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An Introduction to Lightroom Collections

What are collections and why are they different from folders? Folders are where your images are imported and, conventionally, they are titled by date and that’s about it; they don’t tell you a whole lot about what’s in there unless you can remember on what date you took which photograph. Collections are bespoke “folders” of images that can be created in many ways, have many uses and the most important thing about your collections is that they don’t increase file sizes by reproducing images already on your hard drive. A collection, at a very reductionist level, is simply a group of links to images that already exist in your folders.

So why use collections over folders? Say you shoot a wedding and your clients select the images to go into the album. You can use stars, flags or colour tags to highlight these images and then use metadata to distinguish these images from the rest of the album. Fine, but you will have to do this every time you need to look for them. Why not do this once and create a collection of these images that then sits there in the sidebar so you can access it easily? Or, you shoot some landscape images on a trip and some family photographs on the same trip; simply select the landscapes and create a collection of them, then one of the family snaps and you don’t have to sort through the whole folder ever again!

I’m a bit of a Collection evangelist (I thought I had better tell you that in case I was being too subtle) because, I think, they are one of the most efficient ways of using Lightroom and one that utilises its capabilities as an image library, making your life as a photographer easier.

Sermon over: let’s take a closer look at these things.

There are three items to be found in collections, these are:

Collection Sets

To borrow a metaphor from the office, these are filing cabinet drawers and your collections are the suspension files found therein. When photographing a wedding I will create a collection set with the client’s name and then I will create collections within that set to hold the pre-wedding shoot images, the wedding images and the album selections.


These are the folders of images that you create. We will go on to describe how you create these later.

Smart Collections

These collections employ the image library capabilities to create collections. Want to know which images have no keywords? Done. Want to know which images shot between June and August were in portrait ratio (why you would I have no idea, but if you did)? Done.

So how do we create collections?

Firstly we will look at creating Collection Sets, as it is useful to create these first for Collections to be created in (you can create Collection Sets later and drag & drop Collections into them).

To create Collection Sets from the menu bar do one of the following: go to Library> New Collection Set; click on the plus sign at the top of the Collection palette and select Create Collection Set; or right click (PC) Ctrl click (Mac) on the Collection palette.

N.B. The Sort By Name & Sort By Type options affect how the Collections in the Set are ordered. Sort By Type organises collections with smart collections at the top and Sort by Name sorts alphabetically.

Using either method brings up this dialogue:

Put whatever name you wish in the Name box. Use the dropdown Set to place the Collection Set into an already existing Collection Set if you wish.


Collections can be created in a number of ways: via Library> New Collection; via the plus sign at the top of the Collection panel; by using the keystroke Cmd N (Mac) Ctrl N (PC); or by right clicking (PC) or Ctrl clicking (Mac) on the Collection palette. Whichever method you use brings up this dialogue:

The Name box is where you title the Collection and the Set dropdown is where you select in which Collection Set, if any, you wish to put the collection.

The Include selected photos checkbox will, when selected, automatically include any selected files into the new collection. This option is very useful if you have made a selection of images from a folder via selected metadata etc.

Make new virtual copies checkbox will create a Collection of virtual copies of the files selected. Virtual copies are duplicates of files, but instead of making two image files a virtual copy only exists in Lightroom, and it can be processed in Lightroom separately from the original.

So far so straightforward, but what if you want to add photographs to a Collection that already exists or you didn’t include all the images you wanted to when you created the Collection? The simplest way to do this is to drag & drop image/s into the Collection. The second method is to use the Add to Target Collection option which is found under the Photo heading in the Menu or by the keyboard shortcut B. When you first use Lightroom the default target collection that is selected is the Quick Collection folder found in the Catalog palette.

You can however change the Target Collection to one of your choice if you so wish. To do this right click (PC) Ctrl click (Mac) on the Collection you wish to set as the target in the Collection palette and select Set as the Target Collection in this dialogue box.

Smart Collections

Once again there are a number of ways to create a Smart Collection: go to the menu and select Library> New Smart Collection; via the plus sign at the top of the Collection panel; or right click (PC) ctrl click (Mac) on the Collection palette. This brings up this dialogue box:

Name is where you title the Smart Collection and Set is where you select a Collection Set, if any, for the Smart Collection to go into.

The Match dropdown is where you select how your Smart Collection will be created from the Rules you set in the box below the dropdown. The options are All, Any or None. All selected images must meet all of the rules set to be included in the collection (only applies if you have more than one rule); Any means the image has to fit only one rule to be included in the collection, again this is only relevant with more than one rule; and None will include images in a collection that do not meet any of the Rules created.

The Rules dialogue’s first dropdown is where you choose the basis on which you want your rule to be created, e.g. filename, shutter speed, focal length (the list is too long to go into here so I suggest you investigate it yourself to gain an idea of how powerful this tool is). The second dropdown will vary with the option selected in the first dropdown and offers ways of filtering according to the first selection (again take a look yourself to get a good understanding of this). Finally the + sign on the extreme right will add another rule to your collection. When another rule is created a minus sign appears by the plus sign so you can remove rules from the collection.

Smart collections are best appreciated by having a play with the options so please have a go with them to find out how they can best be used for you.

If you create a Smart Collection you use a lot and want to use it on other Catalogs or share it with other Lightroom users right click (PC) Ctrl click (Mac) on the Smart Collection you want to use and select Export Smart Collection Settings, then choose a name and location for the settings.

To import the settings right click (PC) Ctrl click (Mac) on the Collections Palette Import Smart Collection Settings and locate where you saved the settings file.

Other options available via right click (PC) Ctrl click (Mac) options to rename and delete Collections, Smart Collections or Collection Sets (you can also delete with the minus icon at the top of the Collection palette, to add photographs to a collection and to Export a Collection as a Catalog.

So there you have collections: the best way of organising your images in Lightroom.

About Richard Hales (35 Articles)
Richard’s first foray into was photography was as an apprentice photographer for Oxford University over 20 years ago. From there Richard went on to study photography at University somehow gaining a BA & MA, he still is rather confused how he managed to do this. After University and an unfinished (and un-started) PhD Richard “retired” from photography for a few years to pursue a career in wine and, oddly, scrap metal before returning to photography and setting up a wedding and portrait photography business in Worcestershire. As well as running his photography business Richard is currently working on a bread & jam making book. He is the average height for a Nut.

3 Comments on An Introduction to Lightroom Collections

  1. Lots of helpful information in this post, thanks. I been using collections but haven’t figured out if there is a way to move a collection from within a collection set so that it sits as a collection on its own. Any suggestion?

  2. Hi Ken

    As far as I am aware you can’t move a collection out of a collection set. The only way to do it is select the images and create a new ollection in the location you wnat it.


  3. Eric Bier // 17/05/2011 at 4:10 am //

    Collections and Virtual Copies are among the data that reside only in the Lightroom database unlike many other forms of metadata that can be stored with each photo. This makes it critical to rigorously backup multiple copies of the Lightroom catalog including regular off-site backups.

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