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.
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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