Tagging & Keywording in Lightroom – The Name Game

It’s not hard to get a lot of photos in Lightroom … and I do mean a LOT of photos.  Ten-thousand, twenty-thousand, one hundred-thousand. I’ve seen some pretty big catalogs. What do you do when you need to find one of those images? This is where keywording in Lightroom saves the day.

… when photographers starting migrating to digital storage, most of them stick with the old folder method.

In the old days, we had prints in labeled notebooks or slides in well-organized file cabinets. Old habits die hard, so when photographers starting migrating to digital storage, most of them stick with the old folder method. While keeping images in folders does narrow down the process of finding the photo you’re looking for, it’s far from perfect.

Take this photo, for example:

snowboarder. photo courtesy scott rouse

What folder would you put that in? Well, it could certainly go in a “skiing” folder, but what if I wanted to look at all of my photos of my friend Brad? He and I mountain bike and kayak together, as well. What if I needed to find all of the images of this local ski resort, or the specific brand of snowboard he’s carrying? I’d have to make multiple copies of this image to keep one in each relevant folder. No, thank you!

When I stop and think about it, my images rarely, if ever, fit into a single category or folder. That’s where keywording in Lightroom come in.

What are Keywords?

Keywords, also known as “tags,” are words or phrases that describe an image or portion of an image. For our photographs, keywords are stored in comma-separated list. That means that “brown bear” is one keyword and “brown, bear” is two keywords.

In Lightroom’s Library Module, there are two panels on the right that help you manage your keywords.

Keywording in Lightroom panel

The Keywording Panel lists the keywords applied to the selected image(s) and allows you to easily add keywords to images by typing the word or clicking on the Keyword Suggestions or Keyword Set lists.

keyword list panel

The Keyword List Panel contains a hierarchical view of all of the keywords you are using or have used in your catalog as well as any keywords you may have imported or added manually.

Choosing your Keywords

How you use keywords, or “tags,” on your images depends a lot on your specific needs. When choosing keywords, I ask myself, “how might I need to locate this image in the future?”

2005 Green River Narrows Race

Typically when keywording in Lightroom, a good keyword is one, single word.

For the image above, I’d definitely include the keywords “kayak.” “male,” and the name of the paddler. Since I may want to market this image to the manufacturer of the paddle, the keyword “Werner” is important to me. If you don’t sell your photos, then that keyword may be irrelevant. Photographers selling stock, however, may want to include additional keywords such as “splash,” “droplet,” and “fear.”

What Makes a Good Keyword?

Typically a good keyword is one, single word. If your keyword is more than one word, make sure that’s really necessary. Anything more than two words and you could definitely refine it.

Triple D Game Farm

If you were keywording in Lightroom, what keywords would you give this image? I’ve seen too many photographers try to use keywords such as “mountain lion reflection” or “mountain lion drinking” to describe images like this. Those aren’t keywords; those are descriptions.

The keywords are:

  • mountain lion
  • reflection
  • drinking
  • pond
  • triangle
  • green
  • brown
  • water

If I want to find an image of a mountain lion drinking, I can do just that using the keyword list above. If I commit to a compound keyword such as “mountain lion drinking,” I’ve really limited my flexibility in the future.

In reality, I use many more keywords than most photographers I meet. Because I teach photography, I use keywords that help me find images that demonstrate the Rule of Thirds, motion blur, depth of field, and more. Though those techniques are important to most photographers, they rarely need to find an image that clearly illustrates the Rule of Thirds.

waterfall photo courtesy scott_rouse

Raise your hand if you recognize this photo. Many of you will know it as the (probably over-photographed) Avalanche Creek in Glacier National Park. Here are my keywords for the above image:

  • creek
  • waterfall
  • rock
  • motion
  • moss
  • red
  • green

Why don’t I have keywords such as “Avalanche Creek” and “Glacier National Park” for that image? That’s probably the first thing I’d think of if I were looking for this image.

I don’t use location names in keywords because there are other metadata fields that are much better suited for those purposes. The Location, City, State/Province, and Country metadata fields are where I store this important location information. That may not be the best answer for everyone. Let’s say you were putting this photo online for sale as stock. You’d want to make sure that you had “Avalanche Creek,” “Avalanche Gorge,” and “Glacier” as additional keywords on this image to help others find it.

Applying Keywording In Lightroom

There are too many ways to apply and edit keywords to discuss them all in this post. The easiest way is to select the image or images to which you’d like to apply keywords and type the keywords you want to add (one at a time, hitting the Enter or Return key after each one) into the “Click here to add keywords” box in the Keywording Panel.


Tackling the Job

Chances are most of us don’t have as many images keyworded as we’d like. Looking at your vast image library with barren keyword fields can be a bit intimidating. Don’t sweat it, though. Start with broad keywords on groups of similar images, then narrow it down. Conversely,  just make a commitment to diligently keyword all newly imported images from here on out and go back and tackle an old folder or two now and then. You can do it.

note: for more details on keywording, check out our post on setting up and choosing keywords in Lightroom.

Scott Rouse

Scott Rouse co-created The Lightroom Lab in 2007 along with photographer and educator David Marx. Currently Scott is a Director of Technical Account Management at Acquia, leading a team that helps guide businesses through digital transformations.

  1. How can you select images with an AND selection. e.g., “Avalon” and “Beach” to only show images the keywords Avalon AND Beach? I used this type of selection in Elements but since Lightroom came out I have been unable to figure it out. I have a lot of images with Avalon (most not on the beach) and a lot of images with Beach (most not in Avalon) and picking either to scan manually for the other is not really practical. Set theory 1A- I need the intersection of Beach and Avalon.

  2. My quicker favorite method to actually enter keywords is the cmd-K shortcut. I also like generally to keep the dropdown set to “will export” — that way, LR displays parents and synonyms of the keywords I’ve entered (as long as they’re set to export).

  3. “In Lightroom’s Library Module, there are two panels on the left that help you manage your keywords.”

    I guess you meant “on the right”?

    To Carlos:
    If you have Lightroom 2, in the Library module:
    Library ­> Find…
    Ctrl (for PC) + F

    Text: Keywords
    Contain All
    and write both words in the search box.

    Hope it helps.

  4. Well…on the left from Lightroom’s point of view! 😉

    Just kidding. You’re correct. I meant:

    “In Lightroom’s Library Module, there are two panels on the right that help you manage your keywords.”


  5. Clayton,

    I can’t think of too many situations when I’d need to filter images in that fashion, but to accomplish what you’ve described:

    -Use the Metadata function of the Library Filter in the Library to display all images with the “Bird” keyword (or click on the small right-facing arrow to the right of “Bird” in the Keyword List panel).
    -Click Text in the Library Filter.
    -Choose Keywords and Doesn’t Contain from the drop-down lists.
    -Enter “Eagle Hawk Owl” (without the quotes) in the search field.

    That should show you only images in the “Bird” section (with the “Bird” keyword) that do not also contain either “Eagle,” “Hawk,” or “Owl.”

    Another way to accomplish the task for frequently-requested searches would be to create a Smart Collection with similar criteria.

    As I’d first mentioned, however, I can’t think of a situation when I’d want to do what you’d described. If I were looking for all unknown birds, for example, I’d include a keyword “unknown” under “Bird” to help me find those that I’d not yet categorized.

    Does that make sense? If not, let me know.


  6. So when setting keyword heirarchy, how do you find keywords assigned to the parent, but not child?

    IE: How do you find images that are marked as “Birds”, but not set to “Eagle”, “Hawk”, or “Owl”?

    – Bird
    … – Eagle
    … – Hawk
    … – Owl

  7. The keyword searching in LR2 is fairly basic, but you can use AND (“all”, or intersection) or OR (“any”) for multiple clauses in a Smart Collection filter.
    You can nest Smart Collections, as one of the available clauses in a filter is to check the collections that an image is a member of.

    Thus for example you could make Smart Collection “Avalon Beach” checking that both “Avalon” and “Beach” keywords were set.
    Then you could make an SC “Birds not on Avalon Beach” checking that Collection contains “Avalon Beach” and that Keywords doesn’t contain “Birds”.
    etc, etc…

    And as Scott points out you can use the Text and Metadata portions of the Library Filter to narrow things down further.

  8. Sorry, that example could have been done with just one Smart Collection.
    A better example would be nested Smart Collections with one using AND and one using OR. But you should get the idea.

  9. Hi, thanks for this very good intro to keywording in Lightroom.
    I also use the Location/City/Country fields as you describe. Do you know of a way to export them as keywords for displaying on websites that don’t support ITPC location/city fields?

  10. Oliver,

    Good question. I don’t know of an easy way to write that location information into the keyword fields, though I can see how it would be quite useful for situations where the location fields are unavailable.


  11. Update: I’m using SmugMug, and Jeff Friedl’s excellent SmugMug export plugin (http://regex.info/blog/lightroom-goodies). His export plugins have a “Template Keyword” feature: you can add any piece of metadata as a keyword on export. You’ll write for example:

    {Location} {Scene} {Country} {City}

    and the relevant metadata will be filled in by the plugin. Really handy.

  12. Hi everyone,
    There is something that is driving me work-flow crazy:
    i’m clicking through my pics, hit cmd-k to keyword… – then how to I get back to the pics without using the mouse? i’m a keyboard fan and using the mouse takes too much time… it’s super easy to keyword – but then I don’t know how to get out of the keywording panel using the keyboard !!!

    Hope someone can help me, i’m in the process of keywording my 6000 wedding pictuers….

  13. hey guys – me again – got it !!!
    for whoever is interested – i made it work by pure chance – if instead of hitting cmd-k to ADD a keyword, you hit shift-cmd-k to EDIT the keywords, then when done editing or adding keywords, hit enter, and you’re back in the grid with the arrow keys !!!! brilliant !!!

    hope this helps someone…

  14. Oh brilliant ! thanks so much – so simple and obvious and yet I didn’t even think about it !!!
    excellent, now I can use both, but your method is easier.

  15. Per Scott:


    I’m a big fan of the keyboard, as well. Like you mentioned, Cmd+K gets you into the Keyword field. After you’ve entered your keyword(s), tap the Esc key to remove focus from the keyword field. Then your left and right arrows will let you move on to the previous or next image, respectively.

    Hope that helps.


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