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A further look at Keywords within Lightroom

One of the most tedious tasks with maintaining a large catalog of images is maintaining the list of keywords and applying the right keywords to an image. Following on from the great tutorials of my fellow Nut, Michael Hoffman (Tag your images), I’d like to show you how to create and maintain more complex keyword tables.

For example, the image below is of a sunrise on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, UK, Europe.

so adding the location based keywords of ‘Skye’, ‘Isle of Skye’, ‘Scotland’, ‘UK’ & ‘Europe’ would have to be added individually using the normal methods within Lightroom. This can get very tedious and is prone to many errors such as ‘Isle of Sky’.

With a little fore thought and preparation the job of creating a nested or hierarchical group of keywords can make tagging your images much simpler. In this example, I will be able to add just the keyword of Skye and have the ‘Isle of Skye’, ‘Scotland’, ‘UK’ & ‘Europe’ added automatically. This is able to work because ‘Skye’ and ‘Isle of Skye’ are two names to describe the same thing and ‘Skye’ is within ‘Scotland’, which is within the ‘UK’ etc.

Creating a nested keyword structure in Lightroom is easy enough as can be seen at the beginning of Michael’s tutorial, although Lightroom does make this quite tedious when trying to input and organise complex nested keywords.

As you can see in the screenshot above, I have already created a basic nested keyword structure. Creating a large nest list like this is very time consuming, so I prefer to use the following method.

Lightroom maintains the list of keywords in a structured text file. it is possible to export and import these keywords and then edit them with a simple text editor.

Clicking on the Metadata tab from the menu, scroll down and click the Export Keywords..


Save the keywords text file and open it within your favourite text editor..



As you can see, the text file contains the keywords from our catalog. The keywords are nested using the ‘Tab’ key.. so in the example above Shanghai and Beijing are part of China, which is in turn part of Asia.

So now we can create more entries within the keyword file, using tabs to sort the hierarchy of the table.

Once the changes have been made, save the file as a .txt file format and import it back into Lighroom.

The file that has just been edited and you should now see the added keywords appear in your keyword list.

So having added a nested structure of keywords, how do we make it so that ‘Skye’ and ‘Isle of Skye’ are treated the same within LR? The answer is Synonyms, LR allows each keyword to have other names. This can be accessed by right clicking (or cmd click for macs) on a keyword and clicking on the option Edit Keyword Tag.

By doing this, typing either Devon or Devonshire will tag the image with BOTH tags. To do this in the text editor we need to add the synonym using the { and } brackets as seen below

Save the text file and import back into Lightroom as per the instructions above.

Lightroom keywords should now look like this.

and now to the Magic, we will know add a single keyword to an image and all the nested parents will also be tagged.

NB! I have the 'Will Export' option to show tags that will export

I hope you have found this useful and although the initial setup is a little time consuming, editing the txt file and creating nested keyword tags goes a long way towards maintaining a clean effective image database.

two further little notes before I finish.

(1) using the [ and ] brackets creates a keyword that does not export

and (2) importing keywords adds to the list that LR already has, rather than overwriting the existing keywords.

NB! it is always wise to back up your catalog before making large scale changes to your image database.

About Scot Baston (31 Articles)
Scot Baston is a Commercial & Wedding Photographer that lives on the south coast of Devon, that inspires much of his work. Whether it the technical or emotive sides, Photography is a passion that continues to challenge and inspire.

17 Comments on A further look at Keywords within Lightroom

  1. Really useful Tutorial Scott! Thank you.

    A couple of little things that might also be useful:

    There is a pre-built hierarchy available from controlledVocabulary.com which is very good when tagging for the American market, and it also includes the search numbers used by many commercial databases. This one is also available for bridge, but the Lightroom version is significantly easier to use.

    Be careful when exporting to re-import — eg when exporting to Photoshop / onOne etc. It’s worth setting your defaults to export as a Lightroom hierarchy so that you don’t end up with a mess of ‘flat’ keywords at the bottom of your keyword set, equally be sparing in your use of excluded-from-export structural placeholders for the same reason. If you have a logical structure it’s worth keeping it, until you are exporting for a target that you will not re-import from.

    Finally remember you can use keywords to build your smart collections, and even sets for export, so how about a little hierarchy :

    publish > ipad
    > flickr
    > 500px

    Happy Cataloguing

  2. Excellent advice Andrew, and very well put.

    I like the idea of creating nested keywords for publish smart collections.. I will have to look into maintaining the hierarchy while not publishing those keywords to Flickr etc



  3. Claude Nozeres // 08/12/2011 at 11:43 pm //

    Thanks for this, Scott (also to Andrew re: ControlledVocabulary). I am however curious about the use of keywords as a hierarchy of place names. Why is this desirable when there are already IPTC hierarchy fields for Country, State, Location? Geotagging software can even autopopulate the fields, based on a location name or coordinates. Greatly reduces the tedium and helps with spelling? Note: For importing or exporting this metadata, there are really great Lightroom plugins available (not for other software, though–sticking to keywords for them may be a good idea, like for Picasa or iPhoto). Just wondering!

  4. Hi Claude,

    I consider this a How-to, not a What-to. My purpose was to demonstrate how nested keywords could be created and edited, rather than to give the user a list that may not be applicable to them. A case of teaching them to fish rather than giving them a fish.

    Also the IPTC fields are preset structured fields that may not apply to all users. for example State is not used in the UK, we use Post Codes not Zip Codes. in Europe the address system is different again.

    Consider that some places would be personal to the user rather to a specific address and also not fit within the IPTC structure. ‘The bridge over the river Kwai’ is not an address but would fit well within these location based nested keywords of Asia>Thailand>Kanchanaburi>Bridge over the river Kwai

    I hope that answers your questions

  5. I second this approach. I was entranced with Lightroom on first use for its ability for deep hierarchy keyword structure and speed. It is also important that you can drag and drop keywords and re-organize them when you find a new structure that works better. So start out simple and keep adding. One thing I find helpful, because I don’t always full categorize photos right away is to be sure you put the trip date and name in your file structure. This really helps you locate those photos you are searching for just prior to categorizing. It is also quite easy to add keywords on import, which can speed up your search later on.
    Finally, getting those keywords embedded in the photo for SEO is important. You should also consider the website technology you select. I originally used a simple website with photos stored in one of the major print-makers galleries embedded by web links in my site. This worked fine for ordering photos, but are two significant problems – search engines can’t see the metadata keywords AND the user cannot search by keyword. I switched to PhotoShelter for my website and my photo supplier based on recommendations from Art Wolf in an Outdoor Photographer article. Now Lightroom keywords really help my website visibility and better guide customers to particular subjects.

  6. I found this REALLY helpful! I’m learning the ins and outs of lightroom, and organization is something I really need to get under control.

  7. Christie Harris // 28/12/2011 at 8:18 pm //

    Great idea!
    If I export to a text editor and create a hierarchy from existing keywords then import the list again, will photos that I’ve already tagged with those keywords be automatically tagged with the parent keywords as well?

  8. I’m glad I bummed into this post Scot. I’ve been toying with the pros and cons of using keywords versus IPTC for location specific metadata tagging – I had the same misgivings as Claude. But now, I think the ease and flexibility that keywords offer as well as the ability to organise them has won me over.

    Thanks! Although, this means that I’ll need to spend a few hours in front of my catalogues re-organising my keywords!!!

  9. Andrew Macpherson // 28/12/2011 at 11:54 pm //

    Hi Christie,

    Short answer, no.

    Longer answer, go to your All photographs view, and bring up your Library filter, and select all the photos with a keyword you want to place in a new spot. Make sure the higher entries exist in the right hand panel, then drag the existing keyword to the new location. Sadly the hierarchies mean that a keyword can have different contexts and meaning, so eg



    Dominant colour

    Are not the same “Blue” and also why I advised that one export the herirarchy, not just the flat list of keywords.

    Hope that helps

  10. Jean-Noël // 29/12/2011 at 10:47 am //

    Ce tutoriel est une aide précieuse! Je l’ai mise en application immédiatement, et c’est d’une efficacité redoutable.
    Je vais en parler dans mon Club Photo où les utilisateurs de LR sont très nombreux.
    Mille mercis et bonne année à toute l’équipe.

  11. Michael // 07/03/2012 at 8:53 am //

    Hi Guys

    LR3 wont let me import my keywording list, it gives me the following error code;
    Only text files encoded with ASCII or Unicode UTF-8 are supported when importing keywords.
    My original list was written in excel on a PC, how can I change my script code?


  12. Hi Michael,

    I think that you need to export your list as tab separated file from Excel.. I think your current file has control characters in it that are preventing LR from reading the file

    I hope that helps, but if not, send me an email and I’ll try and help



  13. I’d like to introduce all stock photographers to a brand new website that provides a uniquely structured and easy to use set of keyword lists for all aspects of stock photo keywording and digital asset management.

    The basic list contains approximately 16000 keywords in a defined hierarchical order of 7 main categories, 85 sub-categories, and 377 sub-sub and deeper level categories that provides a logical path to easy keywording in a variety of programs, including Lightroom and Photo Mechanic.

    In addition, there are 68 different versions of the list to choose from, each customised to the geographical area YOU are interested in.

    The website also has much information about keyword list format and keyword list editing, and shows you how to build your own specialized keyword list with a basic text-editor.

    See more at: http://www.photo-keywords.com/

    Tim Makins

  14. Philip // 02/04/2013 at 11:51 pm //

    I have created a hierarchy of locations and have selected each one to export with the containing keywords, which I understand to add all keywords in a parent-child relationship when exporting, even if I only tag with a child.

    But when I only tag the child, it seems that WITHIN lightroom, only the child is really tagged, until it is exported. This means that in the Keyword hierarchy, the numbers indicating the number of tagged files does not show the correct numbers –

    eg: my hierarchy is US > NY > New York City
    If I tag 10 photos with US, NY & New York City, each of those entries in the list will show 10, which is correct.
    If I only tag the 10 photos with New York City, they will all export with US, NY and New York City, but in lightroom it will show 10 for New York City, but nothing for US and NY.

    How can I fix this without tagging each photo with all the items in the hierarchy?

    Thanks for any tips

  15. Randall Epp // 05/05/2013 at 8:38 am //

    I’m trying to create a new hierarchical keyword list, but am having trouble. I can’t delete my existing keywords, but I want the new sets at the top of the list so I created a news list with four top categories (0.1 Location, 02. Genre, 0.3 Subject, and 0.4 Theme). I don’t want those top categories to show up when I pick one of the subcategories under them. I’ve tried with square brackets and without square brackets. I’ve checked and unchecked the “Include on Export” choices, but it doesn’t make any difference. When I click on some of the subcategories, the only keyword that shows up is the subcategory – the way I want it to appear. But when I click on other subcategories I get things like “Food>0.3 Subject.” I can’t for the life of me figure out why this happens with some keywords and not with others. Any suggestions?

  16. Eric Zamora // 19/02/2014 at 2:10 pm //

    Hi Scot. Thank you for writing this article.

    I attempted to do what you described but it doesn’t work for me. I attempted to do this before reading your article. I exported my keywords, made a minor change to the text file (as a test), saved the file, then imported the new list (with the change). However, the change did not show up in LR. I’m running LR 4.4. I’ve tried this on two different computers, both iMac’s. I cannot get the changes I make to the txt document, no matter how small or large, to show up in LR when I import the new version. Any ideas on what might be the problem?

    BTW I bumped into your article in my search for answers. I’ll keep searching, but I hope to hear your (or anyone else’s) thoughts.

    Thank you,


  17. Eric Zamora // 19/02/2014 at 2:29 pm //

    I’m going to reply to my own post because I think I found a key missing piece in this story that was not obvious to me at all. The process of exporting keywords to a txt file, making changes, then importing that list only works for additive changes. It will not work for subtractive changes. This is do to the fact that LR appends the existing keyword list when importing a new list. All old keywords and parameters are kept. In every test I ran, I was subtracting “things” such as brackets, synonyms and keywords. When I imported the list, I wouldn’t see the changes. Then I realized that I had to add something to see the change. This is a major let-down for me. For example, somehow, I have about 200 keywords with brackets. I prefer to eliminate the brackets in the txt file, the import that txt file back to LR.

    I would like to know if others have this same experience, and if there are any work-arounds to this shortcoming.

    Thanks again.

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