Editor's note: This month only – subscribe to Creative Photographer Magazine and get your first year for just $19! Click here to learn more. Thanks for reading, Andrew.
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).
- 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.
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.
- 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.
Level 2: Within that Collection Set I create more Collection sets with titles based on subject matter.
Level 3: Each of those Collection Sets is divided into further Collection Sets based on shoot details.
You can easily adapt this structure to your needs. Sticking to three levels makes it easier to find the Collection you are looking for.
Start your Lightroom Classic journey today. Get five free lessons and monthly tips and tricks when you join our free Mastering Photography newsletter. 🙂
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.
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.
7. Right-click on the Picks Collection and choose Set as Target Collection.
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.
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.
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.
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.