If you’ve been following my past couple of tips on Tagging your Lightroom Images with Keywords, and Organizing and Searching in Lightroom with Keywords, you are well-prepared for this week’s tip. Today, we will explore how collections can help us to make sense of our Lightroom Catalog, and how Smart Collections go even further in providing a robust and extensible mechanism for keeping track of our images.
Preparation: Bullet-proof your catalog data
Before we go any further, I’m going to make a recommendation for setting your Lightroom preferences. I suggest you set Lightroom to automatically write any changes to XMP. This means that in addition to the changes being stored in your Lightroom Library, they are also stored in the image’s XMP data (a sidecar .xmp file if you are working with a proprietary raw format, or embedded in the file itself for DNG, TIFF, and JPG). You can set this as follows:
In Windows, choose Edit > Catalog Settings
In MacOS, choose Lightroom > Catalog Settings
Then, click on the Metadata tab, and check Automatically write changes into XMP:
There was a time, in earlier versions of Lightroom, where this was not recommended because it really slowed down the program. This has not been a problem in recent versions, and I recommend this setting remain on all the time.
First, if you ever lose your catalog due to a hardware failure, software problem, or even user error, the data will remain with your files, and you can reconstruct a good portion of your work even if you have to rebuild the catalog.
Second, in writing out the changes, you’ve created a robust and portable backup of your data that can be read by other programs, including Bridge. Using the techniques we will review today for creating smart collections, you will create a powerful organization structure. If you’ve written the data out to XMP, you will never risk losing the basis of that organization, as long as you have your images.
So, let’s get started:
Collections in Lightroom
When you imported your images into Lightroom (whether you copied them from a camera, or imported a set of files already on disk) you brought into Lightroom a lot of information about files that are physically stored on your computer’s disks. However, the organization of those files is more or less frozen at that point, and moving files around to reorganize can be confusing and time consuming. Remember, the images are NOT stored in Lightroom, they are still stored on your computer. But, Lightroom now has a record of those files, and any changes you make (develop changes, ratings, keywords, and so forth – even thumbnails and previews) are added to the records within Lightroom.
This is the key point – the records in Lightroom point to the files on disk, and have all manner of information about the files, but the records can be sorted and shuffled in any way we want regardless of the way the files are organized on disk. remember this and we’ll come back to it.
Let’s build a collection. We can use the techniques from last week’s tip for searching, and in my case I’ll construct a search for:
Keyword = Vacation
Keyword = Colorado
Flag = Picked
This will give me a set of images that I want for my collection. The images span multiple folders on my hard drive, but represent my favorite images from my recent vacation to Colorado;
This gives me over 100 images from my vacation. But, I don’t want to have to create this search every time I want to see these images. So, I can create a collection. Just select all the images, and then look to the left hand pane of the Library Module. Click the “+” next to Collections, and choose the item Create Collection…
This brings up the Create Collection dialog box. Enter a name for the collection, and make sure Include selected photos is checked.
Click on Create and the collection will be added to the list of collections. You can now get back to this collection at any time by simply clicking the item in the list of collections. No more searching!
Now, let’s think about what has happened:
- A group of photos from several different folders were gathered together and placed in the collection.
- No photos were actually moved. Remember the discussion above about records in Lightroom’s catalog? A collection is just a list of images in the catalog. The photos themselves are not duplicated, or moved, or modified in any way. You’ve just created a list of those specific images.
- A collection in Lightroom is a lot like a playlist in iTunes. Any song can be on many playlists. Any image may be in many catalogs.
Shortcomings of ordinary collections
Now that we have the collection created, and we can get back to it at any time, what if we want to change it?
We can select a photo and press Delete to remove it from the collection. There is no warning. The photo remains in the catalog, and can still be found in its original folder. It is just no longer a member of the collection.
We can add a new photo to the collection by dragging it from the Library grid and dropping onto the name of the selection:
This is OK for occasional adds and deletes, but this can be cumbersome in some cases. For example, I’ve gone to the trouble of creating this collection which represents images with certain keywords, with a certain flag status. Suppose I later review my images, and decide I missed on that should be a pick. Once I’ve flagged it as a pick, I have to remember to go back and add it to my collection.
On a similar note, what if I decide one isn’t all that good and remove the flag? I have to remember once again to go back and update the collection. Wouldn’t it be great if a collection could “know” about these things, and do the maintenance on its own? Of course!
Smart Collections – A Robust Organization Scheme
Smart Collections are similar to ordinary collections, in that they are lists of images that meet certain criteria that you’ve chosen. The difference is, you don’t manually add images to a Smart Collection, and you don’t manually delete them. Instead, Smart Collections are dynamic lists that are the result of search criteria that you can specify. Let’s look at creating a Smart Collection similar in purpose to the ordinary collection we created above.
We start without creating any kind of search, and without selecting any images. We just go straight to the Collections tab in the left Library panel, and after clicking the “+” this time we choose Create Smart Collection…
This time, we get a smart collection “builder.” We can give our Smart Collection a name, and start the criteria building process.
Enter the criteria that defines the parameters of your collection, clicking on the “+” at the end of the line to add a new criteria line:
You can also click the minus sign “-“ to remove criteria as you refine your query. Once you’ve entered your criteria, click Create to create the selection. The collection appears in the panel, and it is immediately populated by all the photos in your library that match the criteria!
Now as I go about modifying the images in my library, the Smart Collection will update automatically, whenever:
- I change an image by setting the “Pick” flag for any vacation images in the time range – the photo is automatically included in the collection.
- I add the keyword “Vacation” to any other picked images in the data range – the photo is automatically included in the collection.
- I add more images to my library from the same date range (say another camera or from another photographer) – any picked images with the keyword Vacation are, again, added to the collection automatically.
Furthermore, this idea of a Smart Collection is extensible and portable – if you followed my advice at the beginning and have Lightroom set to write XMP data to the files. Then, you can use Bridge, or even any other third party organization program capable of reading image metadata, to create or recreate the same types of smart searches that Lightroom calls Smart Collections.
By tagging your images with keywords, understanding how to search your Lightroom catalog using keywords and other metadata, and by using catalogs to organize your images, you are well on your way to becoming a master of your photographic image domain!
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