When it comes to the sexy side of photography, importing and sorting your raw material is most certainly not up there at the top of the list. Using flashy lenses, planning your next photographic adventure, editing your images and taking them from RAW to award-winning art pieces is where the allure really comes in. In today’s tutorial, however, I wanted to tackle the more humble (but equally important) side of the process and address a question that I get asked a lot when sitting with guests in the Londolozi Photographic studio: What’s your process when it comes to importing and sorting your photographs?

Now, this is the part where you need to understand that importing and sorting photographs has everything to do with how each person thinks and catalogues information individually. There is absolutely no right or wrong way to do this.

When I get asked my opinion on this subject, I always default to saying that the way you begin to sort and catalogue on importing your photos depends entirely on how you will need to look for them at a later stage.

What I mean by this is that if you are the type of person (let’s say you were similar to me) who recalls specific shots by remembering what holiday they were taken on, who you were with at the time, and the quality of the light in the photo, you would search for the shot by looking at your folders during the year of the holiday and use keywords like “stormy-black sky over Londolozi landscape on my first afternoon, Christmas 2017“. This keyword is a mouthful by anyone’s standards but, stay with me…

Knowing how your brain might need to search for something later should then inform the way that you input your data to begin with – it’s kind of a ‘help you to help yourself’ process. If you know you’re going to search for something in a particular way at the end, why not code the images that way to begin with?

So, without digressing too much, I wanted to break down the process into 10 easy steps, and walk you through my own thought process in case it was helpful as a start to anyone who needs a little guidance on the matter.

Step 1: Download and back up all your images to an external hard drive after every shoot

There’s a reason this is step one (and I can’t stress this point enough): Invest in a good quality, decent sized hard drive and make it a habit to pack that in your camera bag so that it is available after every shoot. This should become second nature – just as packing a second battery or memory card should be. Get into the habit of quickly opening up your laptop or computer, plugging in your hard drive and dumping all of your RAW images from that day or photographic outing into a named folder (see below for how I structure my library of images). Once this is done, you can carry on – safe in the knowledge that your images are backed up, and ready to go through when you sit down to edit.

Invest in a good quality, decent sized hard drive and carry that along with you in your camera bag so that you have quick and easy access to it after every shoot.

Step 2: Catalogue and name your files based on your own thought process  

As I mentioned earlier, there is really no right or wrong way to do this. Actually, that’s not true. The wrong way to do this is to not do it in the first place. Spend a little time looking inwards to figure out how you might search your memories for something in the future and then apply that to a file structure. What this enables you to do is to quickly and efficiently sit down, store your photos and work on them either immediately or at a later stage, knowing that you’ll be able to find them whenever you want. 

Step 3: Put together (and stick to) a basic file structure

By setting up a file structure ahead of time you’ll never find yourself in the position of sitting down to start editing, or searching and not knowing where to begin. You’ll also eliminate one ‘barrier to entry’ when it comes to dumping your images after each shoot if you have a solid structure planned out. I have found that by having one general photography folder on my hard drives means that I start there each time no matter what. From there, I make folders by year, and then by month, and then by the situation or name of the shoot (either a holiday, or a specific outing, or a wedding…). The situational folder is my own way of cataloguing my memories, and so this level might differ for you… each to their own. 

Find the right system for you, but then stick to that system from there on out. Settling on the right folder structure up front will save you time and energy in the long run

Step 4: Create your ‘Edits’ folders

This step is my own personal projection of detail management but has saved me time and heartache many times before! The way in which you export and save your edited files completely depends on how you are going to use them. For me, being on a creative and content-orientated team, we often have the need to dig out images from memory to use. It is both a waste of time and an irritation when you can only find a low-resolution image, or one with your personal watermark on it when all you need is the large, unbranded copy for something. This is another way that, by taking the time when you export to save four folders of your edits, you’ll thank yourself later and you’ll have every variation of shot needed. 

Create four separate folders within your final edits folder: Large edits with your watermark; large edits without your watermark; small (low-res) edits with your watermark and small edits without. When you’re in a hurry to find that specific shot, you’ll have every eventuality to look through.

Step 5: Sort through the RAW folder and create a ‘best of’ folder

For me, at this stage in my workflow, it will depend on how many shots I have taken on a particular shoot. If I have only taken a few then I’ll import all RAW shots into Lightroom and start sorting them there. If, however, I have shot a wedding and have 3 752 images to look through, I’ll sort through my shots in Mac Finder first, and then make a best of RAW’ folder within the RAW folder. This saves time in the Lightroom workflow, and saves space in my catalogue. 

Step 6: Open the right catalogue in Lightroom 

Once I’m ready to import photos into Lightroom, I make sure I have opened the catalogue that I want to work in. I have a master catalogue which holds my sorted collections, keywords, and all image info and you can make many different catalogues however you see fit. This boils down to personal preference, too, but I have found that having one master catalogue with my entire librabry of images helps me to catalogue within the Library section of Lightroom more efficiently, knowing that all my images are in one place. However, if you are comfortable with the idea of Lightroom catalogues, and understand how they work, then creating multiple catalogues is no problem at all… as long as you know where to find them when you need them! 

Step 7: Import your images into Lightroom & add keywords

Only at step 7 is it time to open and start using Lightroom. Drag your images in (or use the standard command of  File>Import). Once the import dialogue box is open, remember to check these four things: 

  1. Are all the images you want to import checked? You’ll want to be able to see all the images that you have pre-selected in step 5 and make sure that none of them are greyed out, or unchecked. 
  2. Have you selected ADD at the top? This makes sure that duplicate copies aren’t created and jam up your space on your hard drive. By clicking ADD, you simply link the original RAW files from your folder to Lightroom’s back end. Lightroom then works of virtual copies of those RAW files and this keeps everything neatly organised. 
  3. Have you created a collection for your shots? If you haven’t created one in your Library already, make a new one in the import dialogue on the right hand side (see the video below for a guide on how to do this)
  4. Have you applied a few basic keywords? This is a really good habit to get into! Describe the shots how you would look for them at a later stage. This allows you to attach meta-data to each image so that you can then search Lightroom for that shot if you need it in a hurry. 

Step 8: Clear the workspace using the view options 

Once all of your shots have imported, use the following shortcuts to clear the workspace so that you can review, sort and use the rating system to further cut down the good to great. 

  • “I” on the keyboard press until the image information has disappeared (remember to use this shortcut if you need to see image number, settings or camera body and lens info later) 
  • TAB collapses the right and left panels and leaves you with the filmstrip at the bottom. 
  • Shift + TAB – collapses all panels and leaves you with the image in loup view
  • Drag the filmstrip up or down to make the thumbnails larger or smaller 
  • “G” takes you to a grid view of all your images (use the slider in the bottom right-hand corner to make them larger or smaller) 
  • “E” takes you back to loup view (film-strip at the bottom, one image in the main area) 

Step 9: Sort & mark your photos

Once your viewing space is clear and you’re in the right mode, use the below keyboard shortcuts to mark images to filter when you’re ready to start editing. There is no standard operating procedure here – you’ll just need to understand how each of the rating systems works and then figure out your own process. If you have shot multiple shots that are similar (‘spray and pray’, or burst mode) choose the sharpest first, then the one that depicts the moment the best (use your gut). Look for pesky things in the background, slight differences in head posture and eye direction and how the body carriage looks. I find that flicking through images quickly and having my hand hover over the number 5 on my keyboard allows me to quickly mark the shots that I feel are the best, and not waste time thinking too much about the ones that I know I don’t want to edit. 

  • 1 5: applies star ratings of one star to five stars. I usually only use a rating of 0 or 5 5 stars being the ones I think are best and the ones I want to work on. If you have starred an image and want to cancel that command, simply press the zero key to remove all star ratings
  • 6 9: Applies a colour rating to the shot. 6 = Red, 7 = Yellow, 8 = Green, 9 = Blue. These are great for when you’ve edited and want to further filter your best edits to the final picks. 
  • ‘P’, ‘U’ and ‘X’: This applies a flag rating to the shot. ‘P’ flags the image, ‘U’ un-flags the image and ‘X’ sets the image as rejected. 

One pro-tip: use the ‘reject’ flag (keyboard shortcut ‘X’) to eliminate shots you don’t want, and then use the filter system at the bottom of Lightroom to view all of your rejected shots. From there, select all the rejected picks, right click on your mouse and select ‘remove photo‘. This will remove all rejected shots from Lightroom, and will keep your catalogues nice and tidy. 

Step 10: Get developing!

Once you have sorted through and chosen the images you want to work on, hit D” to take you to the Develop module and get stuck into editing your shots! 

While I know that importing and sorting photographs can seem like an absolute chore, I can’t stress enough how important it is to get into the right habits early on, in order to make your post-processing life that much easier. Your future self will thank your current self… I promise!

If you have any extra tips or tricks, please let me know in the comments below… I would love to hear them!

About the Author

Amanda Ritchie

Marketing & Photography Manager

Amanda joined the Londolozi team early in 2015 & immediately took the Londolozi Studio to an exciting new level. Her unflappable work ethic & perfectionism are exemplary, & under her guidance the Studio has become one of the busiest areas on Londolozi. The ...

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on 10 Easy Steps for Importing & Sorting your Photographs in Lightroom

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Marinda Drake

Thank you for the great tips Amanda. Definitely going to try some sorting my photos and files.

Amanda Ritchie

An absolute pleasure, Marinda!

Callum Evans

Don’t remember seeing those options on Lightroom, will have to check

Amanda Ritchie

There are some sneaky shortcuts that will make your process much faster in Lightroom 🙂

Callum Evans


Guy Lacy Chapman

This is such a helpful and necessary tool! Thank you!

Amanda Ritchie

Thanks so much Guy – I am so glad that you enjoyed the post!

Nicki Ryan

So helpful Amanda and I’m definitely going to give it a go! I still need to organise my shots from our visit a few weeks ago!

Amanda Ritchie

Thanks for the comment Nicki ! I am so glad that it was helpful. I look forward to seeing some of your shots from your recent visit soon… maybe time for a guest post on the blog? 😉

Michael & Terri Klauber

Amanda, This is wonderful info and we wish we would have had you coaching us 15 years ago when we started shooting massive amounts of travel/wildlife images!! 😉

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