In my workshops I teach people how to organize their photos, both the physical files on disk as well as their Photoshop Lightroom catalogs. Although I’ve been teaching these classes for years, I realized that I’ve never once written about it.

Well, that’s coming to an end.

What you’re about to read is a totally inclusive, top-to-bottom, front-to-back workflow for organizing, sorting, and managing your digital photos using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. Similar techniques will, I’m sure, apply to Apple Aperture, though all keyboard shortcuts and terminology will be Lightroom-specific.

For the record, I use Lightroom on a Mac and chose it because of Adobe’s openness to beta testing and feedback from the photography community, which I believe has made Lightroom the best tool for the job. Let’s get to it.

Organizing Files on Disk

First, why? Why organize your files on disk when Lightroom is such an apt cataloging tool? Why add another layer of complexity to your photo import workflow when Lightroom can just “take care of it,” assuring you that each RAW file is placed in a location appropriate to its metadata?

Because that’s totally wrong, that’s why. Lightroom is an amazing cataloging and organizational tool, but what if you couldn’t use it? What if your catalog, and its backup, and the backup’s backup, got destroyed? Or what if your operating system was in some state of utter bedlam, preventing you from opening Lightroom at all? Or what if you brought your external drive full of photos with you on a trip and found out that Lightroom on your laptop wouldn’t work?

Applying at least some moderate level of organization to your physical RAW files will make finding them that much easier if you ever have to do so without the aid of Lightroom. Surely not an eventuality we all hope for, but one that we should nonetheless plan for.

My Method

There are an infinite number of ways to organize your RAW files on disk, but I don’t have an infinite amount of time (and neither do you) so I will only tell you how I do it.

  • My top-level folder is called “Photography,” then

  • Within that folder there are three folders for the main categories of my work, “Events,” “Places,” and “Portraits.”

    • Events contains folders named for each event and those folders contain the photos.
    • Portraits contains folders usually of models’ names, and those folders contain photos. If I have done more than one shoot with a model, there are folders by date for those.
    • Places, however, contains a geographical hierarchy like “United States,” then “California,” then “Death Valley NP,” and
    • As with portraits, if I’ve been to a location more than once, there are folders by date.

I know that list might be a little bit complicated to absorb, so go ahead and re-read it if you want to. The basic idea is to have your major categories represented as folders on your hard drive such that you can locate, at the very least, the group of photos you’re looking for in the event you can’t use your catalog for it.

Enlisting Lightroom’s Help

You can get Lightroom to help you build this structure. Let me tell you what I would do if I were importing photos from a location shoot that I did in a place I had never photographed before.

  • Open the import dialog and choose the photos I want to import from the thumbnail view.

  • Choose “Copy Photos To A New Location And Add To Catalog.”

  • Browse for the correct geographical folder. I usually use the browse dialog to create the folders I need along the way. For example, I might browse into “Places,” then “United States,” and then I may have to create a folder for “Massachusetts,” and then another within that for “Boston.” (note: There is a “Make New Folder” or “Make Folder” button in the dialog in Windows and OS X, respectively).

  • In the future, if I already have the state folder created, I may simply select that and check off the box next to “Put in subfolder” and type the city or location name in there. That’s completely up to you.

  • If you want to organize the photos by date within the folder you’ve selected (and this precludes using the “subfolder” option above), select “Organize: By Date” and Lightroom will create a subfolder for each date in your import (by the photo’s created date).

A quick side-note: this is the time to select your metadata preset and choose some basic keywords to apply to all the photos you’re importing. This article isn’t really about keywording, but that won’t stop me from giving you orders: keyword your photos. That is all.

Awesome! Now all of your RAW files are organized in a coherent way on your hard drive. But you still have thousands of new photos that you just imported and unless you’re Ansel Adams they’re not all keepers. Actually, even if you were Ansel Adams, they still wouldn’t all be keepers. So what you need to is treat your catalog like an emergency room.

Treat Your Catalog Like an Emergency Room

What I’m talking about is triage.

tri • age n.

  • The determination of priorities for action in an emergency.

  • Sweeping through your photos and separating the good from the bad.

Obviously the second definition is not exactly Miriam Webster material, but… I reserve the right to exercise my creative liberty.

Anyway, the idea is to prioritize photos by their quality so you can spend more time sorting through the really good ones and less time staring at the really bad ones. Doctors do this in emergency situations to make sure that patients who most need care get it first, to maximize the survival rate. For a doctor, determining priority among patients can be a real challenge, and prioritizing your photos can be tricky, too.

Luckily, Lightroom gives us some very helpful tools that come to our aid in this situation. You probably already know of them. They are:

  • Flags (picks and rejects)

  • Ratings (on a scale from one star to five)

  • Labels (colors)

Any given photo can have a flag (picked or rejected), a rating (one through five stars), and a color label, although all three attributes are optional. By default, a photo has no flag, no rating, and no color label.

With two possible flags, five possible ratings, and five possible color labels, that’s a whopping 50 potential categorizations a photo could fall into (if you use all three attributes)! So how can you best put these attributes to use to streamline your workflow?

I don’t know. But I can tell you how I use them.

My Method

The very high-level outline of my process goes something like this:

  • Eliminate rejects (using the reject flag, “X” on the keyboard)

  • Mark potential keepers (using the pick flag, “P” on the keyboard)

  • Light, experimental development to test the viability of the keepers

  • Un-flag bad picks (if development doesn’t work out; that’s “U” on the keyboard)

  • Complete development

  • Label completed images ready to go to the gallery in green (green for gallery, get it?)

  • Label experimental or fun images that will go to Flickr in blue (no mnemonic device for that one, I have a Post-It note on my monitor to remind me)

I then I use either the Export to Photoshelter or Jeffrey’s Export to Flickr plugins within Lightroom to send the images where they need to go.

You may notice that I don’t use star ratings at all. I used to use star ratings to differentiate between images to throw away, edit, or which had been completed, but since the advent of flagging and color labels I find that star ratings provide more specificity than I need. There are only rare occasions when I have a few photos that are very similar where I might use star ratings to indicate which ones I like more, just so I can remember later when I come back to them, but that isn’t part of my everyday workflow.

You’re Done!

You have absorbed my entire workflow and read all of my suggestions for using Lightroom’s sorting and cataloging tools. I hope that this helps you to keep your images in order!