Desktop Yoda on Organization by One Little Bird

Ever since we did Episode 005 of The Digi Show I have been on the receiving end of a lot of judgmental looks from Desktop Yoda that I can no longer ignore.

Because Desktop Yoda knows that my creativity rises and falls in direct proportion with how organized I am. This is not true for everyone but I’m what I like to call a “Left Brain Creative”. I’m very easily overwhelmed when things stop being logical and orderly.

My digital organization used to be a real source of pride for me but it’s fallen on hard times recently. I’ve been able to keep up with some of my files, but I’ve been turning a blind eye to others. The main thing that’s been staring me in the face, though, is my photo keywording in Lightroom 3.

When I create a scrapbook page the catalyst is almost always a story – sometimes it’s just a kit I really want to use – but most of the time it’s something that’s on my mind.  The story itself is a bit of a chicken vs. egg thing, though. Sometimes the story comes first and I go looking for a photo to go along with it, other times I’m looking at a photo and find that a few thoughts start to weave themselves together in my head. Either way, the common denominator is my photos.

The YAYs and BOOs:

YAY | I have all of my photographs tagged with keywords in Lightroom.

BOO | I’ve known for a long time that my keyword structure isn’t doing me many favors.

The Problem:

When I first started adding keywords to my photographs I didn’t really put much thought into what I wanted the system to do for me. I was just pleased with myself that I was keywording them all.

In a nutshell, here’s what I did: I tagged every photo according to the people who were in it. If there were no people in it, then I would tag it under some sort of “thing”.  So the structure looked something like this in Lightroom:

  • People
    • Nicholas
    • Tom
    • Me
    • Grandparent 1
    • Grandparent 2
    • Cousin
    • Uncle
    • Random Person
    • That friend I have 1 photo of
    • etc.
  • Things
    • Flowers
    • Landscapes
    • Legos (this is a huge category)
    • Food
    • etc.

Then I threw another curve ball into my organization whenever something happened where I took a lot of photos at once.

  • Events
    • Air Show
    • Iowa Trips
    • San Diego Trip
    • Chicago Trip
    • Nicholas Birthday 20xx
    • Nicholas Birthday 20xx
    • Christmas 20xx
    • Christmas 20xx
    • etc.

These keywords were FAR better than having no keywords at all. The problem was that I was only really adding one type of keyword to each photo. Everyday photos of Nicholas were tagged “Nicholas” but photos of Nicholas at Christmas were only tagged “Christmas 20xx”. So when I’d go through my library looking for photos of Nicholas, those would be left out of my search. Same goes for photos of him taken on a specific vacation, or at someone else’s birthday party or wedding. I was “lazy tagging” my photos with the bare minimum.

The other problem with this system was that some categories (like the Nicholas one) were really big and I had no great way to narrow them down. I encountered this when trying to find a photo of Nicholas with a certain Lego creation that he made that he wanted to look at again – and neither one of us had any idea what year it was taken in. I had to bring up every photo tagged Nicholas and then we sifted through them for about 20 minutes before we both lost interest.

I knew I needed more tags on my photos, but I knew that I didn’t need something so convoluted that my Lightroom keyword list would be filled with hundreds of keywords.


On the show Kayla referred to a lot of the material she had on her website about organizing things in Lightroom. So I headed over there and was happy to find that she had a lot of information on organizing photographs, too. (I was prepared to just look at her digital supply strategy and adapt it to photos.)

Her post on Lightroom Photo Keywords was my saving grace. I had SOME hierarchical tags in my system, but it never even dawned on me to approach it in a “Who, What, Where and When” manner. The nice thing about this approach is that it gives me a reference point for what kinds of tags I might want on photos. When I’m organizing, I just have to ask myself which of the 4 Ws are represented in these photos. I know I’ll always want to tag a “Who” if there is one, and then ideally I’ll tag at least one other category, too. Organizing my keywords into the parent categories of the 4Ws keeps my keyword list from becoming too cluttered over on the side and lets me easily see what sorts of keywords I’ve already used. Plus I can expand and collapse the keyword lists based on what I’m looking for.

Organizing Photos in Lightroom 3 by One Little Bird

I started by creating the “Who, What, Where and When” parent categories in my Lightroom software. For the “Who” category I followed Kayla’s example and created additional keyword categories for our family, our extended family, our friends and our pets.  Then I started moving all of my existing keywords into these categories. (This is as easy as dragging them up and down and dropping them in the Keyword List on the right side.)

I didn’t create any new keywords while doing this, I just organized the ones that were already in Lightroom. I did rename a few of my keywords, though, which Lightroom makes really easy. You can just right click on any keyword in the Keyword list and chose “Edit Keyword Tag..” and change it. Lightroom will update it on all of the photos using that tag. I mainly did this to create some consistency in the lists, like changing keywords for extended family members to “LastName_FirstName” in order to keep them together.

Organizing Photos in Lightroom 3 by One Little Bird

Once I had all of my current keywords organized, I started in on adding the additional keywords to my photos. This will be an ongoing process over the next several weeks and months.

For obvious reasons I’m starting with all of my son’s photos because those are the ones I look for most often. I’m going through them little by little and adding a “What” to some of them and this is where I’ve started creating some new keywords. For instance, in the image above I added the keyword “Swimming” to these under the “What” parent category. If you go into that Swimming category right now it will only contain pictures of him swimming, but I know we have other photos of family and friends that are water/swimming related that will eventually get added into that category.

Organizing Photographs by Keyword in Lightroom 3 by One Little Bird

The other thing I’ve started doing is going through our vacation and event photos and tagging the people in them. I’m doing this one vacation at a time starting with our most recent trips because those are the ones I’m most likely to go looking for right now. So now I can use a text Keyword filter in Lightroom (you can press the “” key to bring this up in the Library module) and type in “Nicholas, Chicago” and get just the photos of him from that trip instantly. With my old method I had to go to the “Chicago Trip” category and sift through all the photos – all 1400 of them – looking for the ones with Nicholas in them.

Also this means that when I’m just looking under the “Nicholas” keyword for scrapbooking photos, those ones from Chicago will come up for me now along with all of the everyday photos I have of him.

This is a vast improvement over my previous method.

I’m sure that many people much smarter than me (like Kayla!) have already figured this sort of thing out – but it never would have dawned on me to organize my keywords like this.

The nice thing about using the parent keywords, too, is that they’re searchable in Lightroom at the parent level. So as a for instance, I have some of our extended family organized as:

  • Jones Family
    • Jones_Ed
    • Jones_Heather
    • Jones_Emily
    • Jones_Aaron

If I’m looking for just pictures of Aaron, I can do a keyword search for “Jones_Aaron”. But if I want to see all my photos of their entire family, I can just type in “Jones Family” and it will bring up any photo tagged with the subcategories beneath it. Which I foresee coming in handy later in my “What” category as it grows as I start to organize a lot of our photos. I could put very specific categories under a more general parent category and be able to drill down my searches if need be. For instance if I look at the Swimming photos from earlier. Eventually they may wind up in a more general category like:

  • Outdoors
    • Backyard
    • Swimming
    • Gardening
    • Raking Leaves
    • Sledding
    • etc.

Which would make it nice if I was looking for general outdoor photos of Nicholas (search: Nicholas, Outdoors) or specific photos just of him sledding (search: Nicholas, Sledding).

A Few Notes:

When you create category keywords like the “Who” and the “JustUs” categories, they WILL show up as metadata keywords in other programs (like Bridge, the Windows 7 OS, etc) when you view the photos in those programs. In order to keep that from happening you can right click on the category in the Keyword List, choose “Edit Keyword Tag…” and uncheck the box that says “Export Containing Keywords”. You can also uncheck this box when creating the keywords, but in my case I had some keywords I’ve already been using for a while and I had to modify those ones.

In some instances you may appreciate these parent level keywords appearing in the file’s metadata – like I wouldn’t mind if a photo of Nicholas swimming had the tags “Nicholas, Outdoors, Swimming”, so I would edit the “Outdoors” keyword to not include the containing keyword, but I would leave it checked on the “Swimming” keyword.  If I don’t  block some of the parent categories the tags on those photos would look more like “Who, JustUs, Nicholas, What, Outdoors, Swimming”.  And I don’t want that. So you can pick and choose which categories are purely for your own organization and which ones will be beneficial down the road.

One last thing you’ll want to do if you haven’t already is make a small adjustment to the Lightroom settings to make all this work portable so that your keywords show up in other applications. This option is turned OFF by default in Lightroom and I have no idea why. I imagine there must be some instance where someone would NOT want their XMP changes be written to the actual photo file, so Adobe is erring on the side of caution.

Organizing Photographs in Lightroom 3 By One Little Bird

If you go to Edit > Catalog Settings > Metadata you can check the box next to “Automatically write changes into XMP” and this will write your keywords to the file so that they’re permanently a part of the metadata. This way if you choose to use a different program down the road, or are using other software that can also make use of the metadata, all your work will be transferable.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a bunch of photos to tag. And the best part is that as I look through all of these and add more keywords to them my mind is spinning with all sorts of pages I have yet to make.

Organization makes me more creative!