Hopefully, you’re reading this before jumping into Lightroom for the first time and burying yourself in a mass of muddled files. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve already dug that hole. If you have, don’t worry! It’s not too late to set it straight.

This article aims to serve as a mini Lightroom organization pathway, with the goal of helping you organize your photos in Lightroom and smooth out your workflow. You’ll find links to several relevant articles on our blog along the way, and we’ll also share a simple way to reorganize your photos toward the end of the article.

This tutorial is part of our Lightroom Tips Series, where we give you simple guidance on how to use Lightroom more efficiently and effectively.

Step 1. Set Up a Folder System in Lightroom

First, the system you set up will depend on your level of production. If you’re a casual photographer, you can create a single catalog and save it to the fastest hard drive on your computer with adequate storage (this is actually the default solution for casual Creative Cloud users). If you’re a professional or aspiring professional photographer, we suggest a little more complex folder structure. Here’s our system:

  1. Choose a location for your photos and create a general folder. This will be your headquarters for storing your images. We’ll go into backing up your files later in the article, but you need a place to start. You might call this folder “Photos” and place it on your desktop (for example).
  2. Within your general “Photos” folder, organize your photos by year. In other words, create a folder for all of the photos you take in 2020 and call the folder “2020” or “2020 Photos.”
  3. Inside the yearly folder, arrange individual folders by the project/shoot date with a brief description. Some may argue against using the date to organize your folders as a date is not descriptive of the event, which is why we suggest including some details about the event: “2020-01-31 Janae and Steve Engagement.” Problem solved.
  4. In each event folder, you’ll find the following sub folders:
    • Catalog: This is where you’ll store your Lightroom catalog. You should create a new catalog for each photo session. (See Step 2 for more information on how to do that.)
    • Originals: This is where you’ll store your raw/original files from the session.
    • Edits: This will be one of the locations used for storing your final edited photos.

Step 2. Create a Catalog

New Catalog in Lightroom

When you open Lightroom, the catalog’s Import Dialogue box will be one of the first things you see. We recommend avoiding the default catalog and location system and instead opt for one of two options: Create one new catalog (for those who don’t shoot often) or create a new catalog for each event (ideal for professional or aspiring professional photographers). You can learn more about setting up a catalog here.

[Related Reading: How to Customize Your Lightroom Preferences | Quick Reference]

Step 3. Customize Lightroom Preferences

Lightroom Preferences Dialog Box

Customizing your Lightroom preferences will allow you to streamline your workflow and dial in basics like deciding which catalog you’ll see when you open Lightroom as well as a number of other import options and miscellaneous details. In an earlier article, we previewed each of the tabs used to customize Lightroom preferences in the Preference Dialog Box, and we focused on the options that we feel are most helpful.

Step 4. Adjust Catalog Settings

Your Lightroom catalog settings include options for backing up your catalog, handling your files, and managing metadata. You can open your catalog settings with the following shortcuts: CTRL+ALT+, (Windows) and CMD+Option+, (Mac). It’s important to note that the backup is just a copy of your catalog and the edits you’ve made using the various modules within it. The backup does NOT contain your actual photos, previews, presets, etc. How often you should update the backup is subjective, but we suggest scheduling steady backups (such as every time you close the catalog) to minimize losses in the event of disk failure or other catastrophic circumstances. We covered the other important settings in the article linked in Step 3 above. Basically, customize your option for “When starting up, use this catalog.” If you tend to pick up where you left off in a previous session, then choosing to load the most recent catalog will save you time. However, you need to be aware of which catalog you’re working in so that if you import additional images, they wind up where they actually need to be.

Step 5. Import Images Using Import Presets

Save as a Preset

You can import images into Lightroom using one of at least four methods and there are shortcuts available for each. In fact, we highly recommend creating import presets to make quick (and consistent) work of this task. You can find more information on importing photos into Lightroom Classic CC and creating a standard import preset here.

Step 6. Cull Images with a System in Place

How to quickly cull images in lightroom library module

Culling is a process of finding the keepers and discarding the undeliverable images in your Lightroom catalog. With the massive amount of images we capture using today’s digital cameras, it’s imperative that you get a culling system in place to ensure you’re culling efficiently and effectively. There are several approaches to culling in Lightroom, and we cover a number of them in this article. Hint: Whether you use flags, stars, or colors…we recommend the flagging system.

Step 7. Use Collections & Smart Collections (or Don’t)

Using smart collections can be useful for filtering, such as identifying family shoots, or even newborn photos within family shoot, for example. It’s important to note, however, that they exist only in Lightroom and merely reference the images; they’re meant to help YOU find the images you’re trying to locate – the images actually “live” in the import folders, not the collections. You can add collection preferences when you’re setting up your import presets.

Step 8. Set Up Your Export Settings

6 lightroom export settings 1200x675 1

Lightroom offers simple solutions for exporting your images to share on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, and it’s a good enough raw editing program (both Classic and Creative Cloud) to “go straight to print” with your images if that is your goal. You can find more in-depth information on how to set up your export settings in the articles below.

Step 9. Back up Your LR Catalog AND Your Images

Be sure to understand that Lightroom only backs up your catalogs, while you will have to manually back up your photos. If you don’t already know the “Three C’s” strategy for backing up images,  it’s as simple as this:

  • Copy: The first step involves copying your files from your camera to your computer or an external hard drive. This might involve importing your files into Lightroom using the import presets mentioned above.
  • Clone: Because most hardware is destined to fail at some point, be sure to create clones of your files. While there are several ways to go about doing this, one way we can suggest is using an app called Carbon Copy Cloner, which lets you completely customize & automate your cloning and it checks for incremental changes on the fly. You might consider running this task while you’re occupied with other work. Copying/cloning terabytes of data can take a pretty long time.
  • Cloud Storage: Again, because hardware regularly fails, Cloud Storage is the final and probably most important step of the backup process. So long as you sync your files to your Cloud Storage on a regular basis, all you need to do in the event of an emergency is download the backup from  the cloud and start right where you’ve left off.

If you would like more information on this topic, you can read our full article here.

Step 10. Remove Unwanted Images…Eventually

We usually wait a year to comb through and remove unwanted images. Either way, we recommend waiting until your client receives and approves their images before removing the raw files from your catalog. You can save just the jpegs in order to save space. Or, if you prefer, you can keep your “keeper” raw files forever and only delete the raw “reject files,” instead of exporting JPG versions of both keepers and rejects and keeping them all.

[Related Reading: The Best Lightroom Export Settings for Print | Quick Reference]

How to Fix the Mess You’ve Made of Files in Lightroom

As we mentioned up top, some of you may be wondering how to fix your organization issues for the massive amount of files you have saved all over the place. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to locate and reorganize your file storage system without having to start over or lose any photos in the process. Depending on the number of catalogs and files you’re trying to reorganize, this may take time (and will likely test your patience in cases involving thousands of files). The first thing you’ll need to do is open the Library module in Lightroom. Then, follow the tips below.


Selecting the “All Photographs” option under the Catalog tab in the Library Module will ensure that you’re seeing all of the photographs within the catalog, as opposed to a smaller batch from a recent import, for example (assuming your images weren’t all imported into the catalog at the same time).


You should only move images and folders from within Lightroom. Moving them within Lightroom simultaneously cleans up the hard drive as it mirrors the changes you’re making. Moving the files OUTSIDE of Lightroom, however, can reek havoc on your file system as Lightroom will not know where your files moved to, leaving you with folders full of broken links and empty dreams. You can read more about this process and fixing broken image links here. Special Tip: How to Fix “Out of Sequence” Images within Folders If you have organization issues within folders, such as images being out of sequence, you can select all images and rename the entire batch by pressing “F2.” Simply assign a new sequence number and Lightroom will rename the images based on your selection criteria, such as the date/time the image was created.


You can create and use Collections in Lightroom to organize your individual photo sessions. You can structure your Collections in several ways, such as by location or any other defining trait from the shoots you’ll place in the Collection. For example, if you want to organize by location, you can start with your state (California), and then create sub folders within for more specific locations (Laguna Beach), and continue to break it down, perhaps by genre (Engagement Photos) or by year, and so on. The sole purpose of Collections is to make it easier for you to locate your files. The best structure for Collections is whichever one works best for you.


Lightroom provides a number of filters you can use to identify images, such as text, metadata, camera type, focal length, etc. If you have images all over the place that you want organize quickly, you can create a new Collection called “Random” or something of that nature, and then bring the unsorted images into that folder. You can then apply various filters to identify certain photos based on their attributes and then move them to the proper folder in your Collections. From here out, you can add new images into your collections during import. Be sure to add this to your standard import presets.


We hope this mini pathway will help you get a handle on your files in Lightroom so that you can store and access them more efficiently moving forward. Here’s a quick recap of the 10 steps we shared for organizing your Lightroom files:

  • Set Up a Folder System in Lightroom
  • Create a Catalog
  • Customize Lightroom Preferences
  • Adjust Catalog Settings
  • Import Images Using Import Presets
  • Cull Images with a System in Place
  • Use Collections & Smart Collections (or Don’t)
  • Set Up Your Export Settings
  • Back Up Your Lightroom Catalog AND Your Images
  • Remove Unwanted Images…Eventually

If you’re interested in learning more about using Lightroom, be sure to check out our complete course, Mastering Lightroom: A-Z Tutorials on Lightroom.