How I organize Lightroom classic CC catalogs

One of the most intimidating things about taking a lot of photos is the organization of all these photos. I have talked to so many people who have lost photos from sessions they haven’t delivered, who have no meaningful way of keeping track of photos from 3 years ago, or are confused about the basic function of Lightroom catalogs, so they import the photos, render JPEGs and remove them from LR again. This doesn’t have to happen. Lightroom is an incredibly powerful tool to help organize sessions and find the original RAW photos, even years from now. It’s searchable by folder name and metadata like camera used, lens used, rating, etc. Here is my method. First, a few basic principles I adhere to…

1. First off, a basic overview of how I store photos. This isn’t set in stone, but it works for me.
- I store my Lightroom catalog and finished JPEGs on my main computer drive. Basic maintenance tasks include deleting old catalog backups now and then, and that’s about it. That way, even if i have an external disconnected, i can still get my finished work in case I have a quick request for a photo, or need something for social media while I’m away from my archival drives.

- I store all current projects on an ssd external drive. This drive is only for current project RAW files. The reason I do it that way is because then I can see at a glance what I have left to edit, and I get the little thrill of moving a session to my archival drive when it’s done. It keeps my life visually organized. I use an SSD because it’s faster to work off of and there is no mechanical noise.

- I store all the finished session raw files on an archival hard drive system that is set up in RAID 1. It’s not as fast as the ssd, but it holds a lot and is easily searchable. I see no benefit in deleting keeper raws, since hard drive space is increasingly cheap, and being able to go back and search photos from the beginning of my career has saved my butt a few times.

Ok, moving on for now….

2. Once you’ve imported photos to LR, do not move them EXCEPT THROUGH LIGHTROOM. You can drag and drop folders between recognized hard drives and file structures. Make sure you always do that. If you need to make subfolders, you can also do that in Lightroom by right clicking and using the “create new folder” option. If you create your folder structure inside Lightroom, it will make your life easier.

3. I organize every one of my sessions in this file system and naming convention

YY.MM.DD-genre-specific shoot name

Why year first? Because then it will never get out of order, even if multiple years are in the same folder. I always list genre as well, since it’s an easily searchable term, but always starting with date allows me to narrow down a search easily.

For finished JPEG folders, I mirror this naming convention exactly. They are stored on the main drive, and under a JPEG folder, but if I want to find both the raw and the jpeg files, I can just search the whole system with that name and both folders will pop up.

4. Large catalogs are not the enemy. I currently have 229k photos in my main catalog. LR has come a long ways from the days where large catalogs would slow down systems. Other than catalog backups being a bit time consuming, there are no performance hits that I’m seeing and the ability to search through photos is nice. If I’ve been working on another computer, I export a small catalog and import it into the main catalog when I get it back.

Ok, a photo, so you can visually see what I’m talking about.


A few things to note…

- As you can see in my current projects drive, I’m caught up other than a few undated folders. That’s why I have the time to write this blog. My only exception to the strict “YY.MM.DD-genre-shoot specific” naming convention is for a few catch-all folders that i keep for test shots and goof around stuff. As you can see, in an entire year, it only accounts for 365 photos, but it’s handy to avoid making a new folder for every. single. import. Also, it’s nice for ongoing personal projects. I try to keep these very few.

- You may notice the color rating beside the folders. That was a failed experiment. I didn’t find it helpful once LR introduced the search bar.

-I have no need for sub folders other than by year. Search is easy.

-On months or days that are in the single digits, it’s important to insert the 0 before the number. That keeps everything in order.

- You can see there are two drives listed. When I’m done with a project in the “current projects” drive, I simply drag it down to “Imports 2018” under “photos!”. Lightroom moves the files and updates its database so that no links are broken.

- You can also see that I’m not super dogmatic on my genre-specific name part. It’s been suggested that I generate a google doc or something with a defined list of genres and conform shoots to that. I think that’s a good idea over the long haul, and it would allow for reference later.

- Finally, if the folder sizes seem fairly small, it’s because I do a first cull before importing (usually in Photo Mechanic, but you could rate in LR as well and delete the photos not picked). I see no reason to have a pile of photos to agonize over, so my first cull involves picking only photos that I think have a chance of being included in the final, either because of technical merit or the content (i.e. grandpa, etc). I operate on gut for the first cull, so I move very quickly, but sometimes it means I can cut a third of my total photos before I get started on the real cull. If there is a question on first cull, I include it. I get much tougher on second when I decide on what photos to deliver, but I keep all files after first cull.

This is obviously a very quick overview, but I’ll do my best to update it if you have questions. Basically, getting this plan together near the beginning of my career, has been incredibly helpful. It’s kept me from feeling overwhelmed and made sure that every photo is accounted for. If you develop a solid plan, it will make photography a much more approachable activity, both for now and for the future.

P.S. Notice there is no real mention of back up strategies other than the RAID system for archival. That’s for another time. This is just so the initial organization makes sense. Thanks for reading! Hope it’s helpful.