Lightroom keywords are the answer to one of the most frequently asked questions that I get – what is the best way to organize an ever-growing collection of photos?

Lightroom keywords allow you to organize, search for, and find that photo you only have a hazy memory of, and to slice and dice all your images every which way. But only if you use them correctly. This tutorial will show you how I use them, and introduce you to the tools that Adobe gives us in Lightroom – Lightroom has way more tools related to keywords than most people know about.

Keep in mind that your mind works differently from mine. The terms and structure that I use for my photo organization might not work for you, and you will come up with an organizational structure that works for YOUR photos. What’s important is that you know how to use the tools you have access to, that you have a plan for using them, and that you use your plan consistently on each photo you bring in to Lightroom.

Also, there is a TON of detail in this tutorial. The best way to learn it will be to open Lightroom and work through each step as I describe it. And if you have questions, post them in the comments below. I’m here to help!


Lightroom Keywords: Start Here

The first place I apply keywords in Lightroom is when I import a group of photos. When I import, no matter how many photos I have on my memory card, I import in groups: events, shoots, moments, whatever. I put each group of photos into a separate folder. Those folders might be as mundane as “on the sofa with the dog.”

As I import the photos, I type keywords in the Import dialog that apply to each and every photo in the group being imported. Let’s take an example of a child’s birthday. I might use the keywords “eleven” and “birthday.” But I don’t use “cake,” because the cake doesn’t appear in all the photos. Note that I don’t use the birthday girl’s name, at this point, either.

This “Apply During Import” panel is available on the right side of Lightroom’s Import window. It’s easy to use: click inside the panel, start typing, separate each keyword with a comma, and import your photos as usual.

apply lightrooom keywords during import

Pick Favorite Photos

Once I’ve imported a group of photos, I work through the images using the pick flags that I wrote about here. While these flags aren’t keywords, they are important to my search process. And the point of using keywords is to make searching for the photos I want easier.

The photos I mark with a white pick flag are the ones I like. The ones I’ll choose to share, print, or scrapbook later. When I look for my photos in the future, I’ll search for any photos with the white flags that have specific keywords. The ones that don’t have pick flags, I probably won’t use again. I could delete them, but I don’t. Yes, I am a digital hoarder.

Refine Keywords

Next, I filter the photos in this new folder for images with the white flags, and I do some more organizing in Lightroom’s Library module. I add keywords to individual photos, or small groups of photos, based on what is unique to them. Each keyword I add is a term I might use in a search to find the photo in the future.

To add a keyword, select a photo or a group of photos. Click in the Keywording panel. Make sure the drop-down menu is set to “Enter Keywords.” Click in the bar at the bottom to make it white, and start typing.

apply lightroom keywords in library module

If you’ve used the keyword before, Lightroom will autofill it. If not, Lightroom will create a new keyword for you. Hit enter when you are finished, or use a comma to separate keywords.

To continue the birthday example, I might apply “party” to a group of photos and “cake” to a smaller group of photos within the party photos. So now, I have many photos with eleven and birthday keywords. Some of them have white flags. And the photos with white flags have additional keywords.

People Keywords

At this point, I use Lightroom’s facial recognition tool to apply people keywords to faces in the photos. To use this tool, go to the grid view of the Library module (type G), and select the little face icon on the Toolbar in the lower-left corner of the workspace.

apply people keywords in lightroom


You can watch a video tutorial about Lightroom’s facial recognition here.

Why don’t I apply the people keywords to all the photos I imported? This process can be a bit time-consuming. It’s important to me to apply facial recognition keywords only to my favorite photos – those with the pick flags. So I wait until this point in the process in order to save some time.

Add Lightroom Keywords to Multiple Photos

Did you know you can apply keywords to multiple photos at the same time? Aside from the method I mentioned above, where you can select a group of photos and add keywords using the Keywording panel, you have a couple of other options.

First, you can synchronize metadata in Lightroom. And keywords are a part of metadata. Metadata describes other data. The other data, in this case, is your photo, so metadata describes your photo. Select a photo that has the keywords you like, and increase your selection to include photos that you’d like to have the same keywords. (Use shift+click to select continuous photos, or control/command+click to select non-contiguous photos.)

synchronize keywords in lightroom

Notice how the keywords have asterisks in the screenshot above? A keyword with an asterisk means that it applies to some, but not all, of the selected photos.

With these photos selected, click “Sync Metadata” at the lower right corner of your Library module. You’ll be presented with a very long list of metadata options that you can synchronize. One helpful one is the Copyright info. And, if you scroll down to the very bottom, you’ll see the Keywords option. Make sure it is checked, and then click Synchronize. That’s all it takes.

Another option for adding keywords to multiple photos is to use the Painter tool. It works a lot like the Format Painter in Microsoft Word or Excel. Click the spray paint can in the Lightroom Library Toolbar (click T if you don’t see the Toolbar).

lightroom painter tool

Select Keywords from the Painter options menu.

configure lightroom painter tool

Next, type (or copy and paste from another photo) the keywords you’d like to apply into the Painter text to apply keywords with the lightroom painter tool

Click on photos you’d like to apply the keywords to, or click and drag over a series of photos.

Pro Tip: The painter tool is also a quick way to change the rotation of a group of photos. You know those portrait-oriented photos that appear sideways in Lightroom? Select Rotation from the Painter options menu, choose the rotation direction, and click and drag over the photos you need to rotate. It’s super easy!

Other Keyword Tricks

If you’d like to be a power user, these Lightroom keyword tricks can make your life much more organized!

Export Keywords

Now that you’ve keyworded your photos, you want to make sure (in most cases) that the keywords stick to your photos. Keywords can be really helpful when you use your photos outside of Lightroom. For instance, when I store my photos on Forever for permanent backup, I can filter and create albums by keyword. This makes it easy for my family to find the photos they are looking for.

Also, exporting keywords is important for anyone who uses their photos professionally. If you sell photos to stock websites, if you post to Flickr or other photo sharing websites, and even if you post your photos on a blog – those keywords can help people find you and your photos on the internet.

Exporting keywords with photos is easy. There is a drop-d0wn menu in the Export dialog box. Note that you can choose not to export people or location keywords if you’d like.


Keyword Hierarchies

Keyword hierarchies are super helpful for those of us who are (or want to be) really organized. Looking for a photo you took on your trip to New Mexico, but can’t remember which city you took it in? Click on your New Mexico keyword and see all the cities organized neatly under it.

lightroom keyword hierarchy

See the number “28” to the right of “city of rocks?” That means that there are 28 photos with that tag. And if you click on the arrow to the right of the number “28,” you’ll immediately filter your images to those 28 photos.

To create a keyword-within-a-keyword, right-click on the keyword in the Keyword List. (The Keyword List is just under the Keywording panel in the Library module.) Select “Put New Keywords Inside this Keyword.”

I’ve never counted how many keyword layers you can add to your hierarchy, but it’s quite a few. Consider structures like:

  • 2020 Vacation
    • Country 1
      • City 1
        • Location 1
      • City 2
        • Location 2
        • Location 3
    • Country 2
      • etc.

(Not that any of us are traveling to multiple cities and countries in 2020, but you know what I mean! 😉 )

Lightroom keyword hierarchies are very useful for scrapbooking too. As you plan which photos are going into your scrapbook, you could do something like this:

  • Summer 2020 Scrapbook
    • Album Cover
    • Page 1
      • Page 1 upper
      • Page 1 lower
    • Page 2
      • Page 2 center
      • Page 2 around the edges

If you already have keywords that are related but not in a hierarchy, you can drag one of them under the other to put them together.

To edit a keyword, right click on it and select Edit Keyword Tag.

When you apply a keyword from a lower level, it will apply the higher-level keywords, if you have the keyword set up like this:

include lightroom keywords on export

Export Containing Keywords should be turned on. If you apply a keyword from a lower level to a photo, you won’t see the keywords above it in your Keywording List. But it’s there, and if you were to import the photo with its keywords, you would see all of the keywords in the hierarchy in your export.

(Note that you could also apply keyword synonyms, as you see in the above screenshot. This is used for search engine purposes and can help when posting professional photos online or on stock photo sites. The benefit of using synonyms instead of separate keywords is that it keeps your keyword list tidier and more concise. I, however, don’t use them. The benefit isn’t worth another step in my workflow.)

You can use this same window to configure keywords that won’t be exported. This is helpful in keeping your list organized. You could create a non-exportable keyword for “Places,” and then put all of your countries under it. You could set up these “keyword groups” for places, scrapbook pages, animals – whatever you like to shoot. This isn’t a feature I use either, but it is very important for some users.

Speaking of the Keywords List, you can do lots of cool things here. For example, if you have a group of photos selected, you can drag a keyword onto one of those photos – that keyword will be applied to all of them. Or, you can right-click to delete a keyword from a selected photo.

Lightroom Keyword Sets

Using Lightroom keyword sets is a way to add multiple keywords more quickly. Say that you enter the same types of keywords every time you go on vacation. Those keywords might be:

  • beach
  • hike
  • food
  • tourist attractions
  • transportation
  • fishing
  • mountains

Creating a keyword set keeps those commonly used keywords close at hand so that you don’t have to scroll or start typing the first few letters of each one. To create a keyword set, click on the drop-down arrow to the right of Keyword Set at the bottom of your Keywording panel, and select Edit Set.

You’ll see a list of keywords there already. Simply replace them with the ones you’d like to be in your set. When you’ve finished, click on Save Current Settings as a New Preset and select the name for it. Now, each time you import vacation photos, you can pull up this keyword set and quickly apply relevant keywords to your photos.

What to Do with Lightroom Keywords

Once you start applying keywords consistently to your photos, finding the one you’re looking for will be a breeze. Even if you know exactly where your photo is, using the Keywords List or the Filter Bar to filter for it might be a lot quicker than scrolling through all your folders.

Need help using the Filter Bar? Here you go.

So, wow. This quick tutorial on keywords in Lightroom turned into an unabridged encyclopedia. Hope it is helpful for you! If you have any questions, I’m happy to help!

Lightroom Keywords: How, Why + Some Hidden Features