Collections in Lightroom

Hi Folks:

I’ve done a few tutorials on what I consider to be among the most important of Lightroom’s features – digital asset management (DAM), and how you can use the various options to help you organize your images.  Among the benefits are being able to find ONE image out of 10,000 or 100,000 or… Lightroom allows several different ways of classifying your images – folder structure (on your hard drive), keywords, colour labels, pick flags, metadata (capture date or camera serial number for example) and more, and the filter bar at the top of the Library module allows you to quickly highlight specific images based on these criteria.  However, there are times when one wants to create a, well, a ‘collection’ of images that share some theme or purpose from across different folders, either temporarily or permanently.  This is where Collections come in.  Lightroom works with two types of Collections – Standard Collections and Smart Collections, although the Standard Collections include one special variant called a ‘Quick Collection’ or ‘Target Collection’.  Because this post is going to be long I’ve broken it into three parts. One can read down or click on a specific section.

  1. Quick Collection
  2. Standard Collection
  3. Smart Collection

A quick explanation first.

To begin with, Lightrom is essentially a database program – a way of collecting, analyzing and sorting information – in this case digital images.  Every image has a stored location – on a hard drive, flash drive, CD/DVD or whatever, and the Lightroom catalog (database) creates and stores pointers to these various file locations so it knows where each file is.  Collections don’t move or alter the files’ stored locations; Collections exist solely within the Lightroom database.  As mentioned, there are two main types of Collections: Standard Collections and Smart Collections.  In Lightroom 4 this is expanded a bit because one can create a ‘Saved Print’ in the Print module and save it to a Collection, and there are ‘Book’ collections of images used for a book created in the Book Module.  In essence these are both Standard Collections, however.  Finally, one can create Collection Sets, similar to a folder hierarchy where different collections can be grouped together.

Two more notes before I continue.  First, while one can mark an image in a Collection as Rejected, an image cannot be deleted from Lightroom within a Collection – only from the folder where it resides.  Second, in Lightroom 3.x Pick Flags and Reject Flags are local to a folder or a collection – i.e. if I add a pick flag to an image in a collection, this information is not carried over to the image in the folder.  Star ratings and colour labels are universal, but not flags.  Fortunately this has been corrected in Lightroom 4.x

Okay, how one adds images to a collection and what can be done with images in a collection varies depending on the type of collection you have.  Very basically, images are selected individually or as a group for addition to a Standard Collection, and are filtered based on specific criteria for a Smart Collection.  We’ll start with Standard Collections, and more specifically the Quick Collection.

In the Library module, left panel under Catalog is where you’ll find the Quick Collection.

Quick Collection

A Quick Collection is intended to be just that – a quick grouping of images – for a slideshow perhaps, to be exported together or for some similar purpose.  One can add image(s) to the Quick Collection in several ways.  One is to select one or more images, right-click on one and select ‘Add to Quick Collection’.  The keyboard shortcut for this is ‘Shift-B’.  A second is to select one or more images and drag and drop them onto the Quick Collection in the left panel, the same way one moves an image from one folder to another.  A third is to click on the little circle icon within the top right corner of each image when in the Grid view of the Library module.  Selecting a group of images and clicking on this little circle in one of them will add all of them to the Quick Collection.

QC Selection

Finally, one can use the Painter tool.  The painter tool is on the bottom toolbar, and can be used to ‘paint’ (add) keywords, flags, ratings and more to one or a group of images very quickly.  It can also be used to add images to the Quick Collection.

Painter Tool

To remove an image or images from the Quick Collection, either click on the little circle again or right-click and select ‘Remove from Quick Collection’. One can also right-click on the Quick Collection name in the left panel and select ‘Clear Quick Collection’.

If, after selecting images and storing them in the Quick Collection you decide to keep this more permanently, you can right-click on the Quick Collection name in the left panel and select ‘Save Quick Collection’.  This will save the Quick Collection as a Standard Collection.

Now, while the default location for images thus selected is the Quick Collection, any Standard Collection can be designated a ‘Target Collection’ (only one collection at a time), by right-clicking on the Collection name and selecting ‘Set as Target Collection’.

Target Collection

A Standard Collection is a group of images chosen by the user to be grouped together for a specific purpose.  One may either create a blank collection and then add images to it, or one may preselect the images and then add them to a collection.  To create a Standard Collection, Smart Collection or Collection Set, simply click on the ‘+’ icon beside Collections in the left panel of the Library Module and give the collection or set a name.

New Collection

IF one has preselected images before creating the new Standard Collection, an option will be provided to include the selected images in the collection, and/or to create a collection using new Virtual Copies of those images.  A Virtual Copy is just that – a duplicate of an image that exists only within the Lightroom catalog.  One can use Virtual Copies to create different image crops, try out different processing techniques, etc. without altering the original image.

Virtual Copies

NB: In Lightroom’s Library module, one can decide what information to display for each image by right-clicking and selecting ‘View Options’ or by going to View/ View Options.  When I first upgraded to Lightroom 4 I found that all of my Virtual Copies were displaying the same ‘name’: “Copy 1”.  Obviously having a number of images with the same ‘name’ isn’t of much use, and I’d never encountered this situation in Lightroom 3.  By checking the View Options I discovered that the default setting in Lightroom 4 is ‘File Base Name or Copy Name’, whereas in Lightroom 3 the default is ‘File Base Name’ – ‘Copy Name’ is a separate option.  I changed my View Options to ‘File Name and Copy Name’, and now my Virtual Copies display as ‘Filename.ext . Copy 1 (or 2 or…)  Much better.

As mentioned above, images cannot be deleted from Lightroom from within a Collection, only from the folder in which they reside.  One can mark an image as ‘Rejected’ while in the collection or right-click on the image and select ‘Go to Folder In Library’ and delete it from there (only the second option is viable in Lightrom 3.x).  To remove an image from a Standard Collection, right-click on the image and select ‘Remove From Collection’.

A Smart Collection differs from a Standard Collection in that a Smart Collection is a group of images based on specific criteria.  In this regard a Smart Collection is similar to the Filter Bar at the top of the Grid view.  Before we get into the specifics it’s important to understand three very basic operators used in computing: AND, OR, and NOT as these are the basis for all of the selections.  Individually they’re pretty self-explanatory, but they can be used in combination as well, such as A AND B (both criteria must be met), A OR B (one criterion or the other must be met) or, say A AND (B OR C) or A OR (B AND NOT C) and so on.  It’s not as complicated as it sounds.  One can filter on basically any metadata field, keywords, colour labels, star ratings, pick flags, etc.  Here’s an example:

Smart Collections

The ‘match all’ selection here serves as the AND function, so to fit in this Collection an image must meet both criteria. Changing that to ‘match any’ would serve as an OR function, meaning select images that have three stars or more OR those that have a purple label. ‘Match none’ would of course serve as the NOT function, and would find images that meet neither criteria. Pressing the + sign at the end of any of the operators will add another selection tool. Pressing the – sign removes a selection tool from the criteria.  If one wants to use more than one operator, however, it’s necessary to hold down the Alt/Opt key when pressing a + sign. This creates a sublevel of selection, like this:


In this case I set the top-level operator to AND, and set a criterion of 4 stars or better, then held down the Alt/Opt key and pressed the + sign.  I set the second-level operator to OR, and selected images that are either in portrait (rather than square or landscape) orientation OR images that have been cropped.  The Smart Collection therefore contains images that have 4 stars or better AND (images that are portrait OR images that have been cropped).  The first and one of the second criteria must be met.  How one uses these options depends on the type of work done, but it’s immensely powerful.

For example, in my folder structure I have images stored in folders by year, then month.  When importing images into Lightroom it’s possible to sort them into subfolders based on Capture Date, but to me that seems unnecessary.  If I wanted to see images captured with Camera A in the first week of May I could simply create a Smart Collection based on Camera is Camera A (or Camera Serial Number is _____ if you own two of the same model) AND Capture Date is in the range 2012-05-01 to 2012-05-07.  The possibilities are, if not infinite, enormous.

Used well, Collections can be a very powerful tool in your Lightroom image management.  To delete or rename a collection, simply right-click on it and select the appropriate option.  To add a Standard or Smart Collection to a Collection Set, simply drag and drop the collection into the set.

There are a couple more uses for collections that can also be handy for some people.  First, let’s say you store all of your images in one Lightroom catalog, but it becomes necessary to create a new catalog with only a subset of images.  By creating either a Standard or Smart Collection of images one can then right-click on the collection and select ‘Export as Catalog’.  The new catalog will contain only those images from the collection, as well as any pick flags, colour labels, keywords, metadata, etc. they contain.  Second, collections can be very useful with Publish Services.  For example, any images that I’m considering uploading to Flickr or 500px I mark with a purple colour label.  I have Smart Collections within each Publish service that looks for images with a purple colour label.  I select images from those Smart Collections and drag them into the Publishing Service, and after uploading them I simply remove the purple colour label from the published images.  They keep their star ratings, etc. but are no longer marked as ‘to be published’.

I trust that explains some of the ins and outs of using Collections within Lightroom.

Now go out and make some photographs!


P.S. You can find more of our posts on photography and Lightroom tutorials here, and you can find links to over 200 other sites that have Lightroom tips, tutorials and videos here.

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