Find Your Photos Faster with Keywords in Lightroom - Digital Darkroom Academy

Find Your Photos Faster with Keywords in Lightroom

You must have heard about keywords for online browsing, but have you heard about keywords in Lightroom?

Let’s imagine that it’s the start of the year and a regular old client calls you up to ask you for a bunch of photos of rivers, springs or lakes to use in a calendar for his company. You happily say yes, but as soon as you hang up, you’re overcome with the dread of finding those 12 photos out of the thousands of images that you have photographed over time.

If you were not a Lightroom user, your life could have been made really difficult with that one phone call. However, Lightroom is a software that allow you to just type in a bunch of words and find your photos almost instantly. This is done via the use of keywords where you assign a bunch of words to your image that describe its contents and then later use these same keywords in Lightroom to find your images.

What are Keywords?

Keywords are metadata that are attached to a photo to help you identify the image and its contents. They are similar to the tags that you use on Instagram, Twitter, and other social media where you type in words that describe what the image contains. They make your images searchable and also speed up this search to a great extent. So any time you need an image and you are thinking things like, “Well, that picture had a red wall, and there were also a few dolls on the floor in the corner…” you can just type in red and dolls, and if you have assigned the right keywords to the image, it will show up as soon as you press enter.

How to Choose Keywords in Lightroom

The best keywords are those that contain the most useful information. So you need to carefully analyze your photos and decide what’s important and then keyword your photos accordingly. Here are a few things that you can include in your keywords:

  • The objects in the image (e.g: bicycle, books, fruits)
  • The people in the image (e.g: children, old man, family)
  • The location where it was taken (e.g: name of a place, city, restaurant, park)
  • The type of area where it was taken (e.g: hilly, interior, crowdy, roadside)
  • Overall themes (e.g: colorful, nature, happiness)
  • The way it was taken (e.g: panorama, hdr)
  • The time and season it was taken (e.g: daytime, summer, Christmas)
  • What is happening in the photo (e.g: running, smiling, crying)

One you add these, you will have enough information in your keywords to effectively search for your photos. While keywording your photos is very important, many people often go overboard with it. If you spend 30 minutes coming up with all the different keywords that you can give to a photo, it can easily become a huge hassle instead of creating ease. You might feel like keywording every single photo with as many keywords as possible, but spending a lot of time to add every possible keyword to each photo will just be counterproductive. Instead, choose keywords that tell something important about the picture and then move on to the next image as your real aim is to be able to find your photos and you can easily do that with a bunch of keywords containing the right information.

Ways to Keyword Your Photos

Now that you have the basic understanding of what keywords in Lightroom are and how to choose the right ones, let’s get to know how to actually apply them. Like everything else in Lightroom, you can apply keywords in many different ways. While all of those ways are very simple, each one has its own function and can be used in combination with other methods to speed up the process of keywording and make it easier.

1. Applying Keywords During Import

The first way to keyword your photos is to do so during import. This is a good way to kick-start your keywording process because here, you get to apply all the keywords that are common to that whole batch of photos automatically. This means that once you choose a bunch of keywords that you feel are universal to all the photos in the batch, Lightroom will automatically apply them to each photo as its importing them.

apply keywords in lightroom during import

In the Import dialog box, you will see the Keywords panel on the right. Just click on the box and start typing in your keywords. For example, if you’re importing a batch of photos from your trip to an island in Malaysia, you might add Malaysia, Island, Name of Island, Nature as keywords in Lightroom during import. However, you should not add the keywords trees or sea because not all the photos from the trip are going to contain trees or the sea (unless that’s what you specifically shot in each photo).

This way, you don’t have to spend as much time keywording your images separately as adding common keywords to your photos upon import saves your time when you are keywording sets of photos later.

2. Using the Keywording Panel

Once you have imported your photos, you can now start keywording them separately. In the Library module, select a photo, then on the right side, you will see a panel called Keywording. Expand the panel and just type in the keywords that you want in the bar that says Click here to add keywords. Separate each keyword with a comma as spaces are included in the keyword. For example, Pataya Beach, Yellow Sand will be considered as 2 keywords instead of 4 as there is only one comma separating the keywords.

keywording panel in lightroom

Once you press enter, the keywords will be embedded in your photo and will appear in the box right above the Click here to add keywords field. If you want to delete or edit a keyword that you have added to a certain photo, you can click on this box, and edit it as you like. Right above this box, you will also see a dropdown menu with the following options:

  • Enter Keywords: This is the default view and only shows the keywords that have been directly applied to the image.
  • Keywords & Containing Words: This shows the applied keywords along with all the parent tags of that keyword
  • Will Export: This only shows the keywords that will be exported with the image.

Once you are done with adding or editing the keywords on a photo, hold down the ctrl/cmd key and press the left or right arrow keys to navigate between your photos so that you can add keywords to the rest of the photos without having to click anywhere.

Within the Keywording panel, right below the keyword bar, you will see the Keyword Suggestions section from where you can select keywords to add to your photos from a list of your recently used keywords.

Below it, you can also see the Keyword Set section which allows you to select keywords from lists of keywords that are commonly used together. Just select the category from the dropdown menu beside the Keyword Set heading and then click on all the keywords that you want to use form that set. Every selected keyword will turn white which indicates that the keyword has been added to the image.

If you want to remove any of the keywords that you have selected from the Keyword Set section, you can just click on that keyword again, and it will turn to its original color indicating that it is no longer applied to your image. To exit the Painter Tool mode, click on the circle where the spray can is supposed to be.

3. Using the Keyword List Panel

The Keyword List panel can be found on the right side of the library module, beneath the Keywording panel. Once you expand this panel, you will be able to see a list of all the keywords in Lightroom that you have used up till now. In order to apply any existing keyword from this list to a photo, just select the image(s) and hover over the keyword to be able to see the checkbox before it. As soon as you check the box, the keyword will be applied to your photos. This way you can apply the same keyword to multiple photos as well to make your keywording process faster.

keywords in lightroom

To add a completely new keyword, click the plus + sign on left side of the Keyword List heading and it will open the Create Keyword Tag dialog box. By using this dialog box, you have the option to not only add a keyword, but also add its synonyms to be able to search for it by using a variety of words. These synonyms will not be created as separate keywords but only embedded in the photo to make it easier to search. You also have a few more options to select your preferences.

create keywords in lightroom

Keyword Tag Options

  • Include on Export exports the keyword with the photo
  • Export Containing Keywords exports all the keywords that are above this keyword in the hierarchy (we’ll discuss hierarchies later in this post)
  • Export Synonyms also exports the synonyms of the keyword (if the Include on export option is checked)

Creation Options

  • Put inside “keyword”: Adds your keyword as a child to a selected parent keyword
  • Add to selected photos: Make sure that this option is checked if you want to apply this new keyword to the selected photo(s) otherwise the keyword tag will be created but not applied to any photo.

Once you click Create, the keyword will be created and added to your selected photos (if you have that option checked). If you ever need to edit a keyword (because of a typo or any other reason), all you need to do is to double click keyword in the Keyword List panel and it will open the Edit Keyword Tag where you can easy make changes to the keyword tag.

4. Painter Tool (Spray Can)

The Painter Tool lets you apply a number of different settings to multiple images at the same time. It basically sprays a bunch of different settings on your images, one of those settings being keywords in Lightroom.

In order to use it to make keywording easier, you first need to go to the Library module in Grid View (press G) and there, you will see a spray can right below the grid of the pictures. When you click on it, you will see a dropdown menu right beside it to select what you want to spray on you pictures. From this menu, choose Keywords and a blank field will appear right beside it.

using spray can in lightroom

Here, you can type in a bunch of different keywords that can be applied to a set of photos together. For example, within your batch of photos from your shoot in an Island in Malaysia, there are some photos that contain trees as well as monkeys. So you can just type in “trees, monkeys” and then one by one click on the photos on which these keywords can be applied using the Painter Tool. If the images are placed side by side, you can just click on one image, keep the mouse button pressed and then drag it onto the images around it to spray the same keywords on those images.




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While using the Painter Tool, if you see an image that needs a keyword other than what you are applying using the tool, but you don’t want to exit the Painter Tool mode, click on that image’s frame (not thumbnail) and just press ctrl+k/cmd+k. This will open up the Keywording panel for that image so that you can add the keywords that you want without exiting the Painter Tool mode. Once you are done, press enter and then go back to spraying your photos. In case you accidentally spray on an image you did not want to, hold down the alt/opt key and then click on that image to remove the sprayed keywords from it.

Creating Hierarchies

When you add keywords to your photos, they start appearing in the Keyword List panel in the form of a flat list. What this means is that these keywords are not grouped and do not contain any hierarchies. However, Lightroom also lets you group them into different categories so that your keywords can be a little more organized and arranged in a simpler way.

To create hierarchies of keywords, you can select any number of keywords from the list in the Keyword List, and drag and drop them on the keyword that you want as as the parent keyword. For example, if you have cat, dog, horse, rabbit, animals as keywords in your list, you can select cat, dog, horse and rabbit, then drag and drop them onto the animals keyword. This will make animals the parent keyword while cat, dog, horse, rabbit will become the child keywords. On the other hand, drag and drop a child tag between two parent tags to convert it into a parent tag.

Moreover, if you have the animals keyword selected in your list, and then you click the + sign to add a new keyword, the dialog box will have an option Put inside “animals” and if you check this box, the new keyword will be added as a child to the animals tag.


Now that you are familiar with all the different elements of Keywording, you can use them in combination with each other to make the process faster and as efficient as possible. Start with keywording at import and then you can keyword the rest of the photos using keyword lists, painter tool or keywording panel. Add in all use relevant keywords in Lightroom to describe your photos without going overboard and you will be able to find your photos in a breeze!

Shajee Aijazi

Shajee Aijazi is the founder of Digital Darkroom Academy. He helps people speed up their post-processing workflow and organize their photos in a way that they don't have to waste time managing it and they can focus on creating great looking images.

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