How To Create Keyword Lists In Lightroom Classic

by Andrew S. Gibson
How To Create Keyword Lists In Lightroom Classic

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Before we look at how to add keywords to photos in Lightroom (covered in How to Add Keywords in Lightroom Classic) let’s consider how you can choose your keywords in the first place. Adding keywords to photos is just a mechanical process that can be learned. It’s more important to make sure you’re using the right ones.

As you can imagine, adding lots of keywords to your photos without thinking about the relationships between them can quickly lead to a chaotic approach that hinders rather than helps your search.

For example, which keywords would you add to this photo – ‘watermelon’, ‘watermelons’, ‘melon’ or ‘melons’ ?

Lightroom keyword lists

Let’s say you used the keyword ‘watermelon’ for this photo and ‘melon’ for a similar one. If you made a search using the keyword ‘watermelon’ the photo with ’melon’ wouldn’t show up in the results. Neither would it show up if somebody searched for photos of watermelons in a photo stock library. That’s not helpful, so you need to make sure it doesn’t happen. You can prevent it by using keyword lists, Keyword sets and keyword hierarchies.

Using keyword lists

Imagine you are a portrait photographer and you need a fast way of searching your portraits. It’s important that you have a consistent approach so you don’t accidentally omit any portraits from your search. That’s where putting together a list of keywords to use for your portraits helps. A list might look something like this:

group portrait
black and white

This is known in the keywording world as a flat list, to differentiate it from a hierarchical list (see below).

Every time you add keywords to a new portrait, you simply pick the ones from this list that apply. That avoids confusion caused by using different keywords – for instance, ‘man’ instead of ‘male’, or ‘B&W’ instead of ‘black and white’.

This is also known as using a controlled vocabulary.

You can adapt a sample list like this to your requirements. Let’s say you have a need to search your portraits to find photos of women with a specific hair color. In that case you could include keywords like ‘red hair’, ‘blond hair’ and ‘brown hair’ in your list. You could add eye colors as well (‘blue eyes’, ‘brown eyes’ etc.). Then if you ever need to search for portraits of a red-haired woman with blue eyes it should be easy.

This screenshot shows the result of a search for black and white portraits of women made using keywords.

Lightroom keyword lists

Personal vs. public keywords

You are probably beginning to see why I recommend not rushing into using keywords. You’ll need a bit of time to figure out what your search requirements are and what keywords will serve them best.

Another thing you need to consider is whether your keywords are for your personal use or for public use.

Personal keywords are designed to help you find photos quickly and easily. They are for you, not for other people.

Public keywords are for helping other people search your photos, either in a stock photo library or on a photo sharing website like Flickr or 500px.

This screenshot shows keywords picked up by Flickr and converted to tags.

Lightroom keyword lists

Personal keywords

With personal keywords the question is what’s the minimum number of keywords you need to enable you to search your photos quickly and effectively? Don’t forget, some keywords are redundant because Lightroom lets you combine other search criteria with keywords. For example, you could add the keyword ‘2017’ to all photos taken in the year 2017. But there’s not much point as you can limit all searches to a given date range.

You might also prefer to search for location using the Map module rather than using keywords. It may be easier to drag your photos to a location on the map after you have imported them than to add keywords. Or you might have a camera with GPS that embeds the location data automatically, saving you time.

Lightroom keyword lists

These are the sort of things that you need to think about when creating personal keyword lists. Remember, the only requirement is that the system works for you and makes it easy to search your photos. It’s a good idea not to overcomplicate things by including too many personal keywords in your list. The more you have, the longer it takes to decide which ones to add.

Public keywords

With public keywords, especially for photos that you intend to submit to a stock photo library, you need to take other people’s requirements into consideration. A photo stock library may have a list of keywords it prefers you to use (a controlled vocabulary), it may also have a recommended minimum and maximum number of keywords you can add to a photo.

You also need to think in terms of conceptual and emotional keywords as well as descriptive ones. If you have a photo of two people drinking coffee together, for example, then you might add keywords like ‘friendship’ or ‘togetherness’. You have to think about what concepts potential buyers need to illustrate. A Google search brings up several websites that sell keyword lists if you need help keywording stock photos.

Using keyword hierarchies

Another way of using keywords is to arrange them in hierarchies. Here’s an example of a keyword hierarchy based on location.

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

You can see that the keywords are arranged in a hierarchy following this criteria:

Continent > Country > State > City

Using keyword hierarchies like this in Lightroom has three advantages.

1. It organizes keywords so they are easier to find in your lists. Lightroom lists keywords in alphabetical order. That means, using the above example, that the keyword ‘United States’ would be separated from the others, making it hard to find.

This is most likely to be a problem if you have a long list of public keywords.

2. You can add multiple keywords to your photos in one go. 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’.

3. You can handle 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.

Using Keyword sets

Most of the benefits of keyboard hierarchies listed apply to stock photographers. If you’re using personal keywords then you are going to use far fewer keywords. In that case it may be easier to arrange keywords in sets rather than hierarchies.

For example, the keywords in the sequence North America > United States > New York State > New York City could be used in Keyword sets that looks something like this.

Keyword set 1:

North America
United States

Keyword set 2:

New York State
Washington State

Keyword set 3:

New York City
Los Angeles

Keyword sets don’t have to be exhaustive. There is no point in adding the names of cities you have never visited to Keyword set 3, for example. They are just a way of grouping keywords to make them easier to find than they would be in an alphabetical list.

The only limitation of Keyword sets is that Lightroom doesn’t let you add more than nine keywords.

Make your own keyword lists

If you’re new to using keywords now is a good time to make some keyword lists, including hierarchies (if needed) and Keyword sets. The best approach is to use Excel or Numbers to keep a record of the keywords you want to use. If you’ve already started using keywords, but are struggling to use them effectively, the same exercise should be helpful.

Keyword case study

I’m going to leave with you an example left in a comment by a reader on an article I wrote. Thank you Pavol Sojak for letting me use it in this article! If you like Pavol’s idea don’t forget you don’t have to follow it to the letter. You should adapt it to you own needs, using his list as a starting point.

“My keyword list is organized in four main topics:


Then the structure goes on:

Location: I have a group for each country, e.g. Belgium, Slovakia, Sweden, Finland. Under each country I have names of cities. For some cities like Bratislava (where I live) I have additional locations defined, for other cities I do not need this.

People: I have groups for Family, Friends, Neighbors, School and Celebrities. Under those I have individual name of peoples or just their surnames.

Subjects: I have groups like Fauna (with some sub-level split for more photographed animals), Flora, Landscape (split by Bridges, Castles, Cityscape, Natural landscape), Food, and some other generic subjects like Panoramas, HDR, etc.

Timeline_Events: I have groups like Christmas, New Years Eve, Easter, TEDx, Vacation, Birthday, or other events I have photos from.

Every time I assign keywords I know I should pick at least one from the four main topics – Location, People, Subject and Timeline_Event.

After some time using this it’s really straightforward.”

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Chris Bishop October 15, 2017 - 9:15 pm

How do you add a photo to a child keyword (Heron) and it automatically be added to the parent (Bird)? Currently I can only seem to be able to do it in two actions, drag the photo(s) to heron, then drag the photo(s) to bird. If there was a longer list there would be more dragging options.

Andrew S. Gibson October 16, 2017 - 9:18 am

Hi Chris, you have to set them up as a hierarchy. Here’s one way you can do it. You can create the hierarchy by dragging the keyword Heron onto the keyword bird in the Keyword List panel.Then when you add the keyword Heron to a photo Lightroom automatically adds bird. I’m going to cover hierarchical keywords in depth in a future lesson.


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