Adobe Lightroom - The best photo organizing software available :: Digital Photo Secrets

Adobe Lightroom - The best photo organizing software available

by David Peterson 63 comments

For photo organization, nothing beats an old shoebox. Actually, everything beats an old shoebox, which is one of many reasons why modern photographers ought to be thankful for digital. Digital photos don't have to be printed and filed away somewhere, and we no longer have to keep track of the physical location of our negatives, most of which are difficult to identify by sight and either have to be well-labelled or painstakingly held up to a window and squinted at.

But the blessing of easy-to-store digital photographs can also be a curse, because photographers tend to get a bit lazy about those thousands of images that need some sort of permanent home. Filing them manually can be tedious, and renaming them to something logical (vs. that cryptic IMG_, DSC_ or other variation thereof) is nothing short of a huge time suck. Feeling daunted? Enter Adobe Lightroom.

Now if you're not already familiar with Adobe Lightroom, I bet you thought it was just a scaled-down image editor, similar to but nowhere near the equal of its big brother Adobe Photoshop. Part of the confusion comes from Lightroom's proper name: Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, which should in no way imply that the two pieces of software perform similar functions. They do have a few features in common, but they are actually good for vastly different purposes.

Priced at $149 (vs. the much more expensive Photoshop, currently priced at $699), Adobe Lightroom can't do most of what Photoshop can. You can't use it to make yourself lose 30 lbs, for example, which is something you can do (given enough time and skill) in Photoshop. You can't merge photos shot at different exposures to create a high dynamic range image, you can't cut one object out of an image and paste it into another and you can't use any of those cool artistic filters that Photoshop users have come to love (or hate).

So what's it good for?

The reason you can't do any of those things is because Adobe Lightroom's secondary function is as an image editor, and a basic one at that. Its primary function is as a photo organizing tool. And at that function it excels.

Lightroom is database-driven, which means that it catalogs all of your images in an intelligent way, using keywords and metadata to sort and store information about each photo. This makes it easy for you to search for and find your images without having to manually page through all of the directories your hard drive.

Lightroom reads the metadata for each one of your images, which includes your camera's make and model, the date and time the image was taken, and the settings you used when capturing the image (aperture, shutter speed, ISO etc.) All that information is stored in a "catalog," which is Lightroom's word for its database. When you import your images into Lightroom you can choose to add information such as keywords (the name of the person photographed, for example, or the name of an event), flags and your own personal star rating for the image. You can't do any of this in Photoshop, because Photoshop doesn't have a database.

The latest version of Lightroom also allows for location-based organization, which means you can sort your photos by location and automatically display the location information from your GPS-enabled camera or smart phone. You can also plot your road trip or vacation using the photos you took during your travels.

Searching and sorting your images

If you follow my advice you don't just take a few photos here and there. You take lots of them. Each time you import photos from a memory card you are probably dumping hundreds of images on to your hard drive, and that means you have an organizing problem on your hands. (As an aside, if you're dumping lots of photos to your hard drive, you also have a backup problem you should address immediately)

If you're like many photographers you probably designate a place to import them all, and then you go back later and file them away (if at all). Lightroom makes that initial import so easy that you won't have to put your images in a to-do folder; you can get them all sorted and filed away as you import them.

Most cameras cycle through standard, cryptic file names - if you shoot Nikon, for example, the camera starts with DSC_0000 and keeps going until it gets to DSC_9999. What then? Well, then it stars over from the beginning. So if you have in a non-chronological filing system, it's conceivable that you might try putting two images with the same name in the same directory, which can obviously lead to problems. So renaming is always a smart idea, not just because it prevents this kind of complication but also because it helps you locate photos later on - even years down the road when you just aren't sure you can remember what date you took those amazing waterfall images or when you last visited your state beach.

So if you currently rename your files but have no dedicated software to do this for you, you probably know all about tedium and monotony. The most straightforward way to rename files in Windows is to double click your file name and then change that name manually. With Lightroom you can change all of them on the fly as you import them, or you can change the names later--either by individual file or by group.

As you do your import, you can add tags and keywords to your photos, which makes finding your best images later on a whole lot easier. Use any keyword of your choosing and add them to single photos or to groups. And if you love manually sorting everything you can do that too, just by dragging and dropping.

Now here's where all that renaming and tagging becomes useful - Lightroom has advanced tools for searching and sorting your images. You can search using your file name or by those keywords you added when you imported, or you can search by the number of stars you gave the image or the make and model of the camera you used. You can also combine search criteria to exclude or include certain results. Search criteria is pretty advanced, so as long as you made good use of keywords and file names it should be very easy to find what you're looking for.

What else?

Most photographers need some kind of image editing tools, but the advanced tools available in Photoshop are not necessary all the time. Fans of Lightroom often say that they use Lightroom's tools for 95 percent of their editing needs and switch to Photoshop only for those more complicated tasks. If you just want to crop and straighten your photo, remove spots or correct red-eye, you can do that easily enough in Lightroom. You can also change white balance and perform most exposure, color and contrast corrections. You can also sharpen, reduce noise or add noise and correct for lens distortion.

The bottom line is that you need something to keep all those digital photos in check, because it doesn't matter how beautiful that shot of Vernal Fall in Yosemite is, if you can't find it you might as well have not taken it in the first place. Lightroom may not be as inexpensive as some of the other commercially available photo organizing tools, but it's the best of the best, and if you want to gain some control over that spiralling-out-of-control collection of digital images it's definitely the way to go.

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  1. Michael says:

    Hello David,

    I have photo folders scattered all over my hard drive (old computer) Will Lightroom assist me in getting all photos in one location? I have to search "My PC" to find some of them. I have had HD's crash that I copied the whole drive to my current drive so the folders are everywhere. Help!

  2. Tony Seculer says:

    Hi David,

    I use Windows Photo Gallery to organise my photos and it has been excellent, but is now no longer supported. It does not have a database, tags, names, key words, etc. are just stored as meta data. That seemed like a great idea as you keep all of your organisation in each photo, rather than relying upon product database that may stop being supported.

    1. Can I just import all this organisation into Lightroom or Elements?
    2. Can Lightroom or Elements update the meta data like Photo Gallery did?
    3. Can you also organise video with these?

    Many thanks for the article.

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Tony,

      If I remember correctly, Windows Live Gallery just stores image files in folders inside your Pictures Folder. If this is correct, you can import these in place into a catalog that you create in LR. Yes, both Lightroom and Elements will update all the meta data like Photo Gallery did.

      And yes, Lightroom handles video too - but it won't edit videos so you'll need another program to do that.


  3. Eleanor says:

    I currently use photoshop elements organiser for my thousands of photos. A friend has suggested moving to lightroom. Is the organiser similar to elements? Does it have tagging, categories etc? Which would be the best to use?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Elanor,

      Yes, the Lightroom organizer includes everything in the Elements one, but it's a lot more powerful. If you're happy with the Elements organizer, then stick with that. But if you find the Elements organizer lacking, try Lightroom. You can try it for free through Adobe's Creative Cloud.


  4. Paul St Pierre says:

    Hi David,
    Follow-up or clarification to Jared's question. I have a similar problem, but your response doesn't quite answer it. I travel, and when something catches my eye, I take lots of shots. Maybe a sunset (scenery), or architectural details (close-ups). Or something with motion - like birds flying. Different angles, framing, lighting. Maybe taken on different days, not sequentially. The subject is the same but they're not duplicates. Which one or two are worth keeping? I need to be able to see 3 or 4 or 6 at once to compare, select the best, and discard the rest. Or (a related problem) place them in a custom order that reveals the story with the most impact. In the good-old-days of kodachrome, I'd use a light table to sort with total freedom. So far I haven't found a digital photo organizer that will do that. Does LIghtroom make it easy - or even possible? Or another program so-far-undiscovered by me?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Paul,

      Yes, once you have the images, you can quickly make a collection from them and sort/rate them just as you describe. Making a collection from images is easy too. If you have meta data already present, you can search for 'bird' and find all your images of birds so you can add the ones you like to a collection.


  5. Mitch Fillmore says:

    Great article. I'm undertaking the somewhat anxiety ridden process of retiring my 9 year old iMac with iPhoto/Photos and migrating all photos and video to a Windows 10 machine. Can Lightroom scan a machine across a network (my iMac) and pull all of the photos to my Windows 10 machine and maintain all of the meta data (date of photo, etc) when it finds them? I'm really worried that I'm going to leave something behind on the iMac. Also, can Lightroom manage all of my video clips from iMovie as well? I'd love to have single piece of software, on Windows 10, to find all of these images across multiple machines (Mac and Windows 7) and move them to a single new location. Hope this makes sense. Thanks for any advice! Mitch

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Mitch,

      Yes, you can import your images from your Mac. To make sure all metadata is stored, use the Export function of iPhoto which will save the titles etc in a new jpg image. Then use the Import feature of Lightroom and ask it to import from the exported images on your Mac's drive. Make sure to check the 'copy files' option so the images are copied to your Windows computer... otherwise Lightroom will leave the images where they are.

      Yes,. Lightroom does have some support for videos. Read more here:

      I hope that helps.


  6. Nick says:

    my iMac has only 256gb of Hard Drive space. Will I be able to use Lightroom while having all my photos on an external drive. What happens when I "import" the photos into Lightroom?

    • David Peterson says:

      Yes, you can 'import' the images while leaving the files themselves on an external drive. Just tell lightroom not to copy them during import.


  7. Justin says:

    I'm out because of the subscription model and the poor internet service I have I do NOT want to be a slave to an internet connection in order to use a piece of software and I don't need every upgrade every 24 hours. Adobe sickens me with all their constant upgrading. However much of that is due to Microsofts incredibly poor security. Does Microsoft make anything that isn't really just Beta?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Justin,

      I understand your reluctance. Lightroom is still available for outright purchase from places like Amazon.

      However, unlike a lot of other software, Adobe's subscription model does NOT require you to be online every time you start the program. As long as you are online first to download and register, it will work when the computer is offline.


      • Laurel M says:

        Thank you so much for the excellent article and helpful replies on comments! Aside from updates, is there any specific benefit of the subscription model? Is it that the subscription model comes with online storage capacity, while the outright-purchase model does not?

        And, if you start on one format, can you switch to another later? For example, could you do the outright-purchase Lightroom for a few years and then move to online subscription model seamlessly later -- or update the outright-purchase version in a few years?

        Lightroom sounds like the best thing out there, but I'm just a decent amateur, and I feel like this program will already have more than what I need.... I'm not sure I need to invest $120/year to subscribe when I could work well with the $142 purchase for several years and upgrade when I want to. But maybe I'm missing something.... Thanks!

        • David Peterson says:

          Hi Laurel,

          Updates is the main advantage. And yes, you can switch from one model to another, so you can purchase outright at the start and switch to subscription for updates in a few years. Just note you don't get credit for your outright purchase to use against the subscription model.


  8. Jared says:

    I am looking for a program that can organize photos by date taken, as well I have over 15 years worth of digital photos and another 10 years of scanned photos to sort through. My biggest issue is through out those years I have backed up in various ways and now have up to 5 duplicates of the same picture, some with different file names. I need to be able to find the duplicates easy and delete the extra files. Also I am having concerns with importing all the pictures as I have many with the same name but are different photos as my wife and I used similar phones and cameras for a few years so they used the same generic file name system. I have over 50000 files to deal with here so I need a time saver. I do not want to use cloud services and would like to back all pics up once organized to a backup drive.

    • David Peterson says:

      HI Jared,

      You'll be fine with Lightroom. It's designed for pro photographers so can handle many thousands of photos including different images with the same name.

      And yes, it can find (and remove) duplicates during the import process and can backup your images to a backup drive.


      • Betty says:

        Remove? I would like to find all duplicates, quadruplicates, etc. and I do the removing (deleting) from selected groups, keeping the photos where I do want them. Does the program link to the photos or copy them, or???

        • David Peterson says:

          Hi Betty,

          Lightroom links to the photos on your hard drive (wherever they are). You can choose to get Lightroom to show you the dupes (rather than deleting) and you can then go to the file location and remove manually if you wish.


  9. Ed says:

    I think the biggest problem we have is that we take quite a few photos of the same thing. Different settings, people are moving, no smile, and all that. So we find that we spend a ginormous amount of time finding the 'best' one (completely subjective of course). It takes a lot of time to rid the photos we don't want, and very little time to catalog those we do. Seems most of the software out there is geared towards cataloging rather than cleaning up the extras.

    So far it seems that all the thumbnail viewers we try (including just using the built in windows viewers) show one image, and then you have to keep going back and forth multiple times to see each of the images in the set, then delete and just leave the one you want. Painful at best.

    Have any suggestions for this process to be easier?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Ed,

      If you have Lightroom, try using the star system to mark images that you want to use. Then set a filter for all photos with at least one star. That way, you'll never see the images that aren't the 'best'.

      I hope that helps.


  10. Susie says:

    So it will find ALL the photos on my computer and put them in chronological order? Then I can move them to different folders for each kid or event but that first one will stay in the main area?

    • David Peterson says:

      Yes! Once it's found all your images, you can sort in any order (including chronologically). You can then move into different folders, or do what I do which is tag them so I can get all photos related to a specific holiday or with a specific person quickly.


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