LR003 - Get the most out of LR Keywords

December 22, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Get the most out of LR Keywords

Keywords are one of the most powerful features of image management in Lightroom but many people tend to ignore the feature.  In this blog I’ll describe what Keywords are and show you some of the many uses for them.  Now, I hasten to add that absolutely everyone uses Keywords differently so look at the concepts I describe and adapt them to your particular way of thinking and your particular needs.

What are Keywords?

Keywords (KW from now on) are words or short phrases which can be used to identify some aspect of an image.  Many different software products utilize this concept but may use different terminology such as tag, label, or even hashtag.  But in all such cases the content of the KW is sort of glue that associates instances of things together.  For example, all the tweets in Twitter that have the same HashTag are associated or linked with each other though that Hashtag.  Similarly, when you go onto Google or other search engines and key in something like “Night Clubs in New York”, web sites where the developer of the site added those Keywords to their site are more likely to come up than a web site that doesn’t have any of those Keywords. 

In Lightroom (LR from now on) KW’s have several overlapping uses.  One is that they, along with folders and collections, form the backbone of being able to find images later.  A second is that they can help you keep track of what processes the image has, or has not, gone through.  And third is that if you share images on the internet or send them to other places, KW’s can be included in those image files making those KW's available to whatever website you post them on.  What that website chooses to do with that information is up to them but the information is there.  So, for example, if I post images on Google Photos, I can have LR include various KW’s and if I make those images public then those KW’s become available when people type in search requests. 

I know this may seem a bit abstract, but let me propose an example.  Here’s an image that was taken in Yellowstone of Orange Spring Mound in the Mammoth area. 

Orange Spring Mound #1, YellowstoneOrange Spring Mound #1, Yellowstone

I would like this image to be found when people do Google Searches for images.  So, I think to myself, what words or phrases (search terms) might someone type in if they would be happy finding this image.  Well, if they typed in “Lunar Eclipse” I doubt they’d be thrilled with my image popping up.  However, if they typed in “Yellowstone” or “Thermal Feature in Yellowstone”, or “Orange Spring Mound” or even “Mammoth Hot Springs” then this image would be appropriate.  So, I want to make sure I have Keywords that mimic what people may type in.  In this case I have these KW’s

  • Orange Spring Mound
  • Upper Terrace
  • Mammoth Hot Springs
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Wyoming
  • WY
  • Mountain States
  • United States
  • North America
  • Hot Spring Terrace
  • Thermal Feature
  • Landscape
  • Thermal Encroachment

But even if you never post images on the internet, just within your own computer world you too are many times a person looking for an image.  Just last week my wife asked me to find all the photos that had both of us along with our grandson for a holiday card.  Well, this year I have taken well over 8,000 images.  Without KW’s I would scroll through those 8,000 photos looking for ones that met the criteria.  But I use KW’s.  So instead I just ask LR to show me all the images from 2016 that have the names of all three of us as Kwywords.  Bingo, up popped the couple dozen images from 2016 that had all three of us.  Pretty sweet. 

On another occasion my wife asked me to find ‘that image of our son, Ken, that was taken at a zoo with a bear in the background’.  She didn’t recall how old he was at the time or what year it was.  Probably between 1983 and 2000 but that just narrowed it down to 10,000 or so images.  But with Keywords all I did was type the words “Ken Zoo Bear” into the "contains all" search filter and 3 images popped up, one of which was the one we were looking for.

As you can see this can extend to other situations.  Let's say you have friends visiting from out of town and they are thinking of going up to Yosemite and asked you about Half Dome.  Being able to quickly pull up all your images of Half Dome across all years could prove quite useful – even if you don’t recall which folders those images are in.

KW’s can also help you remember things.  For example you could have a KW called ‘For Dad” for images that you think you father would like to get copies of.  Or “Sent to Dad” for those you already sent him.  The possibilities are endless and depend on your particular needs.

For myself, on average, I find myself searching for images based on KW’s between 3 and 15 times a day.

I should also point out that there is some overlap between using folders and collections to find images versus Keywords, but this blog is about Keywords so just be aware.

Key Word Options

In LR, there are certain choices you make when you create a Keyword as to how that KW will behave.  In this section I’ll describe the options you have.  It should be noted that you can change these options at any time if you change your mind. 


LR Keywords can be in a hierarchy or you can just make a straight list.  I strongly suggest using a hierarchy as there are benefits to this approach you don’t get in a straight list.  You have complete control of this hierarchy and can change it at any time.  So, when you create a KW, you should think about where it fits in your hierarchy.  Here is an example of a hierarchy related to the location of a castle in Central Havana

06 KW Hierarchy06 KW Hierarchy

KW Attributes.

When you create (or edit) a KW, there are several check boxes related to how you want to use that particular KW to behave as shown below

03 Add KW Dialog Box03 Add KW Dialog Box

Keyword Name – This is the actual name of the Keyword.  It can be single word, a code of some sort, or a short phrase like “San Francisco Marina”

Synonyms – These are other words that mean the same thing.  For example:  KW “California” might have a Synonym of “CA”.  Make sure they are really synonymous in that the synonym would apply to EVERY occurrence of the KW.  Many folks use synonyms for the scientific name of plants or animals..

Include on Export – If this box is checked, then this KW will be included on exported images and will be available to other programs or websites.  When you export images you can ask it to include or exclude associated KW’s during that export for situations where you don’t want them.

Export Containing Keywords – If checked, when an image is exported that contains this KW, it will also look up the KW hierarchy to see if the parent is to be included with the exported image as well.  Then if this checkbox is checked in that parent it checks the next higher parent until it encounters a KW with this unchecked at which point it stops.  So with this feature I can assign KW “San Francisco” to an image and then when I export it I also automatically get its parents (California, United States, North America).

Export Synonyms – Check this box if you want the synonyms of this KW included on exported images

Person – This check box identifies this KW as referring to a person.  This means that the KW may refer to a portion of an image (typically a face) rather than the entire image.  In the export dialog there is another checkbox that says to either include or exclude “people” KW’s.  In other words if you exclude “people” KW’s on export it is looking for this checkbox on each KW it is considering including with the photo.

Put Inside…. – If you are putting the KW into a hierarchy this check box will put the KW under the one named.  However don’t worry about it if you don’t see this checkbox as you can just drag it to its proper location after you create it.

Add Selected Photos – Check this box if you want the KW added applied to the currently selected photos.  Again, if you don’t have the images you want already selected don’t worry, you can do it later pretty easily

Organizing your Keywords

As we saw, KW’s are invaluable in organizing your images but the organization of the KW’s themselves deserve some attention.  If you think about and then list the KW’s that could be applied to an image by reflecting on what words or phrases you or someone else might use in a search or which could help you identify the image, you will find those words or phrases will tend to fall into groups.

Let’s take this image of the New San Geronimo Chapel in Taos New Mexico as an example. 

4 crosses over San Geronimo Chapel, Taos Pueblo, NM4 crosses over San Geronimo Chapel, Taos Pueblo, NM

First off we may wish to identify where in the world this shot was taken (Taos, NM, etc.).  These are Location oriented words.   Next we would probably have KW’s that relate to the subject of the image (church, cross, adobe architecture, etc.) and we may also want some words to identify this image as relating to American Indian culture.  And, perhaps others as well.

So what might this look like in a hierarchy?


     North America

                 United States

                             New Mexico (with NM is a synonym)

                                         Taos Area

                                                     Taos Pueblo

                                                                 New San Geronimo Chapel



                 Architectural style

                             Adobe Building

                             Southwest Architecture

                             Pueblo Style Architecture

                             Taos-Santa Fe Architecture

                 Building Purpose



                 American Indian Culture

                 Pueblo Indian Culture



Photographic Style

     Monochrome (B&W)




                 Dark Clouds


Now, your choices may be different than mine as people tend to think of these things differently, but however you think about it, you will find that your words tend to fall into a structure based on large categories such as location and subject and then within each, perhaps sub categories like Architecture, Fauna, Flora, Culture, People, Objects, etc. that in turn have a hierarchy under each one of their own.

Some of my major categories are these (yours may be different)

  • Subject – what is the main subject of the image with several sub sections under each such as architecture, fauna, flora, landscape, people, etc.
  • Location – Where the subject of the image is located in the world
  • Camera Location – when the camera was in a different location than the subject.  For example the camera was at Glacier Point in Yosemite, but the image is of Yosemite Falls on the other side of the valley.  I only use this one if the camera location is different than the subject location.
  • Conditions-Season – These are things like the weather, time of day (e.g. sunset), season (e.g. Fall), etc.
  • Style-Technique – Things like photographic style (landscape, portrait, monochrome, abstract, macro, etc) or techniques (motion blur, HDR, Panorama, etc)

Build Your Keyword Hierarchy as you go

Ok, don’t panic.  It’s not as big a burden as it seems as you don’t have to build it all at once.  You just build it as you go.  It is important though to start out with a set of major groupings.  In my case I put a number in front of the names so they would be in the order I tend to think about them.  Don’t worry about 7-11 at this point, they are pretty unique to my needs.

08 KW Top level List08 KW Top level List

Each time you import a set of images into LR, one of your steps should be to assign KW’s to those images.  In the beginning, you’ll be adding lots of new Keywords.  But as you go you’ll find that many times the KW’s you need will already be there so you just have to select it rather than create it.   You will also find that in many cases you can bulk assign KW’s to many images at the same time. 

Let’s say you just got back from a trip to the Grand Canyon with a stop over in Las Vegas.  After you import your images you may see that the first 100 shots were Las Vegas and the rest were the Grand Canyon.  For the “Location” hierarchy, highlight that first 100, create the Las Vegas KW in the Location structure and assign all 100 all at once.  Then do the same for the Grand Canyon shots.

Same idea for your Subject KW’s.  Look at the first image and think about what subject type of KW’s would be good on it.  Let’s say it was a photo of your daughter Mary and son Joe.  Start off by selecting all the newly imported images that contain Mary and assign or create a Keyword for Mary.  Then select all the images that have Joe and do the same thing.  Get the idea?  It actually goes a lot faster than you think it will.

Tips for your Keywords

  1. It’s not intuitive but once you get started you will find that there is much ambiguity between Location and Subject.  For example, is the Grand Canyon a location or a subject?  How about Niagra Falls?  So, it’s good to have a rule in mind to help take the ambiguity out of it.  Here’s how I look at it.  A KW goes in the Location section if it can be found on a normal map, is a proper name of a place or is unique to only one place on earth.  So, “Yosemite Falls” is a Location but “Waterfall” is a Subject.  “San Geronimo Church” is a location but “Church” is a subject. 
  2. Go to whatever level of detail serves your purpose.  For example….
          United States
               Grand Canyon

    ….may be fine for many people. But, if you do a lot of travel in the SW corner of the US and travel abroad a lot you may want

          North America
              United States
                        Grand Canyon

    And, you could go further
                            South Rim
                                 Bright Angel Trail
                                       Phantom Ranch

    It’s really a personal choice.  The more levels you have the more accurate your later searches can be and exported Keywords will be more precise, but it takes a bit more work to add those levels.  Remember, you only need to assign an image to the bottom level KW and it can inherit all the parents.  So in this case I just need to assign “Phantom Ranch” to that set of images and I get all the others automatically if I checked the “Export containing keywords” box when I created those KW's.  I tend to go with many levels but that’s just me.
  3. In deciding how many levels to have I many times look at how long the list is.  For example I started out with

          North America
                  (list of states)

    But later as the list of states got longer and longer I found it cumbersome to scroll through a list of 50 states to find the one I want, so I added an interim level

          North America
              Western States
                  (list of those states)
              Eastern States
                  (list of those states)
  4. In filters and Smart Collections, LrC treats a space as a delimiter.  This means that if I filter for images containing the keyword  “North America” I’ll get all images that have a keyword containing “North” (e.g. Northern Lights) as well as all the images with a keyword containing “America” (e.g. “American Flag”.  This is probably not what I want.  A work around for this problem is to use dashes (hyphens) in place of spaces in keyword names.  For example “North-America”.  Then place the name with spaces as a synonym as shown below

    05 KW Dashes05 KW Dashes

    In this way you can filter for “North-America” and get only those photos but, still have “North America” exported with the images.

How to do it

In the Library Module, in the right panel group, are two panels called “Keywording” and “Keyword List”.  For now ignore “Keywording” but expand the “Keyword List” panel by clicking on the spinner triangle to its left.

To add a new Keyword either click on the “+” sign at the left end of the “Keyword List” panel title or right click (Ctrl+Click on Mac) on an existing KW to make a child of that KW.  And fill in the form

03 Add KW Dialog Box03 Add KW Dialog Box


Changing things later

Once you have Keywords showing up in the Keyword List, you can make changes to that list at will.  To change the name, synonym or any of the check boxes of a KW, just right click on it (Ctrl+Click on Mac) and select “Edit Keyword Tag”.  Using this context menu you can also delete a KW along with several other options.

If you want to move a Keyword to a different place in the KW Hierarchy, just click and drag it to the desired place.

Associating Keywords with Images

Checking a box when you create a Keyword automatically links the currently selected images to the new KW.  To link images with Keywords later is quite easy.  First select (highlight) the desired images.  Then, when you hover the mouse over a KW, a faint little check box appears to the left of the Keyword.  Click that box, and it will associate that KW with the selected images.  Alternatively, you can right-click (ctrl-click on Mac) and select “Add this Keyword to selected Photos”  When complete the box will assume a check mark.

04 Keyword participation blank04 Keyword participation blank

Meaning of symbols to left of KW’s in list

At this point I should make note of the meaning of the various symbols you may see in the checkbox to the left of Keyword names in the Keyword List.

07 KW Symbols07 KW Symbols

  • If the KW has a check-mark in the box it means that all selected images have this KW explicitly assigned.  Clicking the check mark removes the KW from all selected photos
  • If the KW has a minus sign it can mean one of two things.  Either the KW is assigned to some, but not all, of the selected images or it can mean that the key word is a parent of a keyword associated with one or more selected images.
  • If the KW has nothing in the check box, the KW is not associated, either implicitly or explicitly with any selected image.


Keywords can also be used in countless other ways, for example as a way to keep track of workflow steps (I’ll have another blog devoted to this later), or to keep track of where you’ve distributed the images. 

As I started out saying, these little guys are one of the features in the Library Module for managing images and should not be overlooked.



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