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Lightroom Organization with Smart Collections

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!

About Michael Hoffman (224 Articles)
Mike has been a photographer, artist, educator, and technophile for most of his life. Early in his career, he created technical illustrations and photographs for electronic equipment manufacturers, and taught classes in computer aided drafting and 3D modeling software. When digital cameras became widely available in the late 1990s, the move was a natural one, and has led to a happy combination of technology, software, photography and art. Mike is an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop and Acrobat, and is well versed in Lightroom and Photoshop Elements, as well as Illustrator and InDesign. He has also contributed his time and efforts to the excellent work being done by Operation Photo Rescue, in restoring photographs damaged by natural disasters. As an active member of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals, he continues his quest for excellence in art, excellence in design, and excellence in education.

5 Comments on Lightroom Organization with Smart Collections

  1. Michele Haro // 30/03/2011 at 7:46 pm //

    This seems like a whole lot of work to try and find files. I have my own system that is pretty much fool proof. I can find my images very easily. I have folders set up, first, by year – 2005, 2006, 2007, etc, etc. Then the subfolders will have dates, lets say “01-25-05”, which organizes them by the first numbers, hence the need for a zero in front of a single number. Then, within the folder, the file names will be something like “01-25-05 Downtown Melbourne”. All I have to do is a simple search in Windows for either the date or part of the file name. I’ve never had a problem yet finding images, with not so much work as needed in Lightroom. I do have Lightroom but I find it cumbersome and I almost never use it. The thing I really dislike about LR is that it seems to make duplicates of images, which takes up ALOT of disk space. I’m sure there’s a way around it, but again, I don’t want to spend that much time fixing it.

  2. Michele, thanks for your comments. Like you I have a system for organizing my files by date, and I was glad to see that Lightroom can do that automatically for me. But even having the files sorted by date, being able to create Smart Collections is extremely useful. I have, for example, smart collections that gather the best photos of a given category (Birds, Churches, or Rafting pictures, for example, that have ratings above a certain level). As I add keywords and change the ratings, my photos appear and disappear from the smart collections automatically.

    The second issue, regarding making lots of duplicate images, sounds like confusion in your LR workflow. It’s too complex for a tutorial here in the comments, but watch for tutorials from me in the near future related to image management in Lightroom.


  3. Dear Michael,

    Thank you so much for your post. I have been using lightroom and Nikon Capture NX for a while. And I am using different keywords/tags/rating to manage my photos. Besides, I have edited the photo XMP info so that it includes my name and copyright info. However, while I output the photos(only the IPTC left, with EXIF cleared), I find that the IPTC info still contains my keywords/rating. May I ask is there any method so that I can preserve my name/copyright info in the photo but not the keywords /rating? It’s a bit embarrassing while others read the keywords like “car” “sunshine” on my photo IPTC info, and at the end, the keywords are only useful to me but not the others…Would be grateful if you can give some advice to me.
    Thank you so much.

  4. K,

    It depends on how you’re “outputting” your photos, but most of the LR export methods include an option to “minimize metadata” which will remove everything except copyright information. Have you tried that? It works for me for both exporting and for publishing.


  5. Hi,
    I want to use IPTC Category to create smart collection, but lightroom doesn’t let me. Besides, when I say Any IPTC it doesn’t list my pics either. This is completely inconsistent with what it’s supposed to do here! I tried IPTC Scene code as well, but same problem!

    Where would you typically store such infos (for example, I have a cityscape category, a landscape category, a sport category and a wedding category) These are the galleries on which I will publish my pictures on my web page and on photo shelter)


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