Lightroom Keyword Hierarchy – Tips & Best Practices

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Last updated on January 15th, 2020

Keywords are a powerful tool. Especially in Lightroom. They are what allow you to sift through tens of thousands of images in seconds with a quick search. If you sell stock photography, it’s even more important. That’s how your clients will find your images. However, if your really want to maximize the power of keywords, you definitely should be using a Lightroom keyword hierarchy. If you still aren’t familiar with them, here are some tips and tricks to get started.

The Lightroom keyword hierarchy is a very powerful organizational tool - Here are some best practices
The Lightroom keyword hierarchy is a very powerful organizational tool – Here are some best practices

Note: A keyword hierarchy is just a way of organizing your keywords. You can do it in any recent version of Lightroom. You don’t need any plugin or add-on.

If your Lightroom keyword list is flat with no hierarchy whatsoever, you're doing it wrong.
If your Lightroom keyword list looks like this, you’re doing it wrong.

Why you should use a keyword hierarchy in Lightroom

You will find plenty of guides out there on how to use keywords in Lightroom. Ironically, for some reason the importance of a proper Lightroom keyword hierarchy is often glossed over. Or, completely ignored altogether. Here are some best practices to remedy that. Though it may seem intimidating, it is definitely an essential tool if you want to get your effort’s worth. You shouldn’t underestimate the value of a proper Lightroom keyword hierarchy.

Organizing your image keywords might seem like a gargantuan task. Nonetheless, it is one that will generously pay back dividends. I’d consider it as important as assigning keywords itself. It is priceless to be able to accurately search through decades of images by typing only a few letters. It’s even more valuable considering that it allows you to search by specific or general terms – that’s the Lightroom keyword hierarchy. Or by multiple terms. If you take the time to organize your keywords into levels, the value will be evident immediately.

The benefits of using a Lightroom keyword hierarchy

The main benefit is being able to input the smallest number of keywords manually while auto-generating the largest number of assigned keywords automatically.

When assigning keywords, your goal is to assign as many keywords as you could ever possibly think of to search for that given image. Is the color blue prominent? Use it.  Does the gentleman have a watch semi-discretely shown? Keyword it. There is little downside to using too many, but the advantages of using them will never cease to impress in the years to come. Sometimes you’ll even surprise yourself seeing that you used a keyword for the most subtle things. That’s great!

Keyword hierarchies are especially important for stock photography

Though the “paying dividends” comment above was a figure of speech, if you sell stock photography, it is quite literal. And that’s something every professional or hobby photographer should give a try.

By using keyword levels – that is, keywords nested inside other keywords – if you assign a bottom level keyword, all the top-level keywords will automatically be included. That way, you don’t have to input them manually. Saving a lot of time and effort in the process.

Some of those might be words you personally wouldn’t have used, but that your potential clients will. We all know that sometimes we aren’t all that inspired when assigning keywords. Using a hierarchy helps ensure you don’t miss any keyword a client might search your images by. Especially if you use synonyms.

An Example : “Ninja 650”

It's easy to see why a Lightroom keyword hierarchy or levels are so powerful. A prime example are vehicles.
It’s easy to see why a Lightroom keyword hierarchy or levels are so powerful. A prime example are vehicles.

I’ll give you a personal example. I frequently take images which include motorcycles. I know that if I type in the keyword “Ninja 650“, thanks to my Lightroom keyword hierarchy, I will already get assigned the keywords “Kawasaki, Sport bikes, Motorcycles, Motorbikes, Bikes, Vehicles“. By using a single keyword, I’m able to apply 6 additional ones at no extra effort! Imagine having to manually apply them all for every image? That’s why you should be using them!

In case the gist of it isn’t clear already, when you use a keyword nested inside another level, the upper level keywords get attached, too. In the example above, all the keywords added are the keywords (or keyword synonyms) from the levels above it. Given that if I ever use the keyword “Ninja 650″, I know I will be talking about a sport bike (and a sport bike is a motorcycle), it’s a great way to save time and effort. Un-nested keywords simply don’t provide that level of efficiency.

Also of note, if you use keywords simply for organizational purposes you can selectively unmark them for export. An example would be “Motorcycle Brands” above. That way they don’t get exported along with the image as they provide no value for search purposes.

Lightroom Keyword Hierarchy – Tips & Best Practices

Choose and categorize your Top Level Keywords wisely

Here is an example of my "Top Level Keywords" in Lightroom. Yours will vary.
Here is an example of my “Top Level Keywords” in Lightroom. Yours will vary.

Standard Keyword rules still apply. Your main Top Level Keywords should still, at minimum, include the standard keyword categories:

  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Who?
  • How?

Top-Level Keywords are the very first level of keywords in your list. You organize all the other keywords and categories within them. Use as many as you deem necessary, as the variety will vary on what you like to shoot. If you don’t use a top-level keyword frequently enough, you can always merge it with another later on.

Above you can see an example of the top-level keywords I use. It’s adapted to how I like to organize and keyword my images, along with what I shoot. You should expect yours to be different.

Use Keyword Synonyms

In Lightroom, if you use Keyword Synonyms, you can make your hierarchy even more powerful.
In Lightroom, if you use Keyword Synonyms, you can make your hierarchy even more powerful.

Using a Lightroom keyword hierarchy is even more powerful if you use Keyword Synonyms. I won’t get into too much detail here. In any case, the gist of it is that Synonyms are “horizontal” keywords that get applied automatically when you use the keyword it is applied to. In the example above, any time the upper level keyword “Car Types” gets applied (even if I’m just using a keyword underneath it like “Trucks”), the synonyms “Auto Types” and “Automotive Types” gets assigned automatically.

This is huge considering that not all countries use the same words. ‘Cookies’ versus ‘Biscuits’, for example. Furthermore, when searching for an image via a keyword down the road, you might be in a different mindset. Did I use “Cars”, or did I use “Automotive”? Using synonyms you can add some redundancy and resilience to your keyword list, making it even more effective. Use a thesaurus if you have to, and think of how others might search for your images. Either way it’s an excellent compliment to a robust Lightroom keyword hierarchy.

Select Specific and General Keywords Separately

Personally, I’d recommend keywording “specifics” and “generalities” separately. That way, for many images you only need to use two keywords: A specific one and a general one.

This is because your Lightroom keyword hierarchy is only useful if you organize your new keywords diligently. Continuing with the motorcycle theme, say for example I have an image of an “Alpinestars Celer jacket”. One that I’m photographing for Ebay. That picture would have both the keywords “Alpinestars Celer jacket” and “Motorcycle Jackets“. “Alpinestars Celer jacket” would simply be dumped in my “Items & Things – Nested” keyword. On the other hand “Motorcycle Jackets” would be nestled inside “Items & Things>Automotive>Motorcycle>Protective Gear>Jackets” (all of which would have been applied automatically). Those two words would be my specific and general keywords.

In any case, the main advantage of separating specific and general keywords is not having to organize every single new instance of the keyword type into its otherwise nested location. Every new picture of a different motorcycle jacket goes into the “Items & Things – Nested” instead of having to go through the trouble of going down the levels to put it inside “Motorcycle Jackets”.

When is a keyword “Specific” and when is it “General”

If you are unlikely to use the keyword again, it’s specific. If it is likely to be used again, treat is as general. The objective is to save time, not necessarily be “correct”.

For example, don’t include items not likely to repeat themselves in the nested hierarchies. It’s just unnecessary wasted time organizing.  That means that a specific helmet should be tagged as Helmets (already nested in its respective category) and the item name (which would be placed inside the unorganized Naming Conventions & Titles keyword hierarchy).

Let me put it in other words. If a keyword will not lead to more additions in the future (with relative likelihood), it should not be the last level of a Lightroom keyword hierarchy. And don’t worry about being wrong. You can always change your mind later.

How about titles in general?

For Naming Conventions & Titles I do the same thing. Lets say I have a certain concert I went to. I decide to use the keyword “Camo & Crooked Concert 2017” for that whole set of images. I’d also apply the keyword “Concerts” simultaneously, which I already have organized in my Keyword List.

This way, the only new keyword is “Camo & Crooked Concert 2017”, which I’d dump into my unorganized “Naming Conventions & Titles” top-level keyword. Organizing the new keyword would take a mere second. It would avoid me having to dig through my nested keywords to find where I have my “Concerts” keyword (inside “Events”). Especially considering that I might not ever use that “Camo & Crooked Concert 2017” keyword for a set or images again (that’s a pity).


My only main exception for this would be objects that you either photograph frequently or are very familiar with. Or anything part of your niche. Like in the previous example, one case for me would be specific vehicles (Ninja 650). Maybe for you that is some category of product photography or a type of event you go to yearly.

As time passes, the goal is that you’re likely to create less and less new keywords that require organization. Most will already exist in your keyword list. As such you shouldn’t need to organize them. Most new keywords will be naming conventions & titles or other such specifics that you can quickly bulk select and dump into their respective folder.

Use the “Keyword Tag Options”

Here’s another tip. The Keyword tag options menu is shown in the screenshot above. There are three main Keyword Tag Options you should be concerned with:

  • Include on Export
  • Export containing Keywords
  • Export Synonyms

Make sure to always select and deselect them appropriately when creating the keywords. If you forget to, you can always edit them later double-clicking on the keyword.

The options are pretty self-explanatory. The main one to select (or unselect) is “Include on Export”. You might create some keywords simply for the purpose of organizing your keyword list that you wouldn’t want to export. As an example I have a top-level keyword named “Items & Things”. I categorize dozens of types of things inside it, inside yet other levels of keywords. However, the top-most keyword itself doesn’t provide any value. I deselected “Include on Export” but selected the two options underneath it for all keywords inside of it to export as normal.

Other Keyword Tips

Decide whether to use singular or plural keywords

Use either singular or plural keywords, and stick with it – If you keyword long enough eventually you’ll end up with duplicate keywords for both singular and plural. It happens to all of us. You should choose early on which one to stick with. Whether you use singular or plural matters little, however what does matter in consistency. Personally, I recommend using plural keywords. The reasons are two-fold.

  • First, if you write the singular version, Lightroom will auto-complete it as you type the singular which serves as confirmation that the keyword exists. It will also auto-select it if you hit Enter. That helps in case you are mistakenly writing the wrong keyword. If you’ve previously used the keyword “car” and you type in the keyword “cars“, it will not suggest the “car” keyword to you due to the extra “s”. Hitting Enter would create the new “cars” keyword. However, if the keyword is already “cars” and you type in “car” and hit Enter, it will auto-select the closest existing match: “Cars”.
  • The second reason is that when you search, you expect to see multiple instances. If I want to see pictures of clocks to pick out the picture that best serves me, I’ll type in “clocks“. After all, I want to see multiple clocks, even if each individual image only shows one clock. Though you might not search this way, someone searching your images possibly will. It’s nice future-proofing with little downsides.

Use “Nested” keywords

Consider creating a "Nested" Keyword to avoid showing hundreds of keywords every time you put a new word in it.
Consider creating a “Nested” Keyword to avoid showing hundreds of keywords every time you put a new word in it.

This only applies if you’re a power user with thousands of keywords. I’ve got hundreds of keywords in my Items & Things category. Some organized hierarchically, some are not. Lightroom has a weird quirk where it will show you all the keywords inside of an upper keyword when you put a new keyword in it. That’s a problem when you have hundreds of keywords inside a given upper-level keyword.

Per the example above, if I move “Adapters” into “Items Nested” it would expand the list showing the hundreds of keywords in it. With so many keywords, navigating my Keyword List would be impossible. I’d have to close it before being able to organize the next keyword. Every. single. time. That makes it frustrating to put a new keyword in it.

My solution is to create a “Nested” child-category inside those types of upper-level keywords. That way, when I put a keyword inside the parent category, it only shows me the handful of keywords that are yet to be organized (as shown above). Once I’m done organizing, I just move all those new keywords in a single step. For that, multi-select them holding Ctrl. It’s nice to only have to close the hugely expanded list once. It keeps the Lightroom keyword hierarchy much more elegant.

Other Useful Tips and Tricks

  • Don’t use the “Delete Empty Keywords” tool. It might break more than it fixes – Your mileage may vary, but I’ve found it to delete place holder keywords as well as some keywords that had keywords nested in them. Personally, I don’t trust the tool enough to use it. Having existing but unused keywords won’t hurt you in any meaningful way, anyway.
  • Use “Ctrl + →” when writing keywords to move to the next image without removing the cursor from the keyword text box – This is extremely useful when you’re bulk keywording images. Even better, use a mouse with programmable buttons to set that shortcut on the custom buttons. I set mine to switch both to the next or previous image with a single click. Among other Lightroom functions. It will definitely boost your productivity.
  • Use F11 to show the selected image in full-screen (on a secondary monitor) while in Grid mode – If you’re keywording images in the grid but want to see the image larger, hit F11. Provided you are using a secondary display (which you should be), you can take a look at the image in greater detail. Then just hit F11 to close it and keep keywording.
  • Apply keywords using the “Paint Can” Keyword Painter tool – It might seem a hassle at the beginning, but it will grow on you. If you haven’t already, give it a try.
  • See how many keywords you have – Want to see a list of your keywords? Go to Metadata menu > Export Keywords. It will export your keywords in a notepad .txt file with all keywords nicely nested. You can use it to see your Lightroom keyword hierarchy. To see how many you have copy that list entirely (Ctrl+A, Ctrl+C) into an online line counter.


It may seem a hassle at the beginning, but organizing your keywords is well worth it. It will prove invaluable helping you find images in your library for years yet to come. Furthermore, it also helps when you’re a bit lazy while keywording.

All in all, developing your own particular Lightroom keyword hierarchy is a worthwhile endeavour. Every photographer should apply it to their collection.

Got any tricks or suggestions of your own? Leave them in the comment section below. I’d love to hear them! I’m sure there are still plenty of more tips out there. If you found this interesting, check out what other topics I’ve been up to lately. Here are a few you might find interesting:

References & Good Reads

9 Replies to “Lightroom Keyword Hierarchy – Tips & Best Practices”

  1. Glad you understood what I was after! I wasn’t sure if I had said it clearly. Collections are very much worth investigating. I think I’ve stayed away from them because collections in Canon Photo Professional Digital DPP aren’t terribly permanent. What I’m concerned about is that I’m going to have a collection for each agency and possibly a collection for “Submitted”, “Pending”, “Rejected” and “Posted” below each agency. since putting a keyword of Submitted to the image would apply at the image level and not at the intersection of image+agency. What happens when an image is Submitted with one agency and Pending and Posted in two others? If I haven’t got the right idea, let me know. THX!

    1. Lightroom is pretty good about backups, and backing up is easy so catalog errors isn’t something I’m terribly concerned about. Or at least if it’s a big problem I’ve never heard about it. But I can see your point in that regard. Though I think in LR keywords only get applied on export (just presuposing) so potentially neither would be more “permanent”.

      Don’t know if I understood the second part. To be honest, it gets a bit messy regardless of how you you do it. At the end of the day just go with whatever appeals more to you. Both methods achieve the same goal, so it’s just a matter of preference.

  2. Great article on keywording! I contribute to Shutterstock (RF) and these images can be posted to other RF sites because of non-exclusivity. I also want to use LR to keep track of which images I’ve submitted to various sites. I’m thinking of a filename->submitted->agency->RF/RM-accepted/rejected hierarchy. I don’t know if there are packages that permit photographers to track submissions and rejects, but if I can do it in one spot, I’m for that. Naturally, those ‘process’ keywords aren’t for export.
    1) Does what I’ve suggested sound feasible?
    2) Am I correct in assuming the descriptive keywords associated with an image will not interfere with the ‘scaffolding’ keywords for control purposes? Can I turn off Export for the control words and leave it on for the descriptive ones? You mentioned that, but I’m making sure I have it right.
    3) Will keywords such as Submitted & Accepted, which repeat across many images, cause problems when LR attempts to fill in the higher level keywords? I would hope that LR is smart enough to know where the instance of ‘Submitted’ is in the hierarchy and not confuse one agency with another, but it might not. If there is ambiguity, does LR ask users to specify which higher-level keyword to use?

    Many thanks in advance!

    1. Hey there!

      “I contribute to Shutterstock (RF)… I also want to use LR to keep track of which images I’ve submitted to various sites. I’m thinking of a filename->submitted->agency->RF/RM-accepted/rejected hierarchy.” – I do too, so I’m definitely familiar with that need. Especially when they capriciously reject images confusing bokeh for “out of focus” or similar issues which need resubmission and thus keeping track of images. While you could do that with keywords, that’s well within “matter of preference” territory. Personally I think Lightroom’s “Collections” feature is way more suitable as it’s easier to navigate and bulk select and move pictures from one ‘Collection’ to another, such as ‘Submitted’ vs ‘Pending’, ‘Accepted’ or anything else. I’d only assign keywords for ‘static’ qualities, in the sense that a picture of a sunset will always be of a sunset, but a picture you submitted to lightroom is subject to change from ‘Pending’ to ‘Submitted’ to ‘Accepted’. All in all, do it if you like doing so, but personally I’d avoid it.

      “Am I correct in assuming the descriptive keywords associated with an image will not interfere with the ‘scaffolding’ keywords for control purposes? Can I turn off Export for the control words and leave it on for the descriptive ones?” – Looks like you understood it perfectly. That’s exactly right. Each heirarchal branch of keywords is independant from one another. Pretty much every keyword can be controlled independantly.

      “Will keywords such as Submitted & Accepted, which repeat across many images, cause problems when LR attempts to fill in the higher level keywords?” – Now that you mention that aspect, I realize that there’s an added hassle with keywords used in that scenario. When you use identical keywords below another keyword (say ‘Shutterstock > Submitted’ and ‘Pexels > Submitted’), if you type in ‘Submi’ into the keyworld field it will autopopulate both options shown as it was there. But if you only have one keyword named ‘Submitted’ so far, it’ll only show ‘Submitted’ without referencing what keyword it’s under. It gets real confusing and fast because for some keywords you’ll see, for example, ‘Accepted’ and not know where in your keyword heirarchy that is. It’s kinda of an unavoidable problem, but it leads me to incorrectly categorize keywords all the time.

      In other words, if you’re deadset against using collections, doing so with keywords is viable albeit I personally don’t do so nor would I recommend it. Try familiarizing yourself with ‘LR Collections’ first, it’s way more useful for that task and what I currently do.

  3. Excellent coverage of the topic. One alternative to the “_Items Nested_” folder: a “_To Sort_” folder, that way your sorted keywords don’t have an extra level to step through.

  4. Great content. When exporting Keywords from one Catalogue and then importing into another, will the “Key Word Tag Options” also be transferred?
    If not are there ways to do this?

    1. Great question. I just took a quick look now. It looks like keywords that are not marked “Include on export” get distinguished in the export file by ‘[…]’ (Ex. [Cars]) and “Synonyms” get marked by ‘{…}’ (Ex. {Bikes}). I just tested it and confirmed those settings get properly imported. As far as the other options, it doesn’t look like they get reflected in the export file, so I don’t imagine those options would get imported. It doesn’t even look like the “Person” setting gets imported correctly. However I haven’t really tried Exporting/Importing with all the option combinations to check so I’d always test before doing anything irreversible. In any case, it looks like Lightroom sort of dropped the ball on this and should improve it.

  5. Wow, the best explanation i found. You saved my a.. with pointing out the specific and general keyword issue. I was about to create places like my hometown and then fill it with architectue – churches – … only to put a lot of specific things in.

    1. Glad you found it useful! Yeah, it’s the type of thing where what feels intuitive at the start doesn’t scale well. Separating the specific and general keywords helps avoid a lot of unnecessary sorting down the road. Good luck!

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