How to Organize Photos For Lightroom Classic

by Andrew S. Gibson
How to Organize Photos For Lightroom Classic

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Using Lightroom Classic is much easier if you organize your photos before you import them.

My recommended folder structure is simple. Keep all your Raw files on an external hard drive in a master folder called “Photos [Originals]” (or something similar), in subfolders organized by year, month and subject matter.

The folder structure looks like this.

Organize photos in Lightroom Classic

Above: The “Photos [Originals]” master folder. It contains a folder for each year.

Organize photos in Lightroom Classic

Above: Inside each of these folders there are 12 more folders, one for each month.

Organize photos in Lightroom Classic

Above: Inside each monthly folder there’s another folder for each shoot.

The reason I recommend this folder structure is because it makes it easy for you to back your photo files files up to another external hard drive. If you keep photos organized by date it means you can see at a glance which folders need to be copied over.

Learn more: A Secure Photo Backup Strategy For Photographers

Some photographers use RAID systems, or Drobo hard drives, but for me this way of doing things is less expensive and easier to implement.

Treat this folder structure as a suggestion. You don’t have to follow it, especially if you are happy with the way you are doing things now. The important thing is to have a reliable system in place for backing up your photo files.

Organizing JPEG photo files in Lightroom Classic

When I originally created this system I worked on the basis that my readers would use the Raw format all the time. The reality is somewhat different. Some photographers shoot a mixture of JPEG and Raw. Others have JPEG files from smart phones or compact cameras. Many start off shooting JPEG when they first buy a digital camera and then make the transition to using Raw as they learn more about photography.

So what approach should you take if your photo files are a mixture of JPEG and Raw format?

There is no reason why you can’t keep JPEG and Raw files in the same master folder, as long as the JPEGs are originals and not generated from Raw files. The key is to avoid clutter and keep the master folder as streamlined as possible so that making backups is easy. Only essential files should be in there.

Organizing messy files

Some of you may like the idea of organizing photos this way, but your files are in bit of a disorganized mess. You have some decisions to make. The solution depends on how disorganized your photos are, how many you have and how much time you have to address it.

The priority is to get all your Raw and original JPEG files into a master folder as this simplifies the task of making backups. All other photo files, such as JPEGs generated from Raw files, should be kept in different folders.

If your files aren’t organized like this already, then you have some moving around to do. The simplest approach is to create a master folder, move all your Raw and original JPEG files to it, then forget about what you did in the past and use a more organized system from this point forwards.

If you want to go further and organize all those photo files by year and month you can, it’s up to you to judge how much work that will take and whether it’s worth the effort.

Remember that once you have imported photos into Lightroom Lightroom Classic that folder structure isn’t really important as you should be organizing your photos in Collections. This is covered in detail in my ebook Mastering Lightroom Classic: Book One – The Library Module.

Moving photos inside Lightroom Classic

The easiest way to move files around on your hard drive is to use Finder (if you have a Mac) or Windows Explorer (PC users). This is fine if you are organizing photos that you haven’t imported into Lightroom Lightroom Classic yet.

But if you have already imported them you shouldn’t do this as Lightroom Lightroom Classic will lose track of where they are located. It won’t corrupt the Catalog, and you won’t lose any edits you have already carried out, but it does mean that you have to go into Lightroom Lightroom Classic and tell it where to find the files.

Missing file exclamation mark icon in Lightroom Library module

Above: If Lightroom Classic doesn’t know where to find a photo file then it displays an exclamation mark icon next to the thumbnail. Note – it could simply mean that the hard drive containing the photo isn’t connected to your computer.

Show in Finder menu option in Lightroom Library module

Above: Right-click on the thumbnail and select Show in Finder (PC: Show in Windows Explorer)

File not found error message in Lightroom

Above: A message appears to tell you that the file is not in the folder where Lightroom Classic thinks it is. Click Locate to find the file. Navigate through your folders until you find the one containing the photo.

It’s a time consuming process, so you don’t want to do it unless you really have to.

Folder contextual menu in Lightroom Library module

The alternative is to move files around within the Folders panel in Lightroom Classic’s Library module.

Click and drag to move folders or individual photos from one folder to another.

Right-click on any folder in the Folders panel to bring up the contextual menu (above). The options let you carry out tasks such as renaming folders, creating new folders and moving selected photos from one folder to another.

When you do this, Lightroom Classic keeps track and knows where to find photos in their new location.

How to find out how many missing photos you have in Lightroom Classic

Want to find out how many missing photos there are in your Catalog? Go to Library > Find All Missing Photos (above). Lightroom scans all your photos and places any missing ones in a folder called Missing Photographs in the Catalog panel.

Find all missing files menu option in Lightroom Library module

If you have an alternative way of organizing your photo files, and it works for you, I’d be curious to hear about. Feel free to leave a remark in the comments.

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Allan Harris January 13, 2017 - 11:27 am

Hi Andrew. I have always been meticulous at backing up but within the last month or so when I launched Lightroom many of my photos were marked as ‘missing’. They can be found in Bridge. More worryingly some of the backup are now seen as originals, with my edits and keywords on those files. Any attempt to move these would be futile as Lightroom won’t accept two of the same image in the catalog. After some thought I might remove the files from the Master Catalog and then import the corrected copies. I really have no idea what is going on. Could I open a very early catalog before the siesmic change and just add the folders since then?

Andrew S. Gibson January 15, 2017 - 12:08 pm

Hi Allan, this is a difficult question to answer because I don’t know exactly why this has happened. But I can give you some suggestions to try and find the cause.

1. If photos are marked as missing it means that Lightroom doesn’t know where to find them. This happens if you move photos to a new folder outside of Lightroom, or if the hard drive containing those photos isn’t connected to your computer. So this makes me wonder if something went wrong during your backup process? Did you move files from one folder to another, rather than copying them, without realizing?

2. If a photo is missing, you can find it by clicking on the exclamation mark icon clicking Locate in the window that pops up. Then you can go to the folder where the photo is saved and select it so Lightroom knows where to find it.

3. I’m a bit puzzled when you say your backups are seen as originals. What do you mean by this? For example, if you have a Raw file called 0001.dng and you back it up, then that file is now saved in two locations. It’s the same file and one version is the same as the other. Lightroom saves all metadata including file location, keywords and edits in the Catalog. So it doesn’t really matter which of the two files has been added to the Lightroom Catalog.

4. You can certainly open a backed up Catalog and see what is happening with it, although I suspect it won’t solve your problem as it sounds like the location of your photos is part of the cause.

5. If you remove photos from the Catalog you will lose all keywords and edits, unless you have set Lightroom to save those edits in a sidecar file along with the photos.

Hope those suggestions help. Once you’ve found the cause of the problem it should be easy to work out what to do next. Let us know how you get on.

Elle January 3, 2019 - 12:34 pm

Hi Andrew, the images I work on in Lightroom are stored on an external hard drive and then I backup to another external drive that Lightroom doesn’t know exists. I am wanting to switch to using the backup hardrive as my main hardrive. How do I do this seamlessly? Also what if I don’t want all my images on this newer drive, can I leave behind older images on the older hardrive and use it only as needed? Will Lightroom recognize more than one hardrive? Thanks for your help! Love your articles, I’ve learned so much. Elle

Andrew S. Gibson January 4, 2019 - 7:05 pm

Hi Elle, if you’ve saved all your photos in a hierarchical folder structure inside a single top level folder then it’s easy to switch from one hard drive to another. It’s best to save all your photos on the newer hard drive, otherwise the older ones won’t be backed up. Lightroom can work with as many hard drives as you like, but in your situation as you have the same photos on both drives it’s best to use one or the other, not both.

This article has more detail and explains how to switch drives:

Elle Colquitt January 5, 2019 - 1:26 pm

Thank you so much! Very helpful ??

Gary W July 12, 2020 - 11:29 pm

Hi Andrew, Thanks for your tutorials! I use LightRoom on a Windows desktop and laptop. I’m just starting with LightRoom although I’ve taken a PhotoShop class. I have about 82,000 pictures going back to 1965 (many scanned from slides). I have been shooting Raw + JPEG on Sony and Olympus for about 5 years. Other than travel, I take most pictures with my Android phone. JPEGs, ARWs, and ORFs, are in different top level folders (Pictures, Pictures ARW, Pictures ORF). The sub folders are identical if JPEGs + ARWs and/or ORFs exist. Older pictures are by subject; Pictures since 2002 are in Year/Date-Subject folders.

LightRoom references images on my NAS drive and I backup any changes nightly (images and LightRoom files). So far I have only entered my JPEGs into LightRoom. I do not do a lot of retouching but I will do more with LightRoom. If I want to do PhotoShop editing it would only be on a limited number of images.

My plan is to keep the three top level folders and enter each as its own LightRoom catalog. Almost all of my effort will be in organizing JPEGs into collections, rating images, and creating slide shows.

My LightRoom catalog file is 200gb (JPEGs only). I wish LightRoom would keep all previews the way it keeps 1:1 previews so they would delete when unused for a period of time. It would save a lot of processing and a great deal of storage space.

Does this sound like a good approach for me? Improvement suggestions?

Andrew S. Gibson July 13, 2020 - 8:54 am

Hi Gary, sounds like you’re over-complicating things a little. If I were you I’d import all your photos into one Catalog. You can use Collection Sets and Collections to organize your photos how you want (i.e. for viewing JPEG and Raw files separately). Switching Catalogs is a hassle and you can only search one Catalog at at time, so it doesn’t make sense to have three separate ones. My Catalog is 2.55GB and my previews file is 46GB so not sure why yours is so big. Lightroom Classic keeps the non 1:1 previews as it uses them to display your photos in the Library module. If you didn’t have previews all you’d see is a gray rectangle. Hope that helps!f

Gary W July 13, 2020 - 4:03 pm

Thanks Andrew! I’ll do one catalog. I had been thinking I would have to move my files into one top level folder to have one catalog. All the previews were built from JPEG files. LightRoom made The Standard Preview Size 1920 (px) and the Quality Medium. Other smaller size choices are 1680, 1440, and 1024. (1) Should I change these settings? (2) If I change these, do I need to delete the previews so they will be rebuilt? (3) Will LightRoom build additional previews for the raw files when they are imported (folder and file names are the same as the JPEGs, except for the top level folder)?
Best regards!

Andrew S. Gibson July 14, 2020 - 8:11 am

Hi Gary, it doesn’t matter where your photos are saved, you can import them into your Catalog. Your Standard Preview sizes are fine. And yes, Lightroom Classic will build individual previews for Raw files.

Kathy February 27, 2021 - 3:09 am

Hi Andrew,
I am new to LR, have been using it less than a year. I have not found it user friendly and after reading your tutorial I believe it’s because I imported files as DNG when I really didn’t know what I was doing (that’s what another tutorial said to do). So right now I am not happy with my LR filing system/organization because LR has moved files around on my hard drive making them hard to find. Fortunately it’s not a lot of photos, so my rather long winded question is, can I undo what I have done on LR and start over without making a bigger mess?!

Andrew S. Gibson February 28, 2021 - 8:36 am

Hi Kathy,

It sounds like your problems come from not understanding how Lightroom Classic works. Before I try and set that straight, I just want to assure you that Lightroom Classic doesn’t move files around on your hard drive unless you initiate the move yourself. And that converting your Raw files to DNG doesn’t make any difference to your user experience in Lightroom Classic. All it does is change the format of your Raw files to DNG.

The answer to your main question is yes, you can begin again in Lightroom Classic by starting a new Catalog. But you’ll lose any edits you’ve made to your photos in the process (there is a way around that, but it’s a bit complex if you don’t know your way around Lightroom Classic properly yet). And if you don’t understand how Lightroom Classic works properly, then you’ll just end up in a mess again.

So I suggest you start by reading some of our tutorials (I’ve pasted some links below) to get to grips with the basics. Once you understand how importing works and why you should use Collections you’ll hopefully see that you organize your photos in your current Catalog without starting a new one.

I also recommend that you buy our Lightroom Classic ebooks, starting with Book One: The Library Module as they take you through Lightroom Classic right from the beginning in a logical way.

Here are the tutorials to get you started:

Kathy March 2, 2021 - 9:11 pm

Thanks Andrew,

I admit I clearly do not understand how LR works! I read some tutorials on the Adobe site and then some from independent photographers and got thoroughly confused. I read your 5 day LR tutorial and it makes better sense to me than the others. I’ve already started using your folder structure, on photos that have not been imported into LR yet, because it works with how I like to organize.
Thanks for responding to my long winded and probably confusing question! I will read the tutorials in the links above and look into your ebooks.
Many thanks for making things understandable!


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