How to Organize Your Photos With Lightroom Classic Collections

by Andrew S. Gibson
How to Organize Your Photos With Lightroom Classic Collections

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One of the questions I’m asked regularly by readers is how to use Lightroom Classic Collections to organize your photos.

This is something everybody struggles with at first when they are new to Lightroom Classic. It takes time to work out the best way to use Collections and Collections Sets. Plus, everybody is different, and Lightroom Classic is flexible, so there’s no one best way to use Collections. Just the way that works best for you.

Let’s look at some of the options.

These techniques also work in older versions of Lightroom like Lightroom 6 and Lightroom 5.

Collections vs. folders

The reason why you should use Lightroom Classic Collections to organize your photos becomes clear once we look at the differences between the Collections and Folders panels.

The Folders panel tells you where the photos in your Catalog have been saved. It lists every hard drive from which you have imported photos, plus any synchronized mobile devices.

The small rectangle next to each hard drive is colored gray if the hard drive isn’t connected to the computer, and green if it is.

The folders on each hard drive are also listed (click the gray arrow on the right to show them).

Lightroom folder panel
  • The Folders panel only shows folders containing photos that you have imported into the Lightroom Classic Catalog.
  • It doesn’t show you any other folders.
  • You can’t use it for browsing photos that haven’t been imported into Lightroom Classic.

The Folders panel is only available in the Library module. Every other module only shows you the Collections panel. This is a strong hint from Adobe that Collections are its recommended way for organizing photos.

Folder limitations

Folders are limited. Without making copies you can only save a photo in one folder.

This falls down as an organizational system almost right away. Let’s say you visited New York City in May 2021 and took some photos that included some street portraits, some landscapes taken in Central Park and a few portraits of your friend John. You then saved those photos in a folder called New York May 2021.

You can’t add those photos to other folders without making copies.

But Collections give you a lot more flexibility.

Using the above example, you could create a Collection called John, another called Central Park and another called New York street portraits and add the appropriate images to each one.

You could create more Collections, perhaps with names like New York 2021, Portraits 2021, Favorite Photos 2021 and so on, and add some of those photos to these Collections as well.

Collections are powerful because you can add the same photo to as many Collections as you want. This gives you near infinite choice when it comes to organizing your images.

For example:

  • When I write a new article I create a Collection to contain the photos that I’m going to illustrate it with.
  • I have a Collection that only contains photos I am going to upload to Instagram.
  • Each year I create a Collection containing my favorite ten photos from that year.
  • I use Collections to organize my photos into themes and projects.
  • When I write a book I create Collections to contain the photos I want to use in it.
  • I use Collections with Adobe Portfolio to make a portfolio website.
  • I organize my photos with Collections for making photo books with Blurb.
  • Commercial photographers use Collections to organize their images according to job or client.
  • Wedding photographers use Collections to organize the photos they are preparing for their clients.

Collections are only limited by your imagination!

Setting up a Lightroom Classic Collections structure that makes sense

Here’s the simple three level Collection structure that I use to organize my images.

Level 1: I create a new Collection Set for every year.

Lightroom Collection Sets

Level 2: Within that Collection Set I create more Collection sets with titles based on subject matter.

Lightroom Collection Sets

Level 3: Each of those Collection Sets is divided into further Collection Sets based on shoot details.

Lightroom Collection Sets

You can easily adapt this structure to your needs. Sticking to three levels makes it easier to find the Collection you are looking for.

How to Use Lightroom Classic Collections to Edit Photos (the longer way)

In this sense I am using the word edit to mean select the photos that you want to develop in Lightroom Classic.

Imagine the following scenario. You go out for the day and take 200 photos. It is unlikely that you want to develop all the photos in Lightroom Classic. Most photographers choose their best photos and develop those. Collections can help you do that.

I have a couple of methods that I use. The first one is a bit longer, and it’s how I used to do it. I’ve since simplified it, and I’ll explain that process below.

I am going to show you the longer method using some portraits I made of my friend Taz.

1. Create a Collection Set with an appropriate title. In this case I used Taz portraits.

2. Create three Collections within that Collection Set. Name one Full selection and make it the Target Collection. Call another one Picks and the third Selects.

3. Add the photos for the project to the Full selection Collection. It should look something like this.

Lightroom Collection Sets

Now it’s time to sort out those photos. This is how you do it.

1. Go to the Full selection Collection, go to Edit > Select All and then press the U key to remove any flags. This ensures that all the photos in the Collection are unflagged.

2. With all the images selected, go to Library > Previews > Build 1:1 Previews. Lightroom Classic creates 1:1 previews for any photos that don’t already have them. You can skip this step if you have already created them.

Note: If there are a lot of photos in the Collection you might find it easier to select Build Standard-Sized Previews. It will be quicker to create the previews as they are smaller, but slower to zoom into any of the photos as Lightroom will have to create a 1:1 preview when you do so. You could also select Build Smart Previews which has the added benefit of making the Develop module run faster (read The Ultimate Guide to Using Smart Previews in Lightroom Classic for more details).

Second note: I’ve since come up with a new workflow that doesn’t require building 1:1 previews or even Standard previews. I’ll write more about that in a few weeks time (and put the link here when it’s ready to read). It works in Lightroom Classic but not Lightroom 6 or older.

3. Go to the Photo menu and, if it is unchecked, check the Auto Advance option (or use the Caps Lock keyboard shortcut).

4. Click on the first photo in the Collection and press the F key. Lightroom Classic goes straight to full-screen mode.

5. Make your first run through the photos. Hit the P key to flag photos you like. If Auto Advance is checked, Lightroom Classic automatically displays the next photo. If you don’t want to flag a photo press the right-arrow key to move to the next one.

6. Go to the Filter Bar (press the \ key if you don’t see it) and select Flagged from the drop-down menu on the right. Now you can only see the photos that you have flagged as a Pick. Lightroom Classic hides the others.

Flagged photos in Lightroom Grid View

7. Right-click on the Picks Collection and choose Set as Target Collection.

Lightroom Collections

8. Go to Edit > Select All, then press the B keyboard shortcut. Lightroom Classic adds all the selected photos to the Picks Collection. As you can see, I reduced my initial selection of 177 photos down to 65.

Lightroom Collections

9. Go to the Picks Collection, then Edit > Select All and press U again to remove the flags.

10. Repeat the process, this time much more carefully, making sure you only flag the photos that you want to end up in the final edit. When you have done so, repeat the process above to add the flagged photos to the Selects Collection.

You can go to the Selects Collection, look through it and remove any photos (press B again) that you feel don’t belong there. The idea is to edit the selection down to the strongest photos.

I ended up with 35 photos in my Selects folder.

Lightroom Collections

This method might seem complicated when you read the instructions but is easy to put into practice. It only takes a few seconds to create the Collections you need and then it’s just a matter of selecting the ones you want to Develop.

I found this idea on Scott Kelby’s blog (follow the link to read the article). It’s much easier than using star ratings or color labels.

For another perspective, read Lightroom Organization in 3 Simple Steps by photographer Viktor Elizarov.

The point is that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to Collections. Read up on what other photographers do and use their techniques.

Better still, adapt them to suit your requirements. In the above example, if you only have a few photos to sort through, you won’t need three folders. Two will do.

Or if you end up with too many photos in your Selects folder create another one called something like Final Selects and narrow them down again.

You can create more Collections within the same Collection Set for almost any purpose you can imagine. Do you want to add some photos to a website? Create a Collection called Website. Add some to Facebook? Create a Collection called Facebook. Want to email the photos to John? Create a Collection called For John. Get the idea? It’s an easy way to organize your images.

How to Use Lightroom Classic Collections to Edit Photos (the shorter way)

As I mentioned earlier I’ve since come up with a faster way of editing photos (that is, selecting the ones that I want to develop).

1. With this method I create three Collections in a Collection Set called A, B and C.

Lightroom Classic Collections

2. I add all the photos taken on a shoot to Collection A, and set Collection B to be the Target Collection.

3. I then go through the photos in Collection A one at a time, using the B keyboard shortcut to send the best photos to Collection B.

4. Then I set Collection C to be the Target Collection.

5. Finally I repeat the process with the photos in Collection B, sending the keepers to Collection C. These are the ones I’m going to develop.

This method works because it’s quick and simple, and there’s less messing around with flags. In the example above you can see that I started with 57 photos (in Collection A). On the first run through I narrowed that down to 33 photos (in Collection B). Finally I chose nine of those to develop (Collection C).

It’s also flexible and you can adapt it to your needs by creating extra Collections For example, I might create a collection called D [B&W] for photos I want to convert to black and white.

Or a Collection called D [best]. Let’s say I have 30 photos in Collection C. They’re all good photos that I’ve developed, but I want to narrow them down to the best of the best. That’s what Collection D [best] is for.


Hopefully you now understand that Lightroom Collections are a powerful and versatile tool for organizing and sorting out your photos. You can use one of the methods in this tutorial, adapt the ideas to your own requirements, or come up with your own way of doing it. If you have any questions about this, or would like to share how you use Collections to organize your photos, then please let us know in the comments.

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Andrew S. Gibson January 19, 2017 - 12:55 pm

Hi Paul, Collection Sets can only hold Collections. You need add a Collection to the Collection Set, then you’ll be able to add photos to the Collection.

Andrew S. Gibson January 19, 2017 - 2:02 pm

There’s a couple of ways you can do it. One is to select the photos you want to add to the Collection and drag the selection to the Collection name. Another is to right-click the Collection name and choose Set as Target Collection. Then select the photos you want to add to it and press B on the keyboard.

Andrew S. Gibson January 19, 2017 - 6:22 pm

Hi Ed, it sounds like your organization system is similar to mine. It’s worth considering merging all your Catalogs into one so you can see all your photos in one place. It won’t slow Lightroom down (as long as you don’t have an old version of Lightroom that is!)

This article explains how I save my photos. Let me know if you have any questions.

Ed Mullin January 19, 2017 - 7:01 pm

Andrew thanks for the quick reply! Of course I found your other article just after posting my question.

One question that remains is how do you import your photos? Manually or with a program like Photo Mechanic? Ive tried using LR but I always end up with the masters being imported to the wrong folder. I’m spoiled by how easy Aperture made it, and I’ve been looking for a good replacement for some time.

Thanks again, Ed

Andrew S. Gibson January 19, 2017 - 7:59 pm

I import photos using Lightroom. You can select the folder where you want to save your photos in the Destinations panel in the Import window. It’s quite easy once you get the hang of it.

Andrew S. Gibson January 20, 2017 - 12:12 pm

Hi Ludo, good question, and I’m sure some of your confusion is down to getting used to a new system in Lightroom (I never used Picasa so I have no idea how different they are). What Lightroom does is separate the storage of your photos (i.e. the folders on your hard drive where they are saved) from the organization (which is done with Collections). The main advantage of using Collections is that you can add photos to multiple Collections but of course a photo can only ever be saved in one folder. That makes Collections tremendously flexible and powerful. You could use Collections for creating something like ‘Favorite 2016 Photos’ but you would only be harnessing a fraction of their potential.

Also, my Collections don’t mirror my Folder structure. I use Folders for organizing images according to date, and Collections to help edit photos (as in choose which ones to develop in the Develop module) as well as organize them according to subject, place or project.

Ultimately, folders should be structured in a way that helps you back up your photos easily. Collections have no such restriction and you are free to set them up however you wish according to your own needs.

Hope that makes sense.

Andrew S. Gibson February 11, 2017 - 12:00 am

Hi Peter, yes I keep all my photos in one Catalog. There’s about 100,000 in there and I haven’t noticed any slowdown.

According to this article by Scott Kelby it’s possible to have over a million photos in your Catalog without creating problems. So feel free to merge your Catalogs together, it’s unlikely to slow Lightroom down.

Peter February 13, 2017 - 4:56 pm

Thanks so much for the response, Andrew. One more quick question – do you keep the actual catalog on your computers internal hard drive? Or do all of your 100,000+ photographs and the catalog itself reside on an external HD?

Andrew S. Gibson February 13, 2017 - 6:27 pm

I keep my photos on an external hard drive and the Catalog on the computer’s hard drive. Lightroom would run more slowly if the Catalog was also saved on the external drive.

Andrew S. Gibson June 28, 2017 - 8:10 am

Hi Rick, in this case it’s so you can start over flagging photos so that you can select the ones you want to add to the next Collection.

Andrew S. Gibson July 18, 2017 - 10:55 pm

Hi John, yes you can import photos and add them to a Collection at the same time. You do it in the File Handling panel in the Import window – tick the Add to Collection box and select the Collection you want to add the photos to. Click the + icon if you need to create a new Collection. And yes, you always create previews when you import photos, but they might not be 1:1 previews. If the photos were imported into Lightroom some time ago any 1:1 previews may have been discarded, depending on your settings.

Andrew S. Gibson October 30, 2017 - 9:19 am

Hi Lauraine, the best way to send a photo to Photoshop is to go to Photo > Edit In > Edit In Adobe Photoshop. When you’ve finished in Photoshop, save the file, close the photo and return to Lightroom. You’ll see the photo you just created in Lightroom stacked alongside the original file in the same Collection. From there you can send it to any Collection you want.

Andrew S. Gibson April 25, 2018 - 2:42 pm

Hi John, that’s a great idea, love it!

Andrew S. Gibson January 14, 2019 - 7:56 pm

It’s best to develop photos that are in Collections, especially if you have created a Collection especially for photos that you are going to develop. You normally don’t want to develop every photo in a Folder, just some of them.

Andrew S. Gibson August 7, 2019 - 5:29 pm

Hi John, the main reason for using Collections is that you can’t access your folders from the Develop module. Personally, I find it enough to put my imported photos into a single Collection and have no immediate need to place them in several Collections. That makes it easy to see which photos have been developed and which haven’t. You can use keywords in conjunction with Collections – for example, you can add someone’s name as a keyword and use a Smart Collection to view all photos tagged with that person’s name. You can use the Filter Bar or Smart Collections to view photos with shared characteristics. Hope that helps!

Andrew S. Gibson May 12, 2020 - 8:01 pm

Hi Chris, Collections are much better than keywords in many ways. You can’t, for example, use keywords to edit your photos (as in pick the best ones from a shoot to send to the Develop module) as demonstrated in the article. Don’t forget you can use both, it’s not a case of one or the other.

Doug Goss July 25, 2021 - 7:24 pm

Hi Andrew,

What is your rational for creating collection sets by year? I see your second level also has the year following the titles / subject matter. As well you could sort on date in Lightroom.

For me, I can remember shooting a certain place or event but, unless it happened in the last week, I really don’t remember dates. But I’m open to suggestions for good reason!

I organize by category and date under one master folder:
Doug’s Photos > Concerts > 2021-01 Peter Frampton
Doug’s Photos > Corporate Work 2021-06 ServPro Chicago
Doug’s Photos > Landscape > 2020-10 Great Smoky Mountains
So, instead of searching on year first, I search on the type of shot.

Andrew S. Gibson August 1, 2021 - 9:43 pm

Hi Doug, organizing Collection Sets by year works for me because I can easily remember what I was doing in a particular year and that lets me find photos of a particular place, person or subject quickly. Not everybody thinks the same way I do though, and it sounds like you’re one of them. If your system works for you then keep going with it. It looks good to me and I don’t see anything wrong with it.

Hope that helps, Andrew

John Gunkler November 30, 2021 - 10:24 pm

I always get useful information from your newsls. Thanks so much. But this one puzzles me. I keyword my photos on import and just after. I’ll select all the imported photos and add all the keywords that apply to all. Then I’ll select the photos that share additional keywords, putting them in the temporary collection. I go to thwart collection, select all, then add all the keywords that apply (in addition to those already there) then clear them from that collection. I do this a few times until the keywording is good enough.
Now, as needed, I click on whatever folder I want to work on, choose the keyword(s) I’ll base a collection on – say Fred, Aspen, and 2011, or whatever, and make all the photos that pop up into a new collection – say “Fred at Aspen 2011.” I use that collection for the culling process you have so clearly described.
I find it creates less clutter to have dozens of keywords than to have hundreds of collections. And if I select one or more photos from anywhere I can quickly see what collections they’re in our could be in.

Andrew S. Gibson December 1, 2021 - 9:33 am

Hi John, it’s always interesting to hear how other photographers use Lightroom Classic. If it works for you then don’t change it. With my method I don’t have hundreds of unorganized Collections. I use Collection Sets to organize them, and that makes it easy to see what I have and find what I want. Using Collections to organize your photos takes a few seconds, it sounds like your method would take a lot longer.

Bret December 1, 2021 - 5:31 pm

Hello Andrew. In the article above, you talk about moving photos into the Collection Set titled Taz and then setting up 3 collections inside that Collection Set. Are you moving the files from a folder that was used for the import?

Andrew S. Gibson December 2, 2021 - 11:19 am

Hi Bret, yes but not quite. The photos are in a folder, but they’re added to the Collection, rather than moved from the folder.

Paco June 21, 2024 - 11:08 am

What do you do with the collections once you’re done developing? Do you delete them?

Andrew S. Gibson June 24, 2024 - 8:36 am

Hi Paco, there’s no need to delete any Collections. Remember, Collections are for organizing your photos. Once they’re organized, you want them to stay organized.


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