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How-To: Make the most of Lightroom to streamline your photo editing & cataloging


When Apple ceased development of Aperture, a lot of serious photographers were very unhappy about Apple’s attempt to palm them off with Photos instead. Many headed instead to Lightroom, the photo cataloging and editing app Adobe created from the ground up specifically for photographers.

If you’re new to Lightroom, our review covers the process of converting from Aperture – everything from importing your existing photo libraries to where to find equivalent features. This piece is about getting the most out of Lightroom – especially when it comes to speeding up your workflow – via some recommended tweaks and tips.

Let’s start with my recommended settings … 

Recommended settings

When viewing and editing photos, you obviously want to view them at the largest size possible. OS X of course offers a full-screen mode, but Lightroom has a built-in one that I prefer as it doesn’t waste any space with the bar containing the close/minimize/expand buttons.

You’ll find this in Window > Screen Mode > Full Screen. With this setting, the menu bar only appears when you move the pointer to the top, but you can choose to keep the menu bar visible if you prefer.


Next, we come to what I personally consider the single most important Lightroom setting for anyone who shoots in RAW format rather than JPG: XMP files.

Lightroom offers non-destructive editing. That is, you can walk back any changes you make to a photo at any point in the future, be it seconds or months later. That’s great, but by default, the log of all the changes needed to walk them back is stored in the Lightroom catalog (or library) itself. If the catalog gets corrupted, that’s your edits gone. If you reimport the photos on another Mac, that’s your edits gone. So Adobe offers an alternative, known as XMP files.

If you go to Preferences > Catalog Settings and check ‘Automatically write changes into XMP,’ then Lightroom writes the change log into a separate file stored with the photo. This only works with photos shot in RAW format, like Nikon’s .nef format.


These files have the same filename as the photo, but with a .xmp extension.


If you reimport the photos, Lightroom checks for the presence of a corresponding XMP file and reapplies all the edits. As well as offering peace of mind, this is a really handy feature if you want to import the same photo into more than one catalog. Which brings me to a key decision you need to make …

Single or multiple catalogs?

You can, if you wish, have a single Lightroom catalog for all your photos. At the other extreme, you could have a separate catalog for every shoot – an approach taken by some professional photographers. There are pros & cons to both approaches, and I suggest most people will want to pick an option somewhere between the two.

A single catalog, containing every single photo you’ve ever taken, offers one key benefit: universal search. Provided that you keyword your photos (a topic I’ll come to shortly), you could, for example, search for all photos of your partner. Or all photos taken in New York. Or – if you keyword with the care of a stock photographer – all photos of a model wearing a green dress and using an iPhone.

The downside is that a single catalog soon gets rather unwieldy. If you have a modest number of catalogs, most of us will know which of them contains a particular photo, and you can always import the photo into more than one catalog if desired. Here’s what I do: a small selection of catalogs where it’s obvious where to find a photo. If I’m looking for a photo of The Bean in Chicago, it’s going to be in Travel. If I’m looking for a photo of a dancer, well, you get the idea.


So, my view is: if you’re a stock photographer, and never know what a client might ask for, consider a single master catalog. If you’re a wedding photographer, have one catalog per wedding. Everyone else will probably be best using a small number of separate catalogs.

Importing and keywording photos

I mentioned searching for photos by keyword. It’s an enormous help to keyword your photos. For example, in this case I wanted to find my favorite photos of the Golden Gate Bridge. I selected five-stars and put ‘golden gate’ into the text field, and Lightroom instantly shows my two 5-star rated photos of the bridge.


The secret to keywording is to do it when you import photos. In this way, and with some thought given to when you import, you can automate much of it. For example, if we zoom in on the keywords here:


I was importing a whole bunch of photos shot in San Francisco, so all the keywords bar ‘Golden Gate bridge’ and ‘travel slideshow’ were entered once, and automatically applied to all the photos during the import. You’ll find this option top-right in the Import panel (you may need to open the panel):


All I had to do afterwards was add a few keywords to individual photos here and there.

You’ll notice an additional option here in the form of ‘Develop Settings.’ Very occasionally, you may want to apply a Develop preset (for example, high-contrast black-and-white) to all the photos in a particular shoot. If you do, you can choose it from the dropdown here and then it’s automatically applied during import.

Initial cull & file-naming

It’s been said that the difference between a good photographer and a bad photographer is the number of photos they take. A good photographer shoots sparingly, because they know what they want to achieve, and know how to achieve it. A bad photographer takes a ‘spray and pray’ approach.

I tend to agree, but at the same time, you don’t always know in advance which will be the best shot. For example, I’m a huge fan of the ‘blue hour’ – that time around 30-45 minutes after sunset when the sky has a blue glow and there’s just a touch of color remaining from the remnants of the sunset.


But sometimes the glow doesn’t happen – if it’s too cloudy, for example – and it could start raining between the sunset and the best blue hour moment. So I’ll take a photo every 5-10 minutes as the sun sets, so I have some banked shots just in case. In the above case, though it did get cloudy, the moody sky was rather lovely, so I kept that shot and deleted the previous ones.

This is part of my personal philosophy for photography: I want one photo per scene, not a whole bunch of similars. My one exception to this rule is when deliberately shooting a series of related photos. For example, one time when I was in DC I arranged to meet up with a local dancer to shoot some sunrise photos at the reflecting pool.


So, you need an efficient system for culling photos – deleting the ones you don’t want, leaving you with the best. To use my system, you’ll need to make one more setting change: in the Photo menu, check Auto Advance.


So, import your photos, go to the Library tab and double-click the first photo to view it. What I then do is apply a numeric rating to each photo. I won’t bore you with the historical reasons for me using 0, 1, 3 and 5 instead of 0, 1, 2 and 3, but it’s habit now so I stick to it.

As you view the photo, press a number key. My system is:

0 – Delete
1 – Probably delete
3 – Probably keep
5 – Probably a favorite

I say ‘probably’ because you’ll likely need to do more than one pass to be sure. For example, you may think a photo is a keeper until you come to a better version. I am very sparing with 5s, for reasons I’ll get to.

As soon as you press a number key, the auto advance setting means it will immediately move to the next photo. So rating each photo is a very quick and easy process. Once I’ve done my first pass, the first thing I do is actually delete the zeroes. To do this, click the Attribute setting at the top to open up this panel:


Set the <=> symbol to =, and then set all the stars to off (you may need to select 1 star and then select it again to toggle it off). Lightroom will now display all the photos you rated zero. Do a quick scan to double-check, then CMD-A to select all and backspace to delete. Lightroom will ask you whether you merely want to remove the photo from the catalog, or delete the file. I’m ruthless, so I delete the file – make your own choice here.

Next, I select all the 1 stars. These are the photos I think I’ll probably delete, but wanted to check that I had better alternatives. What I do here is run through them again, this time rating them as 0 or 3, to delete or keep. Repeat the above step afterwards to delete all the zeroes.

Now I have the photos I want to keep, with my favorites labelled. I now rename the files sequentially. CMD-A to select all, then fn-F2 to rename. I have renaming presets for 1-, 2- and 3-digit filenames, depending on how many photos I’m keeping.



Now I’m ready to process the photos – or what Lightroom calls developing, after the dark room days (which I am old enough to remember – from my 14th birthday, my bedroom was really a darkroom with a bed in the corner).

Photo editing is a very personal process, but here’s what I do …

I always crop first, as I have some presets that apply a post-crop vignette. I mostly process very quickly and easily by applying one of my own presets, but I do use some built-in ones, and a few third-party ones. My approach is to keep travel photos and portraits looking pretty natural, and to allow myself to get more carried away on fashion shoots.

For a good 90%+ of my photos, though, I use one of five presets that I created (three of them with one variation each).


That makes for very fast editing, and ensures that each shoot has a coherent look, rather than wildly-varying ones. I may tinker a little with the result of the preset, but usually not too much.

If you currently find yourself doing a lot of hand editing on individual photos, my top tip is to really pay attention to what you do to each photo. Chances are, you’re quite repetitive in your choices – and you can then turn what you’ve done to one photo into a preset that you can use for similar ones.

For example, I take a lot of blue-hour shots. With almost all, I want to do exactly the same thing: cool the white balance, to emphasize the blue tone; boost saturation, to bring out the remnants of the sunset and further deepen the blues; increase the black-point, for greater drama. (I also under-expose by one stop, but I do that in-camera.)

If you adopt my approach of observing your editing and creating presets, you will dramatically boost your editing speed.

Speaking of which, while I generally avoid similars, when I am shooting a series – like the dance shoot – I process the first one (probably with a preset) and then sync-develop the rest. Click the edited photo first (important) and then shift-click the last one. That will select them all. Then click the Sync button, bottom-right in the Develop tab.


Note that you’ll typically want to deselect the crop, unless they are tripod shots.


Sharing photos

I have a number of different export presets, for example, one for this site, which outputs at 1024 pixels wide, another for large prints, another for desktop photos and so on.

I said that I’d come back to why I use the 5 rating sparingly. That’s because no-one wants to see all your trip photos, even if it was with Unicef and included a lot of cute kids. But a handful of your favorites? Sure, people will be up for that.


I typically give 5 stars to anything from two to six photos per trip. I used to do a lot of business travel, and I enjoy leisure travel today, so I’ve visited 68 countries to date. My 5-starred travel photos? 93 in all, which is a slideshow people might want to view. 3000 photos, not so much.

I hope this has been helpful. Please do share your own tips in the comments.

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  1. Im just starting to use Lightroom (moving from Aperture), but was concerned over how to easily get my iPhone photos over to Lightroom. All you need is the free Lightroom iOS app!

    • Lightroom can simply import photos from any iPhone connected to the Mac or PC, just like from the storage card of any other camera. It will be a lot faster than using the Lightroom app in iOS too.

  2. 89p13 - 7 years ago

    Great article, Ben! I’m a PhotoShop user from (almost) day one – but . . . . It’s always good to look at what’s out there and be willing to change.

  3. Digital Asset Management has always been far more capable and flexible in Lightroom, what it lacks is some interface cleanup and consolidation that Aperture did fairly well. The process of switching between different modes and the disappearance of many basic functions and abilities while a particular mode is selected is probably the biggest PITA – such as Develop losing a lot of what you can do in Library.

    Once you get beyond having to cycle/toggle between these modes, it’s straight-forward enough.

    • Having a single catalog is probably the way 99% of users should approach Lightroom. Even if you have 100-200k photos. You can easily use Collections (which are virtual folders) to achieve the split otherwise afforded by multiple catalogs. The universal searching is not something to be ignored.

      You can always search by date to pin-point a shoot regardless of how you have your files organized on disk or in your catalog – don’t forget to always make sure your camera is set with the correct date/time and if you ever import anything that’s wrong, correct it before you forget about it (there are time adjustment tools in LR).

      I strongly recommend dumping incoming files into a folder hierarchy based on date, optionally renaming the photos to some dated format as well. The original DCIM-formatted name won’t be useful long-term as your camera will eventually wrap its counter and similar cameras all produce the same naming format by default.

      JPG metadata will hold your LR edits, they’re not just saved to the catalog. I’ve long since moved beyond storing sidecar files with NEF and instead convert all proprietary incoming files to DNG. If you’re super paranoid about the future ability to extract something else from the original NEF (not likely) then you can also include a copy of the original NEF inside the DNG.

  4. Mimus Polyglottos - 7 years ago

    Thanks so much. Whenever I read articles like this I’m struck by how much more useful it is to have tutorials based on a workflow rather than instructions based on features. The worst software manuals (which is 99% of them) take you through all the menus and features in a program. The best ones take you through workflows. That’s also what I like about the Luminous Landscape video tutorials for Lightroom: they walk you through the entire process rather than going menu by menu.

  5. Ali Hamodi - 7 years ago

    Why Lightroom when pixelmator exist!!!!!????? Its almost like the full version of photoshop for a fraction of the price.

    • PhilBoogie - 7 years ago

      Why Pixelmatr when Affinity Photo exist!!!!!????? (see what I did there¿)

    • Neither Photoshop nor Pixelmator are well suited for EDITING photographs. If you read that and think that’s not true, then you aren’t understanding what the word “editing” means and I’m not sure anyone will convince you otherwise. Don’t confuse pixel-based manipulation and transformation as editing, which itself may just be management and selection.

      Neither PS nor PM support asset management of any kind, nor repetitive workflows and metadata management, let alone non-destructive correction and manipulation.

      Think of Lightroom as a photography studio, dark room and light table. Think of Photoshop as a toolbox full of paints, markers, scissors and scotch tape.

      • Jeff Morrison - 7 years ago

        Your definition of “Editing” is a bit strange sir.

        Photoshop is a photo editing application. Lightroom is a photo management application with basic editing capabilities.
        If you need to ‘edit’ photos, you have tons of options. If you need to ‘manage’ your photography, the options aren’t as numerous.

      • ChristianGeek - 7 years ago

        I think you just proved his point.

  6. PhilBoogie - 7 years ago

    Nice workflow Ben, a good article. Yes, helpful, even though I don’t use Lr.

  7. Some things in this workflow could be better in my opinion.

    1) I convert all RAW files to DNG when importing for future compatibility and so you don’t have to deal with separate files.

    2) Most people (99.9%) should use 1 library only and use folders, collections, keywords and tags to keep everything organized. Unless you are a pro and you know what you are doing and have a reason for doing separate libraries.

    Also you made no mention of “Smart Previews” which in my opinion, you should make of your whole library, so that you can edit your photos even if certain hard drives they are stored on aren’t plugged in at the time. Then when they are plugged in, carry those changes through automatically.

    Another cool thing you can do is auto-import from your Dropbox and enable Camera Uploads on your iOS device. That will pull in all your iOS photos into your LR library automatically, and makes it behave more like Photos.

    Commenters who are comparing LR to Photoshop or Pixelmator obviously don’t know what LR does. It’s a cataloging program with non-destructive edits. Much different than an image editor, and should be used in conjunction with these programs for edits you can’t do in LR, bring the finished photo back into LR for cataloging. Lightroom does this automatically if you use Photoshop with it.

  8. Great article. Any way you can share your presets?

    • Ben Lovejoy - 7 years ago

      There are a great many presets available out there, but my advice would be to create your own – tastes vary, and that way you’ll have presets that produce the results you personally like.

  9. Henrik Eidem Kurka - 7 years ago

    Great article! Except for the suggested use of multiple catalogs. If you are traveling to London (assuming you don’t live there) and take a photo of a dancer, where would you put the photo? Travel-catalog or London-catalog or Dance-catalog? Yes, it could be useful with multiple catalogs (though I never found a reason for it), but these examples are not good. Use metadata and SMART collections instead :)

    A single catalog may get unwieldy, but multiple catalogs are much more likely to be unwieldy.

    • Ben Lovejoy - 7 years ago

      Thanks, Henrik. I live in London, so dance photos shot here would be in the Dance catalog; dance shoots overseas number exactly one so far, so those photos are in both Travel and Dance catalogs.

  10. Tieme - 7 years ago

    Helpful post! I never considered using multiple catalogs. Since I work from different computers I use a catalog stored on my network, which is nice too.

    Thank you for sharing!

    Kind regards,


Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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