Lightroom Technique: Staying Organized with Controlled Vocabulary

Do too many keywords in your Lightroom catalog have you spinning round and round?

Here are a couple of simple tricks I use to keep me organized with over 10,000 keywords in my catalog.

Organize Your Keywords with Category Headers

I’m a big fan of David Rieck’s Controlled Vocabulary Keyword Catalog. It’s a well-organized and (for me, at least) comprehensive keyword set. I believe my keywording is much richer for using the CVKC. But … it can also be intimidating. 11,000 keywords? How do you manage all that?

In designing the way I use keywords in my catalog, I was looking for answers to a few questions:

  • I have my keywords organized hierarchically (not just the ones I get from CVKC; there are others of my own). If I add a new keyword, how will I remember to make sure it has a home in the hierarchy?
  • How can I keep the CVKC keywords separate from other keywords I’ve derived on my own (like members of my family)?

The solution, for me, was to place all of my keywords under top-level category headers, as shown here:

The important things about these category headers are:

  • The names make them gravitate to the top or bottom of the keyword list. If I add a new keyword via the Keywording panel and forget to find a home for it in the hierarchy, that keyword will stand out.
  • These keywords are for organizing only, so I’ve asked Lightroom not to export them. (Right/control-click on the keyword, choose Edit Keyword Tag, turn off “Include on Export.”)

There’s nothing special about the «» characters, except that they cause the keyword to sink to the bottom of the list on Mac. They’re used as quotation marks in some European languages. As an English speaker, I’m unlikely to use them otherwise, so they stand out for me. You could just as easily use _, $, regular old angle brackets <>. What symbol you use doesn’t really matter, so long as it’s the first letter in the keyword name.

Mac users: If you want to be cool like me ;-) and use the «» characters, type Option-backslash («) and Option-Shift-backslash (»). There’s no real reason to use the trailing », except that I think the names look funny without them.

Windows users: It looks like Windows wants to sort all special characters to the top of the list. (Why?) I’ve tried several but haven’t found one that sinks to the bottom. If you find one, please speak up in the comments. I’d probably just use an underscore _ in front of the category header keyword names. It’s easy to type and floats to the top.

Update (February 20): It was suggested in the comments that braces, tilde, or vertical bars would sort to the bottom. Unfortunately, they don’t. Here’s a screen shot of the Keyword List panel from Windows with those characters in place. Note that vertical bars are not allowed in keyword names.

Also, notice that I’ve indented the entire CVKC under another top-level category header (“«CVKC»” at the top of the list). David has recently posted a version of the CVKC that is similarly indented on the CVKC downloads page. (Paid subscription required – look for the version labeled SubLevel under Lightroom.) His top-level category is CVKC instead of «CVKC». Again, what name you use isn’t important, so long as it fits with the other top-level keyword names you use.

I have similar category headers for other major sections of my keywording. Some of these («man-made objects» and «nature») are left over from how I keyworded prior to using CVKC (I just haven’t migrated those keywords yet!) and some (like «home» and «people I know») just don’t have a natural home in the CVKC. The details of what’s inside those hierarchies isn’t important; just that they’re distinct from CVKC and form a natural organization of their own.

What if you’ve already been using the “classic” CVKC and you want to adopt this approach? My suggestion would be to manually create the «CVKC» heading and then drag each of the parent keywords underneath it, one by one. There aren’t that many of them, and there isn’t (unfortunately) a better solution that I know about.

Use Worklists to Remember What Keywording You’ve Done

I’ve found that if I simply look at one of my photos and try to enumerate all of the keywords that might fit, I’ll almost certainly miss many relevant keywords that are already in the CVKC. So rather than try that approach, I divide and conquer in fairly thin horizontal slices of the keyword collection. For instance:

What’s in these collections? The short version is:

  • Identify one of the major headings in the CVKC that you care about (i.e. “animals,” “architecture,” “dominant color,” etc.).
  • Create a collection which contains all of the photos you’ve reviewed for that section of the CVKC. (For example, “animals»reviewed”.)
  • Create a smart collection which shows you all of the photos that are not in the reviewed collection.

For a more in-depth discussion of this worklist technique, see my article from last August on using smart collections to create worklists.

Once you’ve done this basic set-up work, you can start to work through your list of photos to keyword. Here’s how I do it:

1. Right-click on the “reviewed” collection and choose Set as Target Collection.

You should see a + sign appear next to the collection name.

2. Click on the “to review” smart collection.

3. Open the Keyword List panel to the corresponding section. Close everything else on the right side of the screen.

I find that I can often fit most of the keywords under a top-level section onto one screen, which makes the following steps much faster.

4. Start keywording!

I usually just work through the photos in the order that they appear, but you can go through them in whatever order makes sense.

I intentionally focus only on the keywords under a particular section (in this case, “animals”), intentionally neglecting the rest of the keyword panel.

Once I’ve identified all of the animals in the photo, I hit the B key. That assigns the photo to the Target collection. Remember: Back at Step 1, we said that was the “reviewed” collection. As soon as you do that, the photo drops out of the “to review” smart collection and the next one appears.

I also hit the B key if I have a photo with no animals. That just means I’ve looked at the photo and confirmed that there are no animals.

If you have long sequences of similar subject matter, you can also go into Grid view in the Library module. Select as many photos as you can that share the same keywords. Mark those keywords and hit B. The whole batch of photos will disappear and you can move to the next individual photo or group of photos.


I hope this keywording approach is useful to you. I find that I’m able to manage the complexity of lots of keywords fairly well with the category headers, and that the divide-and-conquer approach lets me maintain my concentration on keywording much longer than if I tried to scroll through the list of keywords for every individual photo.

12 thoughts on “Lightroom Technique: Staying Organized with Controlled Vocabulary

  1. Pingback: Lightroom 2 Technique: Staying Organized with Controlled Vocabulary - Eric Scouten | Photo News Today

  2. I’ve tried several but haven’t found one that sinks to the bottom. If you find one, please speak up in the comments:

    The TILDE: the ~ last character, will always “sink at the bottom”. The last 5 characters are:

    z : lowercase

    The first 5 characters “will always float to the top” are:


    Hope this helps.

    Syv Ritch

    The Business of Being a Photographer

  3. @Syv: I wish that were true. Unfortunately, even those characters sort to the top, at least on Windows XP. (I didn’t try Vista.) I can’t add a screenshot here in the comments, but I did add an update box inline farther up in the page.

  4. SORT to the Bottom works on this system:
    Lightroom version: 2.5 [605155]
    Operating system: Windows Vista Service Pack 2 (Build 6002)
    Version: 6.0 [6002]
    Application architecture: x64
    System architecture: x64

    This procedure should work for XP, Vista or Win 7 (32 or 64bit)
    Steps to follow:
    1. Open Program > System > Character Map
    2. set character Set to: Unicode
    3. In Go to Unicode box enter : A719 (selects a superscripted line with a dot above)
    4. Click Selet Button
    5. Click Copy Button
    6. Back to Lightroom Keyword
    7. Select a top level Non CVKC Keword and Right click – Select renane
    8. Click to set cursor at the begining of the name and press CTRL+V (do not enter any spaces between the newly copied character and the first character of the keyword name)
    9. Click to set cursor at the end of the name and press CTRL+V (do not enter any spaces between the newly copied character and the last chracter of the keyword name)
    10. Press Enter key – done.

  5. Correction to Above:
    In Step 2. Set Font to: Arial and Set character Set to: Unicode
    Just tried this with XP 32bit SPK3. Code A719 is different than in Vista.

    I don’t have Lightroom on this Laptop to test with… so try using using a character that appeals to you from near the bottom of the list of characters (Arabic symbols) – Working your way up until the Key category no longer sorts to the bottom.

  6. Hi Eric,
    Thanks for all the excellent info on your blog (which I just found in this week). I have a nasty problem with my keyword list and LR2.6. I created my own big list of keywords on my home desktop, with clean hierarchies and including many synonyms at the most detailed levels. I then successfully imported that list into my laptop. However, I then imported a group of photos from the desktop into my laptop LR. Unfortunately, when I did that, all the piles of keywords & synonyms then flooded alphabetically into the top hierarchy list on my laptop LR keyword list. So now it’s a mess. Did I do it wrong, or is this a problem with LR? Any advise? Thanks. -Jack (Seattle)

    • Hi Jack, it sounds like you might have imported the individual photos as opposed to importing the catalog. If so, there are two ways (I can think of, anyway) that the keywords might have been flattened:

      (1) The photos you imported were exported with the “Write Lightroom Keyword Hierarchy” option disabled.

      (2) Perhaps before organizing the keywords, you had an unflattened list of keywords on your desktop, and you didn’t save metadata before importing them.

      If neither of these apply, then there’s probably something more significant going on and we should investigate further.

  7. Pingback: Inside Lightroom » Blog Archive » Keyword Lists

  8. I realize this is about 5 years after the question, but windows sorts by the old IBM EBCIDIC codes. The first in the list are special characters. Many times you will find upper and lower case letters sort within their group (i.e., all lower case letters are grouped together and all upper case letters are group[ed together), again because this is the way the EBCIDIC code was created.

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