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Organising Your Photos Using Lightroom Smart Collections

In this tutorial I want to explain how to use the power of Lightroom Smart Collections when organising your photos. This is the second of two tutorials explaining how to organise digital photography. The previous tutorial described how to establish a folder structure on your computer and use regular Collections. In this tutorial we’ll expand on that approach whilst introducing an element of automation.

What is a Lightroom Smart Collection

Lightroom supports two different types of Collection; the regular or standard Collection and the Smart Collection. Both have the same purpose which is to group together “related” images. The difference is in how they do this.

With the standard Collection you the user must add the image to the Collection. This is a conscious decision on your part where you browse and select the images to add. But with the Smart Collection, Lightroom adds images automatically based on the criteria you define. This happens in the background so that when Lightroom detects an image meeting the criteria for the Smart Collection, it adds the image. This means you need to carefully define the selection criteria for each Lightroom Smart Collection.

Adding a Collection Set in Lightroom

Before we add a new Smart Collection to Lightroom, it’s worth creating a new Collection Set to hold it. Whilst you can add new Smart Collections without putting them into a Collection Set, the Collection Set creates a helpful structure.

The real value in the Lightroom Smart Collection is from the automation happening in the background, over time. As you add new images to your Lightroom Catalog, more and more of these end up in the Smart Collection. It’s therefore important to organise your Lightroom Smart Collections using Collection Sets as it adds to their value.

Creating a new collection set in lightroom

To add a new Collection Set, click the + icon at the top right of the Collection Panel. The Collections panel is available in most of the Lightroom Modules, but when organising images it’s best to work in the Library Module.

When you click the + icon you’ll see a popup menu where you can select the “Create Collection Set…” option. This displays the Create Collection Set dialog where you can enter the details of the Set you want to create.

Once you’ve entered the name of the Collection Set, enter the location details. The Location option allows you to nest Collection Sets inside each other, creating a hierarchy. You can see an example to the left side of the Collections panel screenshot above.

Changing Your Collection Set Structure

At some time in the future, you may decide to reorganise your Collection Set structure. Fortunately, this is easy as Lightroom allows  you to click and drag Collection Sets using your mouse.

Something else that’s extremely useful is being able to rename a Collection Set. If you right-click on a Set using your mouse, you can use the “Rename…” option in the menu. This displays the Rename Collection Set dialog.

reorganising the structure of the collection set hierarchy in lightroom

Here you can the renaming of the UK Landscapes Collection Set. In the Collections panel on the left you can see the new Collection Set hierarchy. This is a good long-term structure for holding finished Master Files.

When editing your best images, it’s a good idea to save the finished image so that it becomes a master file. My own approach is to save my image in the Photoshop PSD format with all the layers retained. This allows for further editing and tweaking of the image in the future if I need to. This finished image then becomes my master file and I save it in the same folder as the original RAW file. I’ve created this separate tutorial to explain how I structure and name my image files.

The benefit of having a Master File is that I can keep it unchanged. Whenever I want to create a version of my image for say printing or sharing on the internet, I can generate it from the Master File.

The other point you need to know is that it’s only Collection Sets that you can use to create the hierarchical structure. You can’t nest Collections or Smart Collections inside each other.

Creating a Smart Collection in Lightroom

With the Collection Set structure in place it’s time to create the new Lightroom Smart Collection. You can do this by clicking the same + icon that you used to add the Collection Set. In the popup menu, click the Create Smart Collection… option to display the dialog.

Create Smart Collection dialog

Here you can see the top section of the Lightroom Smart Collection dialog with three numbered elements:

  1. Enter the name of the Smart Collection you want to create.
  2. Set the location for the Smart Collection. In this example it will be in the “England Landscapes” Collection Set.
  3. Enter the rules to use for selecting the images to include in the new Smart Collection.

It’s the final point, the selection criteria that’s important to define well so let’s look at it in greater detail.

Adding Lightroom Smart Collection Rules

To help explain how to define Smart Collection rules in Lightroom, I’ve created the following example.

Defining Lightroom Smart Collection rules

At the top of the section is a dropdown list. This defines which rules an image must meet for Lightroom to include it to the Smart Collection. In this screenshot you can see the image has to meet “all” three of the defined rules. You can also set it to be “any” where it only has to meet one of the rules, as well as “none” where it’s excluded if it meets any of the rules.

Next you need to define at least one rule for the Smart Collection. This is what defines if Lightroom includes an image in the Smart Collection or not. It may be helpful to think of the Smart Collections as being a filter that Lightroom applies to all it’s images. Then any images that meet the criteria you’ve defined end up in the Smart Collection.

The first rule appears by default, although you still need to define it. If you want to add more rules you can click the + icon over on the right. The – icon removes the rule.

Understanding Smart Collection Rules

There are three elements you need to define for each rule.

the smart collection rules
  1. Over on the left side is where you select what to test with the rule. Taking the top rule as an example, it’s checking the Rating of the image. If you click the dropdown next to this, you’ll see lots of things Lightroom can test for.
  2. In the centre column you can see the logic used by the rule. The top rule is set to check that the Rating is greater than or equal to a defined value.
  3. On the right we have the value to test for. In this example the Rating needs to be 2 stars or higher for the image to match the rule.

Because we set the option to match all rules, Lightroom only selects images matching all three of the defined rules. This means an image must have a Rating of 2 stars or more, is in the PSD file format, and has the Location (State / Province) set to “Peak District”. If the image meets all three of these criteria, Lightroom adds it to the Smart Collection.

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Adding Images to Smart Collections

If you define your Smart Collections well, you can quite literally ignore them. Lightroom automatically adds any images matching the rules set, to the Smart Collection in the background. But this only happens when you process and manage your images correctly. It’s probably best to explain this using the Smart Collection we’ve defined.

To make our rules work and automatically add new images to the Smart Collection, we need to do the following:

  1. When importing my new images to Lightroom, set the “State / Province” (which is a location field). For the image to match the rules the location needs to be “Peak District”. You can do this automatically as part of the Lightroom import process. Alternatively, work through your my images to add this after importing.
  2. Work through the imported images to apply a star rating. The more stars an image has, the better it is. Personally, I like to reserve 2 stars or higher for the best shots from a shoot.
  3. Finally, work through the 2-star of above RAW files to process them. Save the finished image as a master file using the PSD format. But it’s not enough to just save the file, you also need to ensure it’s added to the Lightroom Catalog.

By including these simple steps as part of a workflow, Lightroom will automatically include the master file image in the Smart Collection. As with regular Collections, the original RAW file and Master File remain in the same folder on the computer. It’s only a representation of the image that appears in the Smart Collection.

To see the images in the Smart Collection, click on it in the Lightroom Collections panel. Lightroom then  displays all the images meeting the rules for that Collection. This is a significant time saver for organising your best photography.

Summary of Using Lightroom Smart Collections

As I hope you appreciate, Lightroom Smart Collections are extremely powerful. With a little careful planning, it’s possible to create a long-term structure to automatically organise your best photography. This can save you lots of time and help keep your images organised. All it takes is a little discipline and organisation as you work through your latest images.

If you haven’t already read it, I would recommend reading my tutorial explaining how to organise your photos in Lightroom using folders and Collections.


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