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What can folders in Lightroom 5 do that collections or smart collections can't do, or can't do in a convenient way?

At first glance, it looks like folders are just a more limited version of collections, with the additional restriction that a photo must belong to exactly one folder at any time, no more, no less. What do I get in return for accepting this restriction? Why does LR have collections and (if I may call them that) a crippled version of collections? I'm assuming there's a reason, and I'd like to know what that is.

Note that I don't have tens or hundreds of thousands of photos [1]. Are folders useful only for such people?

Footnotes:

[1] And if I had, I could use collection sets, which can contain collections and further contain other collection sets, giving me all the power of folders.

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    Not sure if there's a definitive answer, but I think folders are useful when you also want to access your photo collection on a machine without Lightroom, just via the Explorer (Windows) or Finder (Mac). If for some reason I'm unable to install LR on a machine, but I've organised everything neatly in folders I can still browse my collection relatively easily. – Saaru Lindestøkke Apr 1 '14 at 16:34
  • But your edits won't be applied if you access your photos using another app, will they? – Vaddadi Kartick Apr 1 '14 at 16:35
  • Ah, totally forgot. My use-case is slightly different though. I develop raw files in a "temporary" LR catalog, export them to jpeg and then add the jpegs to my "main" LR catalog. I don't keep the raw files (which is bad-practice). If you want another app to read the edits you could consider writing sidecar xmp files next to your raw files. But that's a different topic. – Saaru Lindestøkke Apr 1 '14 at 16:39
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Folders define the physical location of the file, whereas collections are simply an organization structure when viewing within LR. This is helpful when you want to have a folder of files on your local machine with a different folder of files on a remote drive. This trend is growing as photographers utilize network drives (or NAS systems).

If you plan on keeping all of your images and Lightroom software on a single machine, you will not have many uses for folders.

  • Thanks, AndyML. I actually thought of that, and alluded to not have tens or hundreds of thousands of photos. I have 273 photos right now. I doubt a NAS makes sense when you have more than enough space on your internal drive. – Vaddadi Kartick Apr 1 '14 at 16:41
  • @KartickVaddadi Gotcha. Probably not the most useful feature for you if you have all of your images on one machine and don't plan to move them around regularly. – AndyML Apr 1 '14 at 16:43
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I use folders during the import process to simply bring a little behind-the-scenes organization to my photo library by using a year/month/ folder structure. I don't touch folders otherwise; as you said, they're more restrictive than Collections (and tags and ratings and the other organization tools Lightroom has).

If, for some reason, I do choose to access photos through folders I have now divided them up into reasonable size chunks -- a few dozen or a few hundred, or some months, a few thousand. Is it necessary to divide them up? No -- Windows (NTFS) supports 4.2 billion files in a folder, and Mac OS X supports 2.1 billion. Practically, however, that many files makes it impossible to find just one, and even with tens of thousands of files in a folder the system will slow to a crawl while browsing that folder. It's just a bad idea.

I know, you said you don't have tens or hundreds of thousands of photos. But you will. And wouldn't it make sense to organize them in a remotely rational way, even if you're not going to access them that way, just to help keep your system healthy and to not have to fix that problem down the road?

On another note: if you've only got 273 photos you should stop asking questions and get out and shoot!

  • Thanks. I guess I prefer a logical organization (Apartment, Railway, Hong Kong) to a date-wise organization. I asked the question because I wanted to understand what I was choosing -- folders or collections -- rather than making the choice blindly. Thanks for your help. – Vaddadi Kartick Jun 1 '14 at 3:06

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