Jamie Thingelstad's personal website

Lightroom Keywords

lightroom_cs3_50×50.gifI’ve been digging into Lightroom and continue to be excited about the ability to use my digital photo library in many new ways. Lightroom has a lot of power, and so far I’ve mostly been working in the Library module. The Library module is all about metadata, data about data. Metadata is information about the photos themselves, like where it was taken or who is in the picture. There are four primary tools in Lightroom’s Library module for Folders, Collections, Keywords and Metadata Browser.

Every digital photo you have ever taken (you do take digital photos right? if not, stop reading now) is loaded with metadata known as EXIF data. Your camera puts simple information like the date and time in there, as well as more complicated data about the focusing information of the camera or even the serial number of the camera used. This is all neat but not terribly useful. Mostly what you want to do is find pictures of a person or thing, and that isn’t simple. This is where Keywords come in.

Keywords, or Tags, can be used in Lightroom to attach generic words (tags) to a photo for retrieval. When you first fire up Lightroom there are no real guidelines for how to use Keywords. I thought I would post some of my best practices for others.

  1. Don’t belabor keywords. If you find yourself thinking too hard about it, just add the keyword. There isn’t a big cost to having more keywords than less. Put the anal retentive OCD in you to the side for a while.
  2. It’s just the picture. I don’t like to put a keyword on something that isn’t obvious. For example, Vacation is one of the first keywords that people may apply to pictures from a vacation. This is what a Collection is for, not Keywords. Very few pictures have a Vacation as the subject, only then should it have that Keyword. My litmus test is “Is this a keyword a total stranger would identify with this photo?
  3. Don’t misuse metadata. Let’s say you go to France and take pictures. Don’t Keyword them as France, that is what the IPTC location fields are for. They are perfectly setup for information like this and then use the Metadata Browser to retrieve. Just reference #2 above and apply the Keywords that are self-evident.
  4. Hierarchy is cool. At first the idea of Keywords being inside of other Keywords seemed odd to me. Continuing to think of this as Tags, this wouldn’t make any sense and would make some people become violent. Indeed this is immensely cool in Lightroom. If you take pictures of Monarch Butterflys, just apply the keyword “monarch” or “monarch butterfly” (make them synonyms and save yourself the stress) and have that contained in “butterfly”, which is contained in “insect”. Bingo! You get a ton of categorical metadata.
    1. I use this one for people a lot. For example, I tag all people in every photo and put those people in groupings for their family, and then group the family into groups recognizing our relationship to them. For example, “Friends”, containing “Doe’s”, containing “John Doe”. Identify John Doe and you instantly get the broader groups of “pictures of the Doe’s?” and “pictures of friends?”

Keywords are immensely powerful, and if you disagree with me feel free to apply vacation and France keywords all day long. No harm, no foul. I would note that putting the metadata in the right spot, the place best suited to it, will make life easier in the future. For example, if you put location information in the IPTC location fields, you will likely get geocoding and other mapping software leverage out of the box. If you use keywords, I doubt any other software will be able to leverage it. The basic issue here is Keywords are designed to be lightly structures (heiearchy is all you get), and others can contain much more structured metadata.

Have a different take on Keywords in Lightroom? Let me know what you think!


  1. Would u recommend that in creating a hierarchy, I put any picture that has mr. thingelstad under “techni-nerds” or “compu-geeks”. They both roll up into the “toosmartforschool” category, but I’m looking at prioritizing and re-sorting for years to come. I don’t want to overthink my metadata usage, and I hate nothing more than wasted digibites of memory…so yeah let me know, thanks.

  2. Mr. Guatemala,

    The beauty of keywords and tags is that you can have your cake and eat it too! Feel free to put Mr. Thingelstad under “techni-nerds” (sp?) _and_ “compu-geeks”. This will simply double the association with “toosmartforschool”. The double nice thing about this is the flexibility. If you later decide that “techni-nerds” are actually more aligned with another keyword group, you can simply change the association. Automatically this will bring the related keywords to all of these images.

  3. Trying to work out a hierarchy of keywords for Lightroom (and yes, I am too anally retentive!). Then reading this blog I find out about IPTC metadata (didn’t realize LR did that – this is my first day with LR).

    Now I’m even more confused…I guess it’s back into LR and more tagging.

    Oh, and am thinking about how to organize the source folders for my photo collection. Somehow the name-by-photo-location method I’ve used in the past seems redundant considering Lightroom’s metadata abilities. Am thinking of organizing the folders into simple chrono order and then into DVD-sized groups for easy backup.

    How have others approached this?

  4. Jamie, thanks for your input regarding keywords for Lightroom. I’ve been trying to work out a system that works for me.

    To Andrew McPhee-I’m in exactly the situation you describe, and was toying with the idea of going to a chronological based folder organization. At first glance, it seems a reasonable approach. (Since with Lightrooms keyword/metadata tagging and search capabilities, it should be easy to find specific images…even if the originals are stuck in a chronologically named folder.) Is this the route you took, and if so, how do you think it’s working?

  5. I am new to Lightroom, but here are some thoughts on organizing photos and keywords…

    I prefer to have my photos organized physical on the hard drive. You never know what software that will be developed in the future. Maybe you would change to another product in a couple of years. (I am new to LR, so maybe you can just later export the photos in the folder structure you build in LR?)

    I organize my photos in category / year / month / date on the hard drive. Category could be Family, Animals, Sport etc.

    Then in Lightroom I import the total folder structure.

    I use collections like Weddings, Birthdays, My favorites, Black and White etc. This is a good way to bind the photos together across the folder structure.

    Finally I use keyword for everything else, like person names, jazz, guitar, sky, cloud, blue etc. I think of keywords describing the different content in the photo.

    Does this sound as a good solution?

    Jamie, I also like the keyword hierarchy in LR. But why not use a collection for things like Insect?


  6. I finally wrote another post specifically on this topic of filesystem layout, you may find something useful in it.

    @Jan: I wouldn’t put a “Genre” in the top directory. I think it would make backup management much harder, and genres can change over time.

  7. Hi Jamie, how do you reference to people in metadata? Do you put names to keywords, or? I’m trying out Lightroom…

    Nice blog.

    ps. You can also reply by mail. That’d be great.

  8. There should be a standard set of keywords, a ready library that you import….


  9. @Timo T, I reference people directly in Lightroom. A picture with John Doe will have a keyword “John Doe”. If John and Jane are both in it, it will have two keywords, “Jane Doe, John Doe”.

    I do leverage keyword hierarchy here too. I have one keyword group called “People”, in that I have groupings, for example “Friends”, “Coworkers” or “Relatives”. I will sometimes then put a family in, i.e., “Doe’s”.

    So, to flesh it out, something like this:

    People -> Friends -> Does -> John Doe

    This may feel a little heavy. And to be clear, I have plenty of people that are just in the People keyword with no further designation.

  10. @Mikael, Lightroom 1.1 has some feature about exporting keywords, I’m not entirely sure what it does. I do know that I would like to have a way to replicate my keyword hierarchy between two Lightroom installations. If such a feature existed, people could post such a predefined list to use.

    I wouldn’t be big on it. It would be definition be overly cumbersome I think. It becomes taxonomy, and I think too rigid for my use.

    BTW – I’m positive that if you did some SQL work with the Lightroom database you could do this right now, but I haven’t dug into that.

  11. One thing to consider about the IPTC data vs keywords is that certain stock agencies only extract the keywords attached to an image (, and don’t extract the IPTC (this may change in the future). I feel safer adding France as a keyword since I know more applications more readily extract this field.

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