How to Get Your Adobe Lightroom Catalog Organized

I can’t tell you how many messed up, utterly chaotic, Lightroom catalogs I’ve seen as an Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop Instructor; lost images, lost drives, collections substituting for folders, duplicate images, triplicate images, Photoshop files sent off into the ether and photographers on the verge of suicide.

If you got a mess on your hands or maybe you’re new to Lightroom and are confused about all the organizational tools in the Library module, then let me share a simple system used by large volume operators such as myself, National Park Photographic Expeditions, advertising agencies, TV stations, and publishers.

First, let’s be clear about the purpose of Lightroom’s Library Module. This is a powerful database, with tools to import, select, categorize, and rate your images. Moreover, other tools will allow you to keyword images, search by metadata, copyright, and export images with several file formats. However, while there are plenty of organizational tools with operating instructions, there are no instructions how to structure your catalog.


And this is where many photographers struggle; they fail to plan and execute a storage and folder strategy for image file management. It is one of the most important and least understood areas of the Lightroom Library Catalog and getting this right is much easier when you first install Lightroom. However, if your catalog is a mess, there is good news. It’s easy to re-organize and fix.

The Image Storage Decision

Deciding where to store your images is the first and most critical decision. Your options are:

  • Store your images on your computer’s hard drive.
  • Store your images on an external hard drive.
  • Store images on several drives.

Yes, you can store them in the cloud too, but I’ll save that option for a future blog.

Our Storage Setup

Our desktop and laptop machines use solid-state drives, which are great for spinning up our Adobe programs, but not so much for storing terabytes of images due to current costs (that will no doubt change in the future). Our typical desktop configuration has 500 GB solid state and 2 TB internal hard drive, which contains images we are currently processing or using, and several external hard drives for archiving images that we don’t need access to every day. Lightroom can see every one of these drives because all the images on the drives are in the catalog.

NPPE's System Configuration
This is the system configuration at NPPE.

Lightroom does not loose images; photographers and editors do because they forget to tell Lightroom where they put them.

You can choose many ways to configure your storage, but whatever you do make sure your external drive is big enough to hold all your photos. Depending on your system you can store images on your C drive, a second internal drive or a big honking external with a USB 3.0 connection (it’s faster than most lightening streaks). Storage is cheap, and for $150, you can get a 4TB external, and maybe bigger. It’s worth every dime. By the way, if your primary editing computer is a laptop, then you absolutely need a large external hard drive.

You also need a backup system for your images because your drive(s) will crash eventually. So back up your work, and I’ll do a post on how we do that at the agency level.

Folder Strategies

folder structure
Visual of a folder structure

Folders are the Universal Hierarchy of our Computer Management Systems and often misunderstood and or abused by photographers. Lightroom has excellent search tools that allow you to find your files, but it’s just nice to have things neat and easy to access whenever you need them.

The folder system functions much like a paper file cabinet wherein file dividers create broad categories such as an individual folder stores paper documents that are specifically related. Computer systems work the same way whereas a Parent Folder is much like a Category Divider with titles such as Documents, Pictures, Music, Video and more. Folders under those categories contain specifically related documents such as letters, proposals, and may have subfolders to differentiate types of letters or proposals further.

Pictures is a parent folder that appears on most operating system C Drives. Yes, you guessed it, we could have subfolders for groups of related pictures such as Family, Clients, Weddings, and with further subfolders such as Joe’s Birthday, Bogus Advertising, Mary, and Samy. Within these subfolders, we could further break things down with additional subfolders for individual projects, or different wedding activities such as Formals, Reception, etc. You can create an unlimited number of parent and subfolders within the limits of your storage space.

Lightroom Folder Import Choices

Import Into One Folder
Import into one folder
import by date
Import By Date

During the import process, Adobe Lightroom offers two folder choices (see images).

  1.  Organize ‘By Date,’ which creates date files and stores your images by the date of capture. This is the default setting in Lightroom, and you do not want to use this if you want to find something in the future.
  2. Organize ‘Into One Folder’ which places your images into file folders that you create with titles that tell you what is inside the folder.

I recommend in the strongest terms that you use “Into One Folder” and that you establish a folder structure by subject matter in a manner that reflects how you use or think about your images.

NPPE system of folders
Some examples of Folder Structures

Here are some examples.

  • For our National Park Photography Master Class Workshops, we make a parent folder National Parks and subfolders for each park such as Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, etc.
  • For Art Photography we have a parent folder called Art Themes and subfolders by thematic titles, Frictionsmooth, The Ivanpah, etc.
  • For Active Clients, we use the client / or project name and then subfolders for projects.
date search in metadata
You can search by date with metadata.

Note that we never use ‘Organize by Date,’ but on occasion, we need to find something by date. In those cases, we simply use the metadata panel and create a search by date (see image).


Developing an easy to understand and easy to use Folder Strategy will eliminate a great deal of heartache and grief as you add pictures to your catalog. Think of the hours you will save when you know where everything is and everything is where it belongs.

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