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How to Create Photo Collections in Lightroom Classic

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The larger your Adobe Lightroom collection grows, the more difficult it becomes to manage your photos. In this tutorial, you'll learn all about the power of Lightroom's Collections and how these features can help you work with your pictures. If you've been avoiding the "one catalog" approach because it doesn't let you organize your pictures in a familiar, folder-based way, then this tutorial is your solution.

The Problem With Version Control

Everyone organizes their pictures into folders. No matter how many stars and colors and keywords you add, at some point it just makes sense to create little groups of pictures.

This is natural! Grouping pictures together is at the core of understanding our pictures. Selecting pictures, thinking about how they relate to one another, and then and organizing them into groups is how we've edited since, well, forever. Folders are a logical way to save those groupings.

The problem, however, comes with digital copies. If you have multiple nearly-identical (and maybe identically named) versions of a file in different folders, how do you keep track of which one is the "right" one? If you've ever received a document named something like "resume-final-FINAL-V2.doc" or "DSC5249-web.jpg" you can imagine how complicated having even a couple hundred images can become.

Folders to collectionsFolders to collectionsFolders to collections
One of the challenges of working in Lightroom is to migrate from a series of folders with images on your computer to an organized "virtual" system. While you may have images carefully organized on your hard drive, they are likely to lack organization upon import. The Collections feature we'll cover in this tutorial will bridge this gap.

At it's core, Lightroom is a program for creating and managing your catalog of images. It uses a database to do this. That database creates a record for every image you add. This allows us to understand our images in the catalog in new and powerful ways.

Earlier in this series, we covered some of the ways to describe our images by adding metadata, stars, and flags to them. Collections are another powerful way to capture the relationship between images.

Collections are Virtual Folders

Basically, collections are a way to group pictures together in your Lightroom catalog. They act a bit like regular folders, but are way more flexible and useful than the way folders work on your hard drive.

Collections really put the "library" in the Library module. In a physical library, a book sits on shelf in a specific place. That location of each book is recorded by the library's catalog system. And although each book sits in one physical place, it can still be part of collections made by the librarian, say "Recommended Photography Books" or "Best Photography Books of 2014." These collections let us discover and understand the library much easier and faster than simply wandering the stacks, looking at spines.

In exactly the same way, the photographs in your image library sit in a specific place on your hard drive, managed by Lightroom. Each image file exists as a single copy. With collections, however, each photograph can be part of many different sets of pictures, just like the book collections at your local library.

Lightroom collections are, in computer terms, what are called "virtual folders." That is, they act like folders, but instead of making copies they reference the original location of the file. Creating a collection doesn't alter the original image in any way, only points to it. Collections can be created and destroyed without any risk to your original images.

Using Collections

You can imagine using collections to separate your catalog in meaningful ways. If your catalog includes all of your portrait or wedding shoots, you can easily use collections to split your work into separate collections for each. You could also make collections for things, like "Wedding Portfolio," or "Wedding Bloopers," or anything else you like.

Collections are also part of good data hygiene. Moving images around on your hard drive into different folders will confuse Lightroom and break your links to files. Instead of organizing images on the drive itself, collections give you virtual folders to sort your images and group them for easy access.

Building Collections

To build collections, start by working in the Library module. You'll find the Collections panel at the left hand side, and by default you'll see Smart Collections and a Test Collection already there. We'll talk more about Smart Collections a little later and the added power that they hold.

To manage my collections, I start by putting the Library module in Grid view. You can press G to enter grid view. Let's work with the standard Test Collection for the purpose of this tutorial. To add images to that collection, you can simply drag and drop them from Grid view onto the collection. As you drag and drop, they'll be added to the collection.

Collections panel create Lightroom collectionCollections panel create Lightroom collectionCollections panel create Lightroom collection
The Collections Panel in Lightroom is on the left side of the app below the navigator and "snapshots" section. To create a new Collection, press the "+" button and choose "Create Collection." These Collections can serve as Lightroom's virtual folders for image organization.

At some point, you'll have a need to create more collections. To do this, press the + button at the upper right part of the Collections panel and choose Create Collection.

Drag to collection to add to collectionDrag to collection to add to collectionDrag to collection to add to collection
To add images to a collection, I typically switch to Grid view. I'll often multi-select images and then drag and drop them onto the Collection title to add them. Make sure you're grabbing an image from the thumbnail itself (as opposed to the grey border around it) when you're dragging and dropping.

Target Collections

Another great option to add images to a collection is to use the Target Collection function. With the Target Collection function, you can add any image to a selected collection just by pressing B on the keyboard.

Set as target collectionSet as target collectionSet as target collection
Right clicking on a collection on the collections panel (or Cmd + Click on a Mac) will set a collection as the Target Collection. Once you've set a Collection as a Target, you can press "B" on your keyboard to add images to it.

You can set any Collection as the target by right clicking (or Cmd and click on a Mac) and choosing Set as Target Collection. Once a collection is designated as the target, an image will be added to it as soon as you press B on the keyboard.

Collection Sets

To give you another level of organization, Collection Sets exist to allow for grouping of collections. To create a new Collection Set, just press the same + button and choose Create Collection Set. Give it a name and you'll have a new Collection Set, a tool to organize your collections.

Creating Collection setsCreating Collection setsCreating Collection sets
To create a collection set, press the "+" button at the upper right corner of the Collections panel. Giving your Collection Set a name will aid in your organization. You can also create multiple tree structure collection sets by using the "Inside a Collection Set" option.

After the new Collection Set appears in the Collections panel, you can drag and drop collections into the set to group any number of collections together.

Collection setsCollection setsCollection sets
Once you've established collection sets, you can drag and drop other collections to create a virtual folder structure. I've established a simple and basic organization here that allows me to group three collections into one set. Dividing your catalog is simple when using collections.

Automating Collections with Smart Collections

Smart Collections are an incredibly powerful tool to build collections based on any rules that we set for them. Basically, we can give Lightroom a list of criteria, like "four stars and red color labels," and they'll automatically be added to a collection. These smart collections are like a saved search: they dynamically update in real time, so they'll add images that meet criteria instantly.

Lightroom has several Smart Collections built into it that you'll see as you expand the label. Press the arrow to the left to see these.

Default smart collectionsDefault smart collectionsDefault smart collections
The default Smart Collections are shown once you press the dropdown arrow to the left of "Smart Collections." These defaults show you some of the options for Smart Collections; effectively, these collections are saved searches of your images. They update in real time as images meet the criteria you select.

Immediately, you'll see the power of Smart Collections as you can easily browse to collections of Five Stars photos, your photos from the Past Month, and many others. When you click these collections Lightroom will refine the selected images to these criteria.

We can create our own Smart Collection rules by again pressing the + button at the upper right part of the panel and choosing Create Smart Collection.

Create Smart CollectionCreate Smart CollectionCreate Smart Collection
To create your first smart collection, press the "+" button a the upper right corner of the Collections panel and choose "Create Smart Collection."

This screen has a ton of options to build our own Smart Collection rules. The first thing we'll want to do is examine the dropdown next to the word Match. Our options here are Any, All, and None. Below this, we'll add our search rules

  • Use an Any to include photos that match any of the included criteria
  • Use All to include photos that meet every criteria that we add: if we have "Red" color label and "Four Stars", the photo will have to have both of these, for example
  • Use None to include photos that do not match the criteria. I like to think of this as an "inverse" collection. For example, we could choose "None" and then "Has Smart Preview" to show all images that need to have their Smart Previews rendered.

This simple selection between Any, All, and None has a major impact on how our Smart Collections function. Start by envisioning the goal of the collection and then tailoring your selection appropriately.

Create Smart Collection OptionsCreate Smart Collection OptionsCreate Smart Collection Options
The tools to create Smart Collections are amongst some of the most powerful in Lightroom. As described above, the first decision is to choose if you want the photos to match "Any", "All", or none of the rules you add. Below, I've added three rules to this Smart Collection. It will pull any images that have 4 or more stars, with a blue color label, and a "wedding" keyword. Add more rules by pressing the "+" button on the right side and then building the rules from dropdowns. The power and depth of this screen is limited only by your imagination and workflow needs.

These Smart Collections are powerful ways to build sets of images that update dynamically and follow the rules you set. Your workflow may require these highly customized groupings of images that can only be addressed with Smart Collections.


The power of collections is to group your images in a meaningful way, organizing them in the virtual folders system that Collections allow for. There is no limit to the number of collections an image can exist in, and we can even group collections with Collection Sets.

Finally, remember that Smart Collections are really brilliant "saved searches" that group images based on rules you add for them.

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