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Last week I got an email from a major magazine editor looking for a very specific image of a Hudson Valley location. They needed it that same day since it was their deadline for publication. I knew I had several images they could use, but had no idea when I had shot them, nor did I have much time to search manually. But, I did have the specific location keyworded – Poets Walk – a Scenic Hudson Park. A quick search brought up a hand full of images, and I was able to select and send 4 for consideration.

The whole process probably took me 10 mins tops. Not only did they choose and use an image, but they also were impressed with my quick and efficient response. And similar scenarios have occurred many times over the years, so I’m a firm believer in taking the time to keep my archive organized.

While there are many different ways to organize and keep track of images in Lightroom, one of the most powerful is through the use of keywords. Similar to tags in other applications, keywords are single words or phrases that you assign to an image that allow you to sort and find your images in the future. This increases your efficiency and helps manage your catalog, especially as it continues to grow.

Keyword Basics

You can assign multiple keywords to an image, and keywords can be nested, meaning you can create hierarchical groups of keywords. And since keywords become part of an images IPTC data (that’s just a universal standard for information that is embedded with every digital file), these keywords can be accessed by other applications, or on the web when you export an image from Lightroom.

For example, the search function on my website can find images based on the keywords I added in Lightroom before I exported the files for on-line use. This makes it extremely easy for a visitor to find specific images based on broad search terms like “waterfalls”, or “Acadia”. The same thing happens if you share your images on Flickr or other sharing sites – the keywords will greatly improve the chances of someone finding them when they search using generic terms ie. trees, seascapes, Maine, etc.

Applying Keywords

Keywording is like exercising, in that the more effort you put into it, the more you get out of it in return, so it is a crucial part of my workflow. After importing images from my memory card, and deleting obvious rejects, I then go through all of the images and assign basic keywords.

There are several ways to add keywords in Lightroom, but the following are the ones I like the best:

  1. Add keywords on import IF all of the images have the same keyword in common. Examples can be a location, a person, or if all of the images were shot for a specific client. Enter the keyword on the keyword panel of the Import Screen.
  2. In the Library Module, select an image or groups of images, then press Command-K ( Alt-K on PC) which brings up a keyword entry field where you can then type a keyword to add to the selected images.
  3. Open the keyword Pane, then click and drag a keyword onto an image or group of images to add that keyword.

I use these three ways 90% of the time, but Lightroom provides other ways as well, so feel free to find which works best for you.

Adding keywords in the Import Dialog
Adding keywords in the Import Dialog – 1
Applying keywords during import
Adding keywords during import – 2
Applying keywords using Command+K (Control+K PC)
Adding keywords using Command+K (Control+K PC)

Generating Keywords

One difficulty many have is in determining what makes a good keyword to begin with. Here are a few suggestions based on lots of trial and error:

  1. Categorize images based on what it is, where it is, or who it is. Every member of my family that I photograph has a keyword as their name. Similarly, every location has a keyword, for ex. Mt Beacon, Acadia, Cape Breton.
  2. Use keywords for the seasons of the year, and specific seasonal conditions. These might be: snow, rain, winter, fog, ice, frost.
  3. Use generic keywords for subjects you photograph often. For me these include: rocks, lakes, rivers, creeks, leaves.
  4. I use keywords to keep track of specific images I search for often – marketing, frames, backgrounds, workshops, studio. These refer to images I might use in each of these specific areas. An image of a client’s office with one of my prints would be keyworded with marketing, as well as the type of print, and the clients name.

Hierarchical Keywords

Another great feature that is worthwhile setting up is hierarchical keywords. Basically nesting keywords within broader categories. The main advantage of this is that when you add a nested, or child keyword to an image, Lightroom will automatically add all of the parent keywords to the image.

I use this extensively with locations. For ex. here’s a typical hierarchy: North America>United States>New York>Hudson Valley>Hudson River>Dennings Point

When I add the Dennings Point keyword to an image, all of the parent keywords get added in one step. Six months later, if I search for Hudson River, that image will show up, together with other images I shot on the Hudson. Here are a few ideas for hierarchies to get you started:

  • Continent > Country > State/Province > Region> County > City > Location
  • Wildlife > Animals > Reptiles > Lizards > Gecko
  • People > Family > Bryce
Hierarchichal keywords
Hierarchical keywords

Filtering by Keyword

All of the hard work would be wasted if there wasn’t an easy way to filter your images by keyword, and fortunately Lightroom gives us several ways. My two favorite ways are:

  1. Make sure all of your images are viewable in the Library Module (click on “All Images” in the top left pane) then press Command+F (Control+F PC) to bring up the filter bar in search mode. Now just type in a keyword and all images that match are instantly filtered.
  2. Brose the Keyword List (or type a keyword in the search bar at the top ) then click the little arrow at the right hand side of the keyword to show only images with that keyword assigned.
Using the filter bar to search for specific keywords
Using the filter bar to search for specific keywords

Keyword Resources

Here are a few websites that you may find useful as you get more into keywords and organizing your library.


I think you’ll agree that your image library will continue to grow and become more difficult to manage over time. Making keywords a part of your workflow will pay huge dividends now and in the future as you search, filter, and organize you archive. I know it has for me, not only in time saved, but in money earned.

Have any questions or feedback on keywords or Lightroom in general? Let me know in the comments below!

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. I’ve thought about keywording a lot and I think that, sometimes, I’m doing a good job at it, however, there’s a number of things that still leave lots of room for improvement. A few years ago, I wrote a blog post to that point, and since my reach isn’t too large, it didn’t get traction. I wonder what you think about the idea
    One of the key problems with keywords is this: language. Being German, I want my primary keywords to be German, but publishing on the net, I also want the English keywords associated with them and I don’t want to do this manually.
    Also, a solid hierarchy helps keeping things in context. Birds are birds, no matter if they are seagulls or blue tits, something that I would not have to do manually if I had a well set up catalogue.
    So, please do have a look at the suggestion made above. I’m basically looking for one or two folks who would join the project and implement the backend and then try to grow a community to build the hierarchies and language synonyms.


    1. Hi Peter – thanks for the feedback and for your great post on keywords. Sorry for the late response, summer is a busy travel time for me. In general I think your ideas are great and would make for an ideal system that would be universal and user friendly. The system I use and recommend in this post is really aimed at the individual user who is not so interested in having “universal” keywords, but rather a personal system that works for them. I’m not really that concerned in making sure others understand my keywording system, I use it as a tool for my own workflow and needs as a fine art photographer. Perhaps a stock photographer would be more interested in having words that were universal, but for me I just want to make sure I can find the image I need when I need it, with minimal effort and resistance.

      Plus everyone is going to have different ways of organizing their work based on what they need, so I always suggest to start with a personal system that works best for you, then grow and expand from there.


  2. Thanks for clarifying keywords. It’s easier to understand when you “show” the steps vs. reading a dry manual.
    On another topic: Two months after your Arches wkshp, the impact of your teaching continues to deepen. The afternoon classroom sessions keeps compounding, bringing more refinements and satisfaction.

    1. Many thanks Bill, and it’s really great to know the workshop is still on your mind – I hope it continues to help your photography and your approach, that makes it all the more worthwhile for me.


  3. This is very nice article on LR keywords. I know this article is from a while back.
    I wanted to start usign keywords and I just came across it last night when searching
    how to implement keywords in LR (I have v5.7).
    I have a question about setting hierarchical keywords. Hopign you can answer it.

    I’d like to setup 2 types of hierarchies: Location and Subject.
    Location > Continent > Country > State > etc
    Subject > Plants > Flowers > Color > Name

    Subject could have many possible high level categories (Plants, animals, people, etc )

    I could search all photos I took in “Vancouver”, or All photos of Yellow Flowers.
    But I also would want to search for all photos of Yellow Flowers I took in vancouver.

    How would I implement such categories. So to have 2 (or more) hierarchies ?
    And how would I search them using my example above.


    1. Hi Khalid, thanks for the feedback. Filtering by keywords is not affected by hierarchy, so you can filter the way you normally would, including multiple keywords separated by commas. Here’s a screenshot showing what I mean – filtering by subject and location.

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