Organize and Find Your Images in Adobe Lightroom

Editor’s note: Lightroom is an amazing tool. Here is a really great article that will help you with digital asset management, which is likely one of the more frustrating things about digital photography if you don’t have a workflow that you love.

I’m also really excited to let you know that we have a Lightroom video tutorial series launching this week. Videos will be published on a weekly basis and will really help you learn Lightroom if you don’t already know it. It will also help start you out with context, answering your questions surrounding shooting in RAW, how Lightroom differs from Photoshop, and just what “developing” your digital image means.

Back to the DAM article!
If you are like most photographers, at some time you have thrown up your hands in frustration and said, “Where’s that d*%n image?!” In fact, you had just identified the issue yourself: You had a DAM (digital asset management) problem; a link missing in the way you download, organize, name, and store your digital images.

If you take a lot of photographs and are looking for an efficient and effective workflow that you can start using right away to easily manage and find your images, this article is for you. Our goal is to help you understand DAM, show you a workflow using Adobe® Lightroom that incorporates DAM, and explain choices and decisions that will help you create a methodology that works for you. In short, we will show you how to streamline your workflow to more rapidly download, protect, file, name, find, and re-use your photos.

We will use Adobe Lightroom to demonstrate techniques you can use to organize your images during import, as well as some Adobe Lightroom tools you can easily use while working on your images. These techniques are very flexible, and you can use them with any type of photography. They work with other tools (for example, Apple® Aperture) and with any folder naming system you may use. (See How to Organize Photos in Adobe Lightroom for information on folder naming conventions on At the end of the article you will find a glossary for definitions of some technical terms.

Why Digital Asset Management?

Like almost everything else in photography, there is no one right way to handle digital asset management. Much of it is personal preference, and the most important thing is that you consistently use a method that makes sense to you. This will save you time and may even help preserve your sanity. By consistently using a technique, you will be able to:

  • Quickly and efficiently find the exact image you want
  • Know exactly how and in what sequence you processed each image
  • Effectively reuse or rework an image from any point in the processes without recreating all the work you have already done

Your Digital Photography Workflow

Your workflow will determine how you organize, track, find and share your images, so it should be straightforward, but robust enough so that you are not limited in the operations you can perform. Most digital photography workflows follow similar steps:

  • Importing images — Copying and renaming images, adding keywords, and creating and naming folders and subfolders
  • Post-processing images — Keeping track of the various processing states of your images in work-in-process (WIP) folders
  • Tagging images using Lightroom tools — Identifying the status of images
  • Outputting images — Exporting your final images in various formats and storing them in final output subfolders named to indicate type of output

We will demonstrate these steps using Adobe Lightroom. For the purposes of this article, we will assume it is April 2014 and you just returned from a multi-day landscape location shoot in Death Valley with 100s or 1000s of images from a variety of shooting locations: Mesquite Sand Dunes, Zabriskie Point, Dante’s View, and Ubehebe Crater. You sit down at your computer and insert your memory card full of images. Now what?

Organize During Import

Start by importing your images and organizing them at the same time. When you import images from a camera or card reader, Adobe Lightroom copies your images to the location you select on your hard drive, and creates a link between each image and the record of the image in your Adobe Lightroom catalog.

Your first decision is whether you import all your Death Valley images into one folder or assign them to subfolders by location or subject. There is no right answer to this question. Your choice will depend on how you believe you will want to manage and access your images in the future. If you just need to find images of Death Valley and not immediately get to images from any specific location in Death Valley, then importing all your images into a single folder may be your best choice. If you need to immediately get to images of Zabriskie Point or Scotty’s Castle, then organizing your images into subject or location-specific folders may be a better choice for you.

Regardless of your decision, do the following in Adobe Lightroom:

  • From the menu, select File > Import Photos and Video
  • Under Source, select the memory card on which your images are stored
  • At the top of the import screen, select Copy
  • Under File Handling, select Build Previews > Standard. Ensure both Build Smart Previews and Don’t Import Suspected Duplicates are checked. (See Figure 1)

Figure 1: File Handling

If you choose to import all your images into Adobe Lightroom into one folder, leave All Photos thumbnails selected and checked. If you have decided to import individual image sets by location into different subfolders that you will create on import, do the following in Adobe Lightroom:

  • Uncheck All Photos
  • Select all images for a specific location or subject. Click on the first image for a specific set. Find the last image in the set and shift-click on it to select all images in the location set. Next, check the box in top left corner of any selected thumbnail to get a checkmark on all selected thumbnails for that set.

Determining Naming Convention and Renaming Files

The files on your memory card are likely named something like IMG_1234.cr2 if you shoot Canon or DSC_1234.NEF if you shoot Nikon. While unique, these names are not well suited to help you identify the location, subject, date, or any other information about the image.

So your next decision is to determine a specific strategy for how you will rename your original images on import. You may want to include relevant information such as client name, location, subject or date into your file names. To ensure readability try to keep the file names short, but avoid abbreviations that may be unclear to you in the future.

We suggest using a naming convention that includes at least the date the image was captured and the location or subject. In our April 2014 Death Valley example, we would use “1404-DeathValley,” or “1404-ZabriskiePoint,” combined with the original file number, (using date based yy/mm format).

To rename your images on import, do the following in Adobe Lightroom:

  • Select File > Import Photos and Video to bring up the import screen
  • In the right panel, under File Renaming, ensure Rename Files is checked
  • Select Template > Custom name — Original File Number
  • In Custom Text, enter “1404-DeathValley,” “1404-ZabriskiePoint,” or the file naming convention of your choice

Figure 2: File Renaming

After import, your images will be renamed with the file name you chose combined with the original file number assigned by your camera. (For example, “1404-ZabriskiePoint-8821.NEF.” shown in Figure 2.)

Apply During Import

In addition to renaming your image files during the import process, you may want to:

  • Add some metadata (for example, copyright information)
  • Add keywords

You spend a great deal of time and effort capturing your images, so you will probably want to add your copyright metadata to protect them. If you have not already done so, the best way to do this is to create a metadata preset in Adobe Lightroom:

  • On the import screen under Apply During Import, select Metadata > New to bring up the New Metadata Preset dialog box (See Figure 3)
  • In the Preset Name field, enter an appropriate name such as “© 2014 [YOUR NAME]”
  • Add whatever information you choose in Basic Info, Camera Info, and IPTC Content
  • Under IPTC Copyright (See Glossary for explanation of IPTC)
    • In the Copyright field, enter “© 2014 [YOUR NAME]. All Rights Reserved.”
    • In the Copyright Status field, select “Copyrighted”
    • In the Rights usage Terms field, enter “All rights reserved.”
  • Under IPTC Creator, enter appropriate values in all the fields
  • Click Create. The New Metadata Preset dialog will close, you will be returned to the Import screen, and under Apply During Import your new metadata preset will be entered in the Metadata field. You can use this same preset in all future imports.

Figure 3: Metadata Preset

Next, add keywords during import in Adobe Lightroom. Under Apply During Import, enter relevant keywords in the Keywords field. In our example, you might choose to enter “Death Valley, Desert, Sunrise” or other descriptors that you feel are appropriate.

Import Destination

The last step in the import process is to select the destination for your images. To tell Adobe Lightroom where it should copy your images:

  • Under Destination on the import screen, ensure that Into Subfolder is checked. Specify where you want to copy your images. In our example, we are again using the combined date and location/subject convention.

    Figure 4: Select Destination
  • If you chose to import all your images into Adobe Lightroom into one folder you would create a folder with a unique name such as “1404-Death Valley.”
  • If you decided to import individual image sets by location into different subfolders, first create the folder “1404-Death Valley.” Select that folder as the destination, check Into Subfolder, and enter a unique subfolder name, such as “1404-ZabriskiePoint” into which you want to put the images for that selected location. (See Figure 4.)
  • In the Organize field, select Into One Folder
  • Click Import

Adobe Lightroom will now create the unique subfolder, import your selected images, and record the following information in your catalog:

  • File name and the location of the image in your file system (the drive, folder, and subfolder where the files reside on your hard drive)
  • Assigned metadata
  • Assigned keywords

If you have chosen to import all your images into one subfolder (for example, “1404-DeathValley”), you can now move on to processing your images. If you have chosen to import individual image sets by location into different subfolders (for example, “1404-ZabriskiePoint”), repeat the above process for each location.


Many times, post-processing an image involves multiple steps. For example, you may:

  • Process the image using Adobe Lightroom
  • Perform edits in Adobe Photoshop, possibly creating multiple layers, and save the layered file
  • Flatten the layered file and save the flattened file
  • Perform some additional processing on the flattened file in Adobe Photoshop and save the resulting file
  • Perform some processing using one of many add-in applications and then save the resulting file

Without a well-formed workflow, these many post-processing steps can create a morass of files that, in the future, will make it hard for you to determine exactly what you did, in what sequence, to achieve your final result. There are a number of great Adobe Lightroom classes online that dive into how to master these techniques.

One way to ensure that you can reconstruct exactly what you did to an image is to use a work-in-process (WIP) folder to save successive iterations of each image as you move through your post-processing steps.

Essentially you will:

  • Select a file in Adobe Lightroom — Open Adobe Lightroom. Select View > Grid (G). Find and select the image(s) on which you wish to work.
  • Edit the file in Adobe Photoshop, perhaps creating one or more layers — In Adobe Lightroom, right-click on the selected image. Select Edit In > Adobe Photoshop to open the image in Adobe Photoshop and perform your edits.
  • Save As your interim files in a WIP folderSave As your image at significant steps in your post-processing. Create a filename system that describes which successive step in post-processing the file is a result of, and whether the file is layered or flattened. (For example, “ZabriskiePoint-1234-A-layers.psd,” “ZabriskiePoint-1234-A-flat.psd,” “ZabriskiePoint-1234-B-B&W.psd,” etc.) To save your work in a WIP subfolder in Adobe Photoshop, select File > Save As (Command/Control-Shift-S) to bring up the Save As dialog box. Click New Folder and enter “ZabriskiePoint-1234-WIP” in the New Folder dialog box to create a work-in-process folder for the image you are processing. Click Create. In the Save As field, enter “ZabriskiePoint-1234-A-layers.psd” to save your layered file.

When you finish editing in Adobe Photoshop and return to Adobe Lightroom, you will see each of the files for each of the steps in your post-processing listed sequentially in the WIP subfolder. In the future should you ever need to determine exactly what you did to the image or want to re-process your image, you have instant access to all of the intermediate files to help you re-trace your steps.

Final Output

Once you have completed your post-processing, you will undoubtedly want to output your images to share online or to print. To ease file management, it is better to separate your original RAW files from your final JPG, PSD or TIFF files by putting them in different subfolders. Further, you may have different kinds of output for each file: one type of output file for print (for example, TIFF), one for Web (for example, sRGB JPG), and one for storing on your hard drive (for example, PSD or processed RAW images). (See Figure 5.)

Figure 5: Folder and Subfolder Structure

To keep this myriad of output files organized, we recommend creating an output subfolder called “Final,” and then within it create subfolders with descriptive names for each type of output file. For example, in the “1404-DeathValley-Final” folder, you may create subfolders with names that describe the content of each such as:

  • JPG-sRGB-72ppi-70 — For JPG files saved in the sRGB color space at 72 ppi and 70 percent quality that will be suitable for display on the web
  • TIF-AdobeRGB-16bit-300ppi — For 16-bit TIF files saved in the Adobe RGB color space at 300 ppi that will be suitable for printing
  • RAW — For final images processed only in Adobe Lightroom
  • PSD — For any final versions saved as .psd files

The benefit of this approach is that your output files are stored separately from your original RAW files, and you can very quickly and easily find all of your final images in one place.

Organize Your Images in Adobe Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom includes powerful tagging tools that you can use to rate and categorize your images, as well as a filtering tool you can use to quickly find specific images. These flexible tools include Flag, Rating, and Color Label and you will see them, and their useful keyboard shortcuts, under the Photo menu.

Which of these tagging tools you use and how you mix and match them is a very personal and subjective choice, and it is worth spending some time experimenting with them to find what works best for you. The key is not to over-think your tagging system: keep it simple and user friendly. The following are some tagging system examples:

  • Flag — As shown in Figure 6 consists of three states: Flagged (P), Unflagged (U), and Rejected (X). You may want to use these flags when you are initially reviewing your imported images and deciding which you want to flag as keepers to work with (P) and which you want to Reject (X) and even possibly delete from your catalog. (See Figure 6.). This review and selection process goes even faster if you first check Auto-Advance, (Library > Photo > Auto Advance).
  • Rating — A 1-star through 5-star rating system. You can rate your images from 1-star (least good) to 5-star (very best). Alternatively, you could assign a 5-star rating to the images that you have printed or published. (See Figure 7.)
  • Color Label — Possibly the most flexible, the color label system consists of 5 colors (red, yellow, green, blue, and purple) that you can apply to an image or a group of images. You can use different colors to identify a group of stacked images, a set of images that you have selected for HDR treatment, images you have selected for use in a panorama, or images you have chosen to be used as layers in Adobe Photoshop. Alternatively, you could rename and use a specific color label to indicate final images, printed or published images, or images that were selected and approved by a client. (See Figure 8.)

    Figure 6: Flag                                                Figure 7: Rating                          Figure 8: Color Label   

To assign a rating or a color label to an image in Adobe Lightroom, highlight the image and select Photo > Set Rating / Set Color Label from the menu. To assign a rating or color label even more quickly, you can use the 0 to 9 keyboard shortcuts. (See Figures 7 and 8.) Of course, you can remove or change assigned ratings or color labels at any time.

Once you have assigned flags, ratings, and color labels to your images, you can use the filtering tools to quickly and easily find your tagged images by selecting a folder or collection and clicking on the appropriate tagged attributes in the filtering tools at the bottom of the screen. (See Figure 9.)

Figure 9: Flag, Rating, and Color Label Filtering Tool


In this article, we have discussed how to make your images easy to find by using a streamlined workflow for importing your original images and organizing your post-processed images:

  • Importing — Renaming files, adding metadata and keywords, and creating subfolders
  • Post-processing folder structure — Saving versions of files at successive points in post-processing in WIP folders
  • Tagging images using Lightroom tools — Identifying the status of images
  • Output folder structure — Using a “Final” folder and various output subfolders to store different formats of your final images


Adobe RGB (1998) — An RGB color space developed by Adobe Systems, Inc. in 1998 designed to encompass most of the colors achievable on CMYK color printers, but by using RGB primary colors on a device such as a computer display. The Adobe RGB (1998) color space encompasses slightly more than 50 percent of all visible colors specified by the International Commission on Illumination (CIE).

Catalog as used by Adobe Lightroom — When you launch Adobe Lightroom and import images, Adobe Lightroom creates a catalog file (LightroomCatalog.lrcat). The catalog does not contain your images, but it does keep track of your images and the information about them (the metadata). Your actual images are located in a separate directory in your file system that you have chosen, such as My Pictures.

Import as used by Adobe Lightroom — You must import images into the Adobe Lightroom catalog to begin working with them in Adobe Lightroom. Importing tells Adobe Lightroom where images in the catalog are located. During import, you can choose either to move or copy the images into a specific folder. As images are imported, you can rename them, embed metadata, apply keywords, and even back up the original images to a different folder.

IPTC (International Press Telecommunications Council) — In the early 1990s, the IPTC developed an information interchange model (IIM), a file structure and set of metadata attributes, such as copyright information, that can be applied to text, images and other media types, to expedite the international exchange of news among newspapers and news agencies. IIM metadata embedded in images are often referred to as “IPTC headers,” as seen in photo editing software like Adobe Lightroom.

JPG — A commonly used method of lossy compression for digital images created by the Joint Photographic Experts Group.

Metadata — Refers to data about the content of your images. To see an image’s metadata in Adobe Lightroom, select an image in the Library module and click on Metadata.

sRGB — A standard RGB color space created cooperatively by HP and Microsoft in 1996 for use on monitors, printers, and the web. The sRGB color gamut encompasses just 35 percent of the visible colors specified by the International Commission on Illumination (CIE).

TIFF — Aldus originally created the tagged image file format (TIFF) for use in desktop publishing. When Adobe Systems acquired Aldus in 1993, it published Version 6 of the TIFF specification, which dropped all references to TIFF being an acronym. Today, TIFF remains a published specification under the control of Adobe Systems and is a popular format for high color-depth images suitable for printing.
About Mike Watson
Mike Watson has an extensive and varied background in consulting and business operations in the software industry. He’s most likely to be found these days behind a camera or processing his images in Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop. He is a workshop facilitator and an author of a number of articles about photography. You can visit his landscape and night photography here.

About CJ Glynn
A Silicon Valley veteran, CJ Glynn is Founder and Managing Director at Markatalyst, a full-service marketing consultancy. He is also an author of a number of articles about photography. When not helping clients drive demand and increase sales, CJ is likely to be capturing natural light landscape, travel, and commercial photographs, which you can see here.

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