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Implementing a Controlled Vocabulary in Adobe Lightroom

This post is part of a series called Digital Asset Management: Photography Workflows.
How to Setup a Fast and Flexible Library with Smart Previews in Adobe Lightroom
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This post is part of a series called Adobe Photoshop Lightroom for Beginners.
Lightroom Workflow: Data Setup & Import Essentials
Creatively Converting Photos to Black and White With Lightroom

Last month, Dawn Oosterhoff wrote a fantastic article about controlled vocabularies. Dawn's article got me thinking about Lightroom and the importance of building a keyword system that can scale with your collection.

The essence of a controlled vocabulary is structuring your keywords in a meaningful and repeatable way. In her article, Dawn talks specifically about the conflicts that our keyword hierarchies face as they grow. Once our catalogs include keywords for "puppy", "dog", and "canine", for example, we've lost the searchability that keywords promise us.

The essence of a controlled vocabulary is structuring your keywords in a meaningful and repeatable way.

In this tutorial you'll learn how to apply controlled vocabulary techniques in your Adobe Photoshop Lightroom catalog.

Putting Best Practices Into Practice

First, if you haven't read Dawn's article about the theory that drives controlled vocabularies, head on over and then come back. Are you ready? OK, let's go:

Just having keywords isn't enough; it's essential to structure them in a useful way. A sane keyword structure built with a repeatable method is worth far more than randomly applied keywords. In this tutorial we're going to break down the main parts of applying a controlled vocabulary in Lightroom into four key parts:

  1. Keyword planning
  2. Loading to Lightroom
  3. Applying Keywords
  4. Keyword Maintenance

I am overhauling my wedding catalog collection. I had been using a single catalog for each wedding, but I've recently moved to a single consolidated catalog that holds all of my wedding pictures. This gives me much greater searchability and explorability over thousands of images.

As I merged those catalogs together, it offered the chance to get a fresh start with my keywords. I decided to commit to applying the controlled vocabulary philosophy to my image catalog.

1. Keyword Planning

To perform keyword planning, I use mindmapping software to visualize my keyword structure. So far, I've found that time spent planning for keyword structure has saved me tons of time in the long run.

I used the free trial of MindNode to get started with mapping out a potential keyword structure before I ever even opened Lightroom, but you could just as easily reproduce this with cue-cards or paper and pen. The mindmapping process is all about creating a flexible, visible model for how we'll apply keywords.

Knowing that all of my images would be wedding related, I started off with this as my centerpiece in MindNode. For my level two keywords, I divided my hierarchy into three basic areas: "People", "Details", and "Venue." If you spend time considering your catalog needs and the images that are in it, it's much easier to divide out the keyword structure.

When starting the mindmap process, lay out a few keywords that will describe the basic categories your images will fall into. Keywords can always contain some overlap, but these first few levels of keywords will go a long way in building the controlled vocabulary.

After I got those basic two levels setup, I began thinking about how to subdivide the second level of keywords. Let's use the category "people" as an example. In my experience with weddings, I know the main people that will be present in each wedding. Based on that, I added several additional levels to my "people" grouping:

  • Bride
  • Groom
  • Bride & Groom
  • Family
  • Groomsmen
  • Bridesmaids
  • Guests
Mindmap level 2
Now, I've added some additional levels of detail to my controlled vocabulary. Adding these to the "people" category of keywords will ensure we stay sane in the application of our keywords.

While we're working through this, it's essential to remember that most of our images will have multiple keywords! Working through a keyword hierarchy isn't about removing detail; it's about structuring that detail.

Regardless of the tool you use, I can't stress enough how important keyword planning is. Now that I've spent time with a mindmapping tool, I don't think that I'll ever setup a keyword hierarchy without it. Mindmaps are flexible enough to evolve as our image collection does. It's not essential that you build a complete layout of your keyword hierarchy, but laying the foundation is hugely helpful.

2. Loading Keywords to Lightroom

Once you have made your basic plans for your keyword structure, it's time to start applying them to your images in Lightroom.

I export my keywords from my mindmapping software in two ways: as a plain text keyword list and as a PDF. The text version will be used to import into Lightroom. I'll also put the PDF on my iPad so I can view it side by side while I'm working, but you could also just print it.

One great feature that Lightroom offers is the ability to import keywords from text files. We can simply add all the keywords to a text file and then import it, and they'll be available for quick use: no need to type them one by one in Lightroom. If you already have them loaded in a mindmapping tool, export them to a plaintext file to save time.

Keyword tab stops
Whether you use mind mapping software or not, tabbing your keywords preserves the keyword hierarchy.

To import the text file of keywords, enter the Library module and choose Metadata > Import Keywords. Point Lightroom to your text file, and it will bring the keywords in. If you view the Keyword List panel, you'll see that the keywords have been loaded.

Notice in this screenshot that the keywords are in a hierarchy. 

Loading keywords is just half of the process. Let's take a look at the tips and tricks for applying keywords quickly and efficiently.

3. Applying Keywords

Now, we've laid out a solid plan for how we want to apply keywords to our images. We've also settled on a working structure for how keywords will be applied.

Top-Level Keywords

Keywording witinh a hierarchy progresses incrementally from least specific to most specific. First you apply top-level keywords to all the appropriate images, which in my case is "weddings." In case we ever add more images to our catalog that aren't wedding images, this will be an easy filter to separate them. I'll enter the Library module, switch to Grid View, and select all images using Edit > Select All.

Add weddings to all images
It takes entirely too long to add keywords one by one. To add my top level keyword to all images, I've switched to Grid view and have selected all images. You can then type the keyword in the keyword panel and press enter, and all images will receive the keyword. You can also click the keyword to apply from the panel if you've already imported it.

In the Keyword List panel, if I click "Weddings", Lightroom will apply that keyword to all images in my selection. In just a few seconds, we've already applied our level one keyword to every image.

2nd-Level Keywords

Now, it's up to you to determine how to add those level two keywords. Personally, I like to start working through my collection adding color labels for my level 2 keywords. In this scenario, I would add a red color label for people photos, a blue color label for detail photos, and a yellow label for venue photos. At this point, I'm working through my collection quickly, adding a color label to each based on the category.

Obviously, this strategy only works if you have a limited number of 2nd-level keywords to apply. It won't work in a larger, or more complicated, catalogue.

Once I've added those color labels, I'll then filter based on labels, select all, and apply the keywords to complete my "level 2" tagging.

Color Labels filtered
Instead of adding keywords one by one, I added a color label to all images that were of wedding details. After adding that red color label, I filtered to all images with the red color label.
Add to selected photos
On the keyword panel, I right click (Control + click on Mac) the keyword I want to add and choose "add this keyword to Selected Photos." Instantly, each of the selected images will now contain the "Details" keyword.

3rd-Level Keywords

Now that you've added your top and 2nd-level keywords, work through your images again to include 3rd-level keywords. This can take a couple of passes, but it's usually pretty quick because you've already narrowed the field by adding your top and 2nd-level keywords.

I usually do a quick 3rd-level keyword application for everything except my rejects. Then I return to any of the standout and keeper images (by filtering for stars) for a second look. If one of these pictures, which I've identified as more valuable, needs another keyword I add it then.  

Stick to the Program

As I'm working in Lightroom, I'll keep the mindmap in view. This helps me ensure I stick to the structured plan of my keyword hierarchy. Any time I need to add a new keyword, I add it to my mindmap and my Lightroom collection.

Mindmap in View
One of my favorite "sanity hacks" is to keep the mindmap in view while you're working.

It's essential to block off time for adding keywords. It is a fool's errand to think of keywording overhauls as an afternoon project or a single day's work. Your collection will continue to grow and regardless of your speed, keywording is an ongoing process. It's a part of the photographic process that really needs to be part of your regular workflow.

4. Keyword Maintenance

Your catalog is going to need ongoing keyword maintenance to keep it nice and tidy, so let's think about how these features and approaches work going forward. Here's some good news: you can run keyword imports from text files repeatedly. Running another keyword import won't break your old structure; it will simply add to them.

Keyword Audit

Periodically, I'll audit my own keywords to make sure that there are no overlapping concepts. I will update my mindmap and Lightroom keywords, making sure they match. It is crucial to keep your keywords pruned and sane. All it takes is a simple review to ensure that I've not gone off the rails with how I'm applying keywords.

Overlapping keywords
Periodically, I'll perform sanity checks on my the keywords panel. When I see keywords that are too similar, such as "Bridal" and "Bride", I'll choose a single keyword and correct all images with the unused keyword.

Another great option is to purge unused keywords, which is found on the same menu. Purging unused keywords will delete the ones you've not applied to any images. To purge keywords, access Metadata > Purge Unused Keywords. In just a few seconds, Lightroom will remove keywords that aren't applied.


In this lesson, we looked at applying keywords using a controlled vocabulary. We went from the planning process to batch application of keywords. Following these steps means that not only will you add keywords, you'll add them in a meaningful way.

As your image collection grows, adding keywords becomes essential to maintaining it. However, learning about controlled vocabularies has made me realize that keywords can't be applied productively without planning and forethought. Using a controlled vocabulary ensures that your growing collection will never become a digital landfill.

Keep Learning

This series is all about taking control of your archive and making your pictures work for you. Using a controlled vocabulary and adding keywords is a lifelong process. These tutorials will set you on the right path:

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