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It’s not difficult to organise photos in Lightroom since it allows you to search and sort your photos by a number of different methods other than by folder. Because of this, it’s not mandatory to have a highly organised file structure.

In theory, you could import all your photos into one giant folder and rename your photos during the import process to include a shoot name, for example.

On the other hand, you could set up dozens of folders on the drive organised by date, country, subject or other criteria that makes sense to you. This begs the question ‘how many folders do I need?’

The Golden Rule of File Management: Keep Things Simple

The best advice here is to start simply and try to keep it that way. If you have an overly complicated hierarchy of folders, it can be a problem knowing which folder to target when importing photos from your camera.

One solution is to make a ‘Misc’ or ‘Pending’ folder into which you import all your photos initially. Eventually, when you feel like doing some organisation, you can move the photos to other folders for example, ‘Landscape’ or ‘People’.

Having just a few folders allows you to more easily locate and back-up specific parts of your whole photographic repository. This can be useful since backing up an entire drive can take many hours and it’s often convenient to be able to select a specific folder to back up.

How to Organise Photos in Lightroom: Visual analogy to a cluttered digital folder system in Lightroom

A massive amount of highly specific folders isn’t easy to manage physically, and it isn’t digitally, either. Keep it as simple as you can.

Some people go too far and fall into the trap of thinking they must have a folder for every type of photo.

This is not necessary—indeed it’s often impossible. A given photo may be a candidate for more than one folder. If you have one folder for people and another for landscapes, what should you do when trying to file a photo of some people in a landscape?

Whatever you do, don’t make a copy! This will only lead to confusion.

If a photo belongs in more than one category, leave it in a ‘Misc’ folder and add it to as many collections as you need. That way, you can access the photo by multiple criteria while only keeping a single master photo on disk.

The Folders Panel

The folders panel shows you an alphabetical list of all the folders it knows about for a particular drive. Clicking on a folder name in this list will display thumbnails of all the photos contained in that folder.

If you Command-click (on a Mac) or Control-click (on a Windows PC) a folder name, you can see the contents of more than one folder at a time in the grid view thumbnails.

Tip: If you want a particular folder to appear at the top of the list, make the first character an underscore as shown here for _Workshops.

How to Organise Photos in Lightroom: Screenshot of the folders panel

Click on any folder name to see thumbnails of the photos contained in that folder. You can Shift-click to select a range or Control-click to select non contiguous folders to view all their photos at once.

If you’re used to moving, renaming, deleting or making folders and you’re familiar with dragging and dropping files between folders using your computer’s built-in facility (Windows file explorer or the Mac Finder for example), you’ll find it intuitively simple to organise photos in Lightroom.

In fact, it’s highly recommended that you only use Lightroom to manage your files and folders and not try to perform these operations outside Lightroom. This is because Lightroom has been told during import where each photo resides and it stores this information in its catalogue.

If you rename or move a photo or folder when Lightroom is not running, it will not be able to locate it again when it next starts. This can happen accidentally but fortunately, when it does, it’s relatively easy to fix providing the folder or photo hasn’t been deleted.

Adding a Folder from Another Drive

As an example of file management in Lightroom, let’s assume you’ve been using a single external USB hard drive and you now want to add a second external drive that’s already been used on another computer and that it has a number of folders and images you want to incorporate into your existing catalogue.

The aim is to select the photos we want from the secondary drive and move them to the main drive thus making the the old secondary drive available for other purposes. We’ll assume this secondary drive will work on your main computer.

How do we use Lightroom to view and merge photos from the secondary drive onto our main drive?

1. Plug in the extra drive and update Lightroom

If you plug in an external drive while watching the list of drives and folders displayed on your computer’s own filing system (Windows File Explorer or Mac’s Finder), you’ll see the drive appear in the list of devices after a few seconds.

However, if you expect the newly inserted drive to pop-up in the list of drives in the folders panel in Lightroom’s library module, you’re in for a long wait. Before the drive can appear in the Folders panel,it’s first necessary to tell Lightroom about a folder on the newly attached drive. To do this, click the ‘+’ button on the Files panel.

How to Organise Photos in Lightroom: Example of how to add a new drive in Lightroom

To add a new drive, click the ‘+’ button and select ‘Add Folder…’ then navigate to the folder on the new drive to import the photos.

Select ‘Add Folder…’ and navigate to the folder on the new drive. When you select the folder, the standard import dialogue will be displayed with the new folder shown on the left in the list of available sources as shown in the screenshot below.

Remember to select ‘Add’ and not ‘Copy’ so that you just tell Lightroom where the new folder and its photos are without making any unnecessary copies.

How to Organise Photos in Lightroom: Example of how to import from new drive in Lightroom

The photos on the new drive will appear in the import dialogue box. The new drive name will appear on the left hand side. Select ‘Add’ and then click ‘Import’.

2. Move the files from the old drive to your main drive

After importing, you’ll be able to see the new drive has been added to your list of existing drives. The folder you imported will be visible under the drive to which it belongs.

It now only remains to move the folder and its contents from the old drive to the new one. This is a simple drag-and-drop operation but you have to have the Folder panel set up correctly first. The obvious way to move all the photos in the folder onto the destination drive is to drag the folder like this:

How to Organise Photos in Lightroom: Screenshot illustration showing that folders cannot be dragged onto drives in Lightroom

You cannot drag a folder directly onto a drive name.

Although this sort of  drag-and-drop will work if you try it from your computer’s operating system, it won’t work like this in Lightroom. The trick here is to make a top-level folder first and then drag your folder onto it. To do this, right-click any top-level folder (such as Birds in our screen shot) and select ‘Show parent folder’:

How to Organise Photos in Lightroom: Screenshot illustrating the proper way to drag folders onto folders in Lightroom

To drag folders to a drive, make sure the parent folder is visible.

When you show the parent folder of a top-level folder, the display will show a folder whose name is the same as the drive. All the drive’s folders will be sub-folders of this folder, like this:

How to Organise Photos in Lightroom: Screenshot showing drive-to-drive folder transfer in Lightroom

Dragging a folder from one drive to the parent folder of another drive will move the folder and its contents from one drive to the other.

Now the ‘MasterPhoto’ drive has a top level parent folder also called ‘MasterPhoto’ and we can drag the ‘Corf’ folder from the old drive directly onto it.

3. Drag the folder

Now simply drag and drop the folder as shown above. Lightroom will display a progress bar in the top left of the screen and inform you that it is moving files.

This process doesn’t just move the apparent location of photos within Lightroom—it calls into the computer’s operating system and moves the files on disk just as if you’d invoked Windows File Explorer or Apple’s Finder.

Note that if you drag a folder from one drive to another using Windows or Finder outside Lightroom, you’ll actually make a copy by default, whereas the same action when carried out in Lightroom moves the folder and its contents between drives.

This behaviour makes sense since apart from making deliberate backups, you don’t want to be creating copies of your master photos.

Tip: If you want to move many folders from one drive to another, for example when you’ve just bought a higher capacity drive, it’s easier if all the folders that contain photos are subfolders of a single top level folder. That way, you can update all your folders in one operation.

Moving Individual Photos Between Folders

If you’ve imported your photos to a temporary folder called, ‘Misc’, for example, you will probably at some stage want to move some photos from it into other folders.

If there’s already a folder you’d like to receive the photo, it’s a simple drag-and-drop operation. For example, to move a night photo from the ‘Misc’ folder to the ‘Night’ folder, just select it and drag it like this:

How to Organise Photos in Lightroom: Screenshot illustrating how to move photos between folders in Lightroom

To move photos between folders, simply drag any photos onto the folder name you want to contain them.

Lightroom draws a distinction between dragging the frame of a thumbnail (the light grey area in the above screen shot) and dragging the thumbnail image itself.

When you drag and drop a thumbnail photo or group of photos, note that this only moves the photo if  you drag the image area and not its border.

If you identify a group of photos that don’t fit into an existing category and you want to make a new folder for them, use the ‘+’ button and select ‘Add folder…’ to create your new folder wherever you wish.

That folder will then appear in the Folders list initially in grey with a zero photo count. Then simply select your photos and drag them onto the newly created folder.

As Lightroom moves photos into the folder, the photo count will increase and the name will appear normally.

Tip: When moving photos around between folders on your computer, it can become unclear where any given photo is especially if you happen to be examining your entire catalogue unfiltered and have ‘All Photographs’ selected on your Catalog panel.

Lightroom has several ways to show you where your master photos are. A useful tip is to set up the grid view thumbnails to show the folder, filename, dimensions and file type for each thumbnail. Press the ‘J’ keyboard shortcut key to cycle around the three options.

Press Ctrl-J (or View > View Options from the main menu) to configure the information shown above each thumbnail. Set up the Expanded Cell Extras as shown here:

How to Organise Photos in Lightroom: Screenshot illustrating how to set Expanded Cell options in Lightroom

Set the Expanded Cell options to show folder and file names.

Once you’ve configured the extra information displayed with each thumbnail, you can easily select other information at any time by simply clicking on the text to reveal an extensive drop-down list:

Organise photos in Lightroom: Screenshot showing Expanded Cell view in list

Click any text in the Expanded Cell view to select other information to display from an extensive list.

In addition to adding folder and filename information only visible in grid view, you can, in any view, right-click an image and select ‘Show in Finder’ (or ‘Show in Explorer’ on PC) or ‘Go to Folder in Library’.

Renaming Folders and Photos

To rename a folder, just right-click it in the Folders panel and select ‘Rename…’ from the context-sensitive menu. Enter a new name and click ‘Save’. Individual photos can be renamed by selecting the photo and then from the main menu, selecting Library > Rename Photo… or simply by pressing the F2 function key.

The rename dialogue box this invokes can modify the original name in a number of ways that allow it to also rename a range of photos by adding a sequence number. You can either select a renaming template from the list or make a custom template.

A Final Note on Folders

This article has highlighted some of the main features Lightroom provides to help you manage your files and folders. If you’ve been used to using many folders to organise your photos, hopefully this approach will seem natural to you.

Some people find it useful to make a new folder every year to contain all the photos taken during that time. This approach can make it simpler to archive manageable portions of your entire photo collection. However, it can still become complicated and unwieldy and may not suit your particular workflow.

In general, you should aim to keep your file hierarchy fairly simple and not worry about having a separate folder for every photographic category.

By far the best method to organise photos in Lightroom is to use the power of Collections, which we’ll cover in another article.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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David Baxter

Dave is a photographer and writer based in Oxfordshire, England. He has a science and engineering background and has been taking photographs for over 40 years. His broad experience includes computer graphics, image processing, studio, landscape, macro, architectural, and panoramic photography. He is an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop Lightroom and has published numerous technical articles for a Canon based photography magazine. He now runs photography workshops in Oxfordshire and is currently working on a new Lightroom book.