Having been a very sporadic user of keywords, and not structuring them in any sort of manner, I am binning my current keywords and starting again. The areas I would like advice in are:

  • Creating keywords
  • Keyword Hierarchies
    • Could users who have a good keyword hierarchy post their hierarchy on pastebin? My 1st stab of a hierarchy is here:- http://pastebin.com/eHaDVUYm
  • Managing keywords
  • Assigning keywords

But if there is anything else you wish to share regarding key-wording, feel free!


5 Answers 5


The first thing I did not know from the beginning was that keywords are hierarchical. Based on your question, I see you know that so you are already ahead of where I started.

Other than that:

  • Make clear a hierarchy that has an unambiguous meaning even at the expense of being redundant. For example, city hall can be anywhere but montreal city hall has to be in Montreal.
  • Avoid plurals (I'm guessing you can avoid singulars instead). Consistency is key. Same thing with case.
  • Watch out for the auto-complete, it often picks something similar but not exact, plus if you made a typo, then it copies them all over the place.
  • Make META keywords with a different notation. Meta keywords are things one would NEVER search for. For example, Location (notice the capital) regroups america, europe, asia etc (notice lower case).
  • To keep lists from getting long, subdvide and reorganize often.
  • Designate a keyword for images that do not count. While you can look for images without keywords, there needs to be a way to distinguish the images which have not yet been tagged with images that will never be tagged. I solved this by using the source keyword and all my smart collections exclude images with that keyword, because it marks them as intermediate image files (panorama pieces or hdr brackets).
  • Tag with the aspect ratio anything remotely standard. Lightroom's Aspect Ratio filter should be called Orientation. This makes it impossible to search by aspect ratio after an image has been cropped and tedious before (since you have to search for all cameras that output at a certain ratio).

I wrote up an article on how I set mine up and why about a year ago that's gotten pretty good feedback:


I've found since then almost no need to go in and tweak this, so it seems like a solid design.


I wish I'd known that having them uploads them to Flickr, the amount of time I spent adding them manually on Flickr could have been well spent shooting more!

  • Avoid using the same word in two different places in the hierarchy. For example, you might have indoor and outdoor keywords, which allow a smart collection to determine whether a photo should also have furniture or nature keywords. Many keywords make sense in only one place in the hierarchy, but some keywords make sense under both indoor and outdoor, such as stairs. Don't do this.

    Lightroom's handling of cases like this is somewhat buggy, so that if you type stairs < indoor into the keyword box, you might actually get stairs < outdoor.

    A more common case is when you export such a photo from Lightroom and then re-import it, as happens when editing a photo in a third-party program or plugin. Often the returned photo will have its keywords messed up because Lightroom splices the returned keywords into the wrong place in the hierarchy. I've seen truly strange behavior here, such as a keyword that initially appeared in two places in the hierarchy suddenly appearing in a third because Lightroom couldn't see that the photo should have used one of the two existing keywords.

    I finally got tired of having to fix incorrect keyword guesses and removed most of this sort of redundancy from the hierarchy. Now my stairs keyword lives in place < elements < stairs. (The second level collects architectural elements found in both indoor and outdoor locations.)

  • Segregate adjectives. This is really just an extension of the above point: you don't want to have blue < jeans < denim < clothing and blue < background < photo studio. Instead, move blue somewhere common like blue < colors < descriptors, and use it in conjunction with a noun keyword to describe a blue thing.

    (Lightroom engineers, here's a feature request: add the ability to bind an adjective keyword to a specific noun keyword. The syntax could be [blue, jeans], which would allow me to find all my rare pictures of people wearing [red, jeans] without also finding the pictures of [blue, jeans], [red, background].)

  • Restart Lightroom occasionally to speed keyword application. I'm not sure whether Lightroom has a problem with the depth or the width of my keyword hierarchy (or both!) but Lightroom gets progressively slower the more photos you tag in a session. By the time I've tagged about 100 photos, I can easily tell the difference from a freshly started session. After several hundred keyword changes, it might slow down to 10 seconds per keyword change or more. I've observed this get as bad as about a minute! Restarting the app fixes this.

    There's a tradeoff: once Lightroom starts getting seriously slow, restarting the app may take a considerable amount of time, too, because it's really busy doing...whatever it's doing. It ends up being better to restart early and often rather than wait for it to get really bad.

    It is possible to exploit this behavior profitably: If you have a smart collection or filter turned on which would remove the photo from view when you add a given keyword (e.g. "Contains Words = !blue" and you tag the photo blue) you can sneak in several separate changes before Lightroom finally removes the photo from view. All changes made while the photo is visible get applied to the photo. I do this most often with Keyword Sets, since each Alt-Number combo is delivered separately to the app. If you hit Alt-7, Alt-2, and Alt-3 in rapid succession to apply three separate keywords, and the Alt-7 addition removes the photo from view, the Alt-2 and Alt-3 keywords still get applied if you type them quickly enough after Alt-7. The slower Lightroom is acting at the moment, the more time you have to pull this trick off.

    If I knew how to characterize the cause of this failure mode, I would not narrow or flatten my keyword hierarchy to cope. The computer is there to serve me, not the other way around. My keyword hierarchy is as wide and deep as I need it to be. Therefore, I cope by restarting Lightroom occasionally.

  • Avoid spaces in keywords. While Lightroom appears on the surface to handle spaces in keywords, it's missing several features that would make doing this practical. The key lack is that there is no "Contains Phrase" feature in filters and smart collections to go with "Contains Words." Without it, a search for cookie dough turns up too many photos because you also get photos of baked cookies and bags of moolah, the latter because you put dough in as a synonym for money.

    When you really do need a key phrase instead of a key word, add a synonym without spaces that you can use in searches. It doesn't have to be grammatically correct or even something you'd feel comfortable exporting. To extend the above example, you could add a cookiedough or even cdough synonym with "Include on Export" unchecked.

  • Hyphenated phrases count as whole words in Lightroom. While you may not be comfortable with a cookie-dough keyword to solve the above problem, you might be okay with dust-covered instead of dust covered.

  • Prefer specific, technical keywords to conversational phraseology. This is again a matter of search-ability and ambiguity reduction. You might have a situation where you need to use a "Contains" or "Contains All" search instead of "Contains Words," in which case an aluminum foil keyword is more likely to do what you want in searches than tin foil, since "tin" is part of 3,319 words, according to the dictionary on the system I'm typing this on. You don't want a search for tin foil to turn up a picture of a hardback book (book < writing < object) about fencing (foil < sword < weapon < object). :)


There are plenty of Keywording Tutorials on my www.photo-keywords.com/ website including an introduction to the tab-indented list format, error-catching, sorting techniques, explanations of hierarchy, and suggestions for making your own keyword lists. Also lots of free keyword lists, and my own keyword catalog.


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