy (i.e. New York State, United States, North America), plus any synonyms (i.e. America, United States of America, Los Estados Unidos).

Let’s go back to the Keywording panel and see what that looks like.

With the Keyword Tags menus set to Enter Keywords. Only one keyword tag is visible – New York City.

Hierarchical keywords Lightroom

With the Keyword Tags menus set to Keywords & Containing Keywords. Four keyword tags are visible – New York City plus all the other keyword tags above it in the hierarchy.

Hierarchical keywords Lightroom

With the Keyword Tags menus set to Will Export. Now you can see even more keyword tags – New York City, the keyword tags above it in the hierarchy, plus any synonyms associated with those keywords.

Hierarchical keywords Lightroom

Adding top level headers to your hierarchical keywords

With me so far? This is probably the most complex keywords lesson, so stop and take a breath if you need to. I have one last thing to show you.

This time we’re going to add a new keyword that’s going to be used for organizational purposes only. Let me show you how it works.

1. Start by clicking the plus icon in the Keyword List panel.

2. Add your new keyword and put an underscore either side of it (see below). Here I’ve added the keyword ‘_Geography_’. Make sure all the boxes are unticked and click the Create button.

Hierarchical keywords Lightroom

3. Now I’m going to drag the keyword tag ‘North America’ over ‘_Geography_’. It looks like this.

Hierarchical keywords Lightroom

Now, let’s add the Keyword ‘New York City’ to a photo and go back to the Keywording panel to see what’s happened. Here’s the Keyword Tags field with all three Keyword Tag menu options enabled so you can see the difference.

Hierarchical keywords Lightroom

As you can see the keyword tag ‘_Geography_’ is displayed under Keywords & Containing Keywords but not under Will Export.

What does this mean? The keyword tag ‘_Geography_’ is for organizational purposes only. It’s there as a header so that you can group all relevant keyword hierarchies underneath. The underscore ensures it appears near the top of your keyword list (only keywords with numbers are listed above it alphabetically). But, most importantly, it won’t appear in the list of keywords embedded into the photo’s metadata when it’s exported. It’s a functional keyword, not a descriptive one.

Downsides of using keyword hierarchies

We talked in earlier lessons about the merits of keeping your keyword system simple by using Keyword sets and a controlled vocabulary. There’s no doubt keyword hierarchies are very useful for serious keyworders. But they do have a couple of drawbacks that you need to be aware of before deciding which method works best for you.

1. Keyword hierarchies are not preserved when you export your photos. They won’t show up in other programs or if you import the exported photo back into Lightroom.

2. Keyword hierarchies are Catalog specific. You can end up with a mess when you merge Catalogs that don’t share the same keyword hierarchy. This is an important point if you ever merge Catalogs.

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Mike Scawen November 30, 2017 - 5:45 pm

Hi Andrew
I’ve found your articles on using keywords in Lightroom very useful and informative. Are you going to make them available as PDF downloads?

Andrew S. Gibson November 30, 2017 - 7:31 pm

Hi Mike, yes, when I’ve completed the Keywords and Search lessons I’ll put them togther as a short ebook for people to buy.

Emad September 4, 2022 - 3:17 pm


I found your article some time ago and came back to it while organizing photos. I am following the instructions to create a hierarchy for places, however when I add the keyword, the keywords above are not being added. Troubleshooting thoughts? Has there been an update that has changed this? Thanks!

Andrew S. Gibson September 7, 2022 - 3:17 pm

Are you looking at the keywords in the Keywording panel? If Keyword Tags is set to Will Export you won’t see the extra keywords. Set it to Keywords & Containing Keywords instead.


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