My Top 10 Lightroom Tips

Lightroom 5 IconMy friend and influential photographer Tony Sweet recently told me he’s making the switch to Adobe Lightroom (from Aperture) and asked for my Top Pro Tips. Here they are, in relative order of importance.

1. You can index your entire archive of photos in a single Lightroom catalog. I have well over 80K images in my master catalog and don’t have any problems with performance. I’ve heard reliable reports of people using catalogs containing many hundreds of thousands of photos. So there’s no need to split up your archives into multiple catalogs unless your workflow warrants it. (The exception is when traveling, see below.) I prefer to have every photo accessible in one place, whether it’s the original raw, converted DNG, layered TIF or PSD, etc. If I need to find a picture, I only need to look in my master Lightroom catalog.

2. Use a temporary, working catalog on your laptop when traveling. When you get home, copy the image files to your main hard drives and import the data from the trip catalog into your master catalog. This preserves all the metadata such as adjustments and keywords, as well as virtual copies and collections.

3. Always know what catalog you’re working in and where it’s located. You can find this information under Catalog Settings. A Lightroom catalog can be physically located on any drive, in any folder, and can use any name. There are several situations in which Lightroom might switch to the default catalog or create a new one.

***If you ever open Lightroom and things don’t look the way you expected, immediately confirm you’re working in the correct catalog! In Preferences, you can set the default catalog to open when Lightroom launches.

Lightroom Library Left Panels4. All photographers should maintain a structured system for organizing image files on the hard drive. The folder/file structure you use for your image files is important because it’s physically independent from the work you do in Lightroom—everything in Lightroom is done by database reference only. When you’ve imported all your photos from a drive (or volume) into the Lightroom catalog, the Folders panel will always show the identical structure as what you see in the Mac Finder or Windows Explorer — this is ideal. (And yes, you can have photos from multiple drives within a single Lightroom catalog.)

On my system, I have an external drive containing a single, top-level parent folder called Nat Coalson Image Library, under which are second-level folders for each year – 2013, 2012, 2011 … etc. Within each year’s folder are the individual folders for shoots or trips. See the image to the right.

5. The folder and file structure on the hard disk is only the starting point. Using Lightroom Collections, you can (and should) organize your photos any way you want, for any purpose you might devise. For example, you can make Collections for your favorite selects from a trip; portfolios in development; book projects, client presentations, prints to make … whatever. This capability allows you to use a consistent, standardized structure for all your master image files on disk, while within the Lightroom catalog you have unlimited flexibility for using other organizational schemes.

6. I believe in, and convert every file, to DNG. This is a topic for a whole other discussion, but you should know that even JPG files will look better, processed in Lightroom, when they’ve been converted to DNG. (I don’t save my original raw captures after DNG conversion, but this is a matter of personal preference.)

7. When I make derivative files for uploading to my web site, posting on social media, sending by email, etc. I don’t keep these files in my catalog. For that matter, after I’ve uploaded a small JPG to a web site, for example, I almost always delete it from disk immediately. It’s rare that I re-use distribution files and I don’t want my hard drive (and Lightroom catalog) cluttered with myriad JPGs. As a result, every file in my Lightroom catalog is either a DNG or a layered TIF, with the rare exception of flattened, high-res print files that I keep with the originals in the catalog if I expect to re-use them.

8. Make extensive use of Presets, in all the modules and tools that offer them. Presets are one of Lightroom’s greatest strengths. Most importantly, create a Develop preset that contains the settings you want to use as the starting point for your files (you can make one for each camera). You can apply this default Develop preset during Import. You can also override the Lightroom Default settings, which are applied to images, as they are imported, when a Preset is not specified.

9. When you want to make different versions of a photo, use Virtual Copies. You don’t need to save multiple files on the hard drive! VCs exist only within the Lightroom catalog; they simply reference the original file on disk. You can make any adjustments you want to a VC and it acts like a regular photo in the catalog. Probably the most common example uses of VCs are making multiple versions with different crops and making both color and black-and-white versions of a single image.

10. Lastly, with regard to image adjustments, you’ll probably discover very quickly that there are several ways to achieve the same look using different settings. For this reason, in general, it’s good to take care to not apply one adjustment that counteracts another. The final processing results will be cleaner when you use only the minimal adjustments necessary to achieve the look you want.

You may have noticed that most of these tips have to do with file management and organization–it’s because this is where most people get stuck. While these tips are most important for people just getting started with Lightroom, I hope this will also provide a good refresher for those photographers who’ve been using Lightroom for a while!

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