Saturday, October 22, 2011

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Tutorial - Part III - Organizing the Library

Part I - Index and Introduction
Part IV - Keywording and Metadata

The Library Module

The Library module gives you the ability to organize your photo library, which is one of the most important tasks a photographer shall do, alongside with editing them. A proper organization is basic for you to be able to safely manage your ever growing photographic library and find not only the shots you're looking for, but all of the data that you could have stored with them.

Library Organization

Lightroom lets you manage your images into catalogs (a library in its jargon). You can have as many catalogs as you'd like and you can choose which catalog to open at Lightroom startup. Since many configuration options are stored at the catalog level, you can not only distribute your images into catalogs according to your criteria, but you can also build specialized catalogs tweaked with the set of options you need.

Lightroom lets you easily organize your catalogs both physically and logically:
  • Physically organizing your catalog refers to where you store your files on the storage devices you own.
  • Logically organizing your catalog refers to how you organize the content of your library into logical structures such as collections or collection sets. The name and the capabilities of such structures may differ across different tools.
The simplest physical organization of a catalog consists of a folder structure that spreads no more than one physical disks. However, as we pointed out in Part I of this series, such a simplistic approach is insufficient under most use cases, since it does not guarantee any level of fault tolerance. For this reason, a library manager should ideally offer at least the following features:
  • The possibility of storing files across an heterogeneous set of storage devices.
  • The possibility of backing up and restoring your library simply and efficiently.


The first problem is elegantly solved in Lightroom by letting the user add any folder, and thus its contents, into the catalog. A folder can be located anywhere, provided it is accessible by your operating system, and can also be an entire physical disk. The folder abstraction provides the required flexibility to let you mix and match folders coming from whichever storage device accessible from your system, such as local hard disks, external hard disks connected by USB, FireWire or eSATA, remotely mounted file systems with the NFS and CIFS (Windows Shares) protocols.

Once folders are added to the catalog, they are virtually indistinguishable from each other and the user can transparently build and work on catalogs that span multiple storage devices. If one of such devices goes offline (for example, if you take your laptop and walk out of home), Lightroom will immediately notice and mark the folder offline. You will still be able to access the folder and see the associated image previews but will be unable to apply any kind of modification to the image. When the folder returns online, Lightroom will automatically notice it and mark the corresponding folders as online.

In the following picture, you can see the Folders panel of a catalog with two folders: the first, labeled Macintosh HD, is associated to the entire internal hard disk of my MacBook. The second, enrico, is a remotely mounted NFS file system exported by a Solaris system. Since it was offline when the snapshot was taken, it appears greyed out in the panel.

Lightroom Library Module - Folders Panel


Lightroom can be configured to run scheduled backups of its catalogs, and every catalog can have its own distinct schedule. The backup is performed in a folder chosen by the user that can as well be located in whichever storage device accessible by your operating system.

The catalog backup facility, however, has a "drawback": it performs the backup of the catalog but it does not backup any image located outside the catalog directory. Since this is often the case, you cannot rely on this service to backup all of your images and you'll have to rely on an external backup tool yourself.

Performing backups of your data on a regular basis is always a good practice, as well as using redundant and fault tolerant configurations. Unfortunately, many people aren't sensible to this problem and do not realize the importance of it until it's too late. Realizing what Lightroom can do for you is important, and at first it may seem like a big disadvantage having to backup yourself the images located outside your catalogs. However, I don't fully agree with this point of view.

First of all and to be fair, it must be said that other tools do indeed provide a complete backup solution (Aperture calls it the vaults). However, when you decide to span a catalog across multiple storage devices, you must be ready to deal with the complexities of such a solution. A solution that, on the other hand, can bring other advantages. Different storage devices can be configured differently according to the requirements they must satisfy and, thus, they may require different backup policies. The more complex your storage requirements, the more flexible the solution you need. A solution such as the Aperture vaults, while it may be handy in many cases, might not be satisfactory in others since it's too rigid: you're backing up everything in every backup.

As an example of how you can organize your catalog to take full advantage of a complex (and relatively inexpensive) storage solution, here's how my main catalog is configured:

  • The catalog itself is hosted in my local MacBook hard disk. The most recent images I import are left on this catalog, so that they're always available. Since the hard disk of my laptop is not redundant, and since I'm working almost every day on it, I configured Lightroom to back it up daily and I'm also taking at least daily backups of my entire machine using Time Machine. If I'm working on a comfortable location, I just plug my Time Machine disk (a small and handy disk I always take with me) and keep on working.
  • After a few days, I transition the images to the another folder, called enrico. This folder is located on a file system residing in a redundant disk configuration (a mirror) and it's hosted on an Solaris machine (if you feel like running free solution, you can check NexentaStor or OpenIndiana out). The folder is then mounted on my Mac using the NFS protocol. Since the disk configuration is redundant, data is pretty safe: I'm taking a daily snapshot of it which is itself backed up every night).
  • When I'm pretty finished with the images I work upon most, I transition them on another volume which for long term storage. This volume is hosted on the same machine that hosts the previous one but it's configured to apply block-level compression. ZFS compression can be tweaked according to your needs and it's pretty inexpensive, as far as it concerns CPU consumption. Since the contents of this folder have a very low volatility, I'm backing this up just once a week.
In my case, the backup of the external folders is performed using the storage technology provided by the Solaris operating system, which was chosen because it helps me fulfill a broader set of requirements, not only at the storage level. I protect my data with a redundant disk configuration and I'm using lightweight and efficient storage technologies to manage it. If I were using a solution such as the vaults, I would be losing the benefits of ZFS, and it would require much more time and resources to perform the backups I need to protect my data. Having my library manager back them up again and again would be a waste of time and resources without additional protection.

That's why Lightroom satisfies my needs: it backups my catalog according to the policy I establish. As far as it concerns the images outside the catalog, it's up to me and not to Lightroom decide how and when to back them up since only I know the characteristics of the storage solution I'm using.


The possibility of logically organizing your images outside the boundaries of the rigid physical organization of your catalog is a very handy feature almost every library manager will offer.

Lightroom lets you logically organize your images in a hierarchy of collections. Collections and collections sets are pretty much like virtual containers in which you store references to your images. For all practical purpose, this feature lets you build photo albums in which you can add photographies from anywhere in your catalog. The same photo, moreover, can be added to as many collections as you need. Since a collection is just a collection of references, you're not duplicating any information. On the contrary: should you modify an image, the updates will instantly propagate in all the collections the image belongs to.

Collections can be organized in a tree structures using collection sets: as their name implies, you can build your hierarchy of collection sets to organize your collections. In the next image you can see an example of a collection set hierarchy.

Lightroom Library Module - Collections

Smart Collections

Smart collections are a very special (and handy) kind of collections. Instead of manually adding photos to it, a smart collection automatically chooses the photos based on the search criteria you establish. Let's suppose you want to create an album with all your flagged photos that contain the Africa and Holidays keywords.

The first option you have is creating a collection and dragging the desired photos into it. But what if in the future you shoot more photos, and flag them with the same keywords you're interested in? Well, the choice is up to you. If you want your collection to be "static", just proceed as described. But if you want your collection to be dynamic (smart, in Lightroom jargon), you can create a smart collection. When creating a smart collection, Lightroom will ask you for the search criteria you want to apply to it. Every time you use the collection, Lightroom will fill it up with the results that satisfy the search criteria you chose.

Smart collections are a very handy feature to organize some of your images without having to manually create and manage them. Smart collections are not "magic", however: they just rely on metadata you applied to your images to perform the search. Smart collections move the complexities of organizing your images into the metadata domain (that we'll describe in the next part).

The bottom line is: collections are the basic tool to logically organize your images. Most of the time, they will suffice for the most basic use cases. However, metadata and keywording are powerful tools that bring additional flexibility and should not be overlooked, not even by novice users. The organization of a library should be consistent over time, and that is a goal you can achieve only if you fully understand how your tools work.

The following image shows the search criteria used during the creation of a smart collection to filter out portraits taken during a sunset. The search contains three criteria:

  • The first filters images that have been flagged.
  • The second filters images that contain the portrait keyword.
  • The third filters images that contain the sunset keyword.
For the filter to work as you expect it to, you have to apply the keywords you're interested to to your images. In my workflow, it's the second thing I do right after importing them.  Sometimes, as I work on them, I apply additional keywords that I couldn't foresee (such as cropped, black and white, duotone, sepia, orton, etc.)

Lightroom Library Module - Creating a Smart Collection

Publish Services

Publish services let you publish the images in your catalog on different kinds of external services. Lightroom 3 supports the following kind of services:
  • Hard drive.
  • Facebook.
  • Flickr.
  • SmugMug.
For many people, these will be sufficient. However, you can find Lightroom plugins to support additional types of services (such as Google+). And if no one satisfies your needs and you're also a proficient programmer, you can build your own from scratch!

Using a publish service is very easy, too. You can simply build collections into a configured publish service and add your images to it. When you're ready, you just publish them and Lightroom will do the heavy lifting for you, applying the export options you set up and publishing the exported image to the target service.

A publish service collection is indistinguishable from a "regular" collection: you just work on them as you usually do. Lightroom will also keep track of added, modified and deleted images and will apply all of the modifications at the next publishing operation.

Lightroom Library Module - Publish Services Panel

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