When you have a library of many thousands of pictures, finding the ones you might need is clearly a very important feature. The more quickly you can do this, the more time you’ll have left for perfecting them for the print, slideshow, or whatever other creative way you’ll enjoy them. And the fact that you’ve searched for these pictures increases the likelihood that you may want to find the same pictures again before too long, so you’ll often want to save those search criteria.

The Library Filter is a bit like iTunes and lets you drill down into your catalogue

For such reasons, two of my favourite features of Lightroom have always been:

  • Smart Collections
  • Library Filter panel (right)

Both the Library Filter panel and Smart Collections let you filter the catalogue to find a selection of pictures, and each lets you save and recall the criteria you used. What’s less clear is which you should use and when.

The answer, well my answer, might be a bit provocative….

Use the Library Filter when you’re exploring the pictures and your questions change as you see what’s there

Use Smart Collections when you know exactly what you’re looking for

I’ve happily settled down to using Smart Collections almost all the time, and visit the Library Filter panel only for quick filtering by star rating, flag, coloured label, or master/virtual (though more often than not, I’ll apply these quick filters through the Filmstrip). I do use the Filter panel’s Text section, but just once in a blue moon, and use its iTunes-style Metadata columns much less.

  • While the Library Filter panel menu does let you save your search criteria as a preset, presets are displayed in a long and unhelpful list.
  • You can easily work with a large number of Smart Collections, group them in multi-level families, and mix them with Dumb Collections too.
  • A filter doesn’t remember any output settings, while a Collection stores the last Print, Slideshow or Web settings applied to it.
  • Library Filter panel’s iTunes-style columns are more useful when you’re exploring a catalogue, hacking your way into unknown territory and discovering the way it’s laid out. You don’t have a clear aim in mind, and your search criteria are changing as you discover how you previously tagged your pictures (it’s like slicing and dicing with Excel pivot tables or Cognos). But the thing is, I don’t normally need to explore my catalogue – I know, pretty well, what I want to find.

So while I see the Filter panel as fine for temporary filtering, chopping and change what rating or flag values are visible, the various types of Collection let you organize, categorize, and group pictures – add structure to your catalogue. So it makes sense to invest time learning their nuances and then applying them as ingeniously as possible.

The Workflow Smart Collection

As an example, here’s how I now manage new work.

My objective is to see at a glance what’s been done and what I’ve got to do next. For instance, I want to be confident every picture has my copyright and know that I’ve added descriptive metadata like keywords. Likewise I want to be sure I’ve adjusted all the pictures without eyeballing the badges on a few hundred thumbnails, and I want the catalogue to help point out pictures which need special attention. In other words, I want to introduce some quality control and what is known in manufacturing as “progress chasing”:

  • The key is a single Dumb Collection, called “0.00 Current work” into which I drag the pictures I want to process (the 0.00 is there to assist sorting).
  • Then a series of Smart Collections check for images containing “Current work” in the Collection name, and then target more specific criteria.

So for example smart collection “1.30 No Captions” checks for pictures that are in “Current work” but where there’s nothing in the caption field. Here it’s zero, so I know I’ve entered captions for every picture.

On the other hand, 1.40 No Copyright shows me that for some reason I’ve overlooked two pictures in “Current work”. I can see straight away if there’s any missing metadata in my shoot.

You can, to a limited extent, apply the same technique to Develop adjustments too. The caveat’s because, unlike Aperture, unfortunately Lightroom 3 and 4 still don’t let you target individual adjustments. So for an example of a practical use, a Smart Collection can’t help you identify any ISO1000+ images where the Luminance and Color Noise settings are still set to zero. But what you can do is what I’ve done – identify high ISO images and remind yourself that you might want to treat those pictures as a group. Anyway I’m sure we’ll catch up – probably before most Aperture users realize they have the feature!

That’s how it works. In practice, it’s very simple – after a weekend away, I clear out any existing items from this Collection and drag in the newest pictures. The Smart Collections recalculate automatically and I always can see what’s done and what needs attention. If “Current work” has existing items which still need work, I can move them to another Dumb Collection “Last week’s work” so that my Smart Collections don’t pick them up.


If you want to try this out, you can build up such a Smart Collection structure yourself – or save yourself a load of time by saving it from here.

This zip file contains a small “Workflow” catalogue which you can bring into your own working catalogue:

  1. In your catalogue, choose File > Import from Another Catalogue (in LR2 and Lr3 this is File > Import as Catalog)
  2. Point to my Workflow.lrcat file (it’s a LR3 catalogue so you may get a message about upgrading the catalogue)
  3. Import the single JPEG file ( you can delete it afterwards)
  4. Look in the Collections panel, and the workflow smart collections should be there in all their glory.

They obviously took me a bit of time to get right, so you can always say “thanks” or “grazie” or “yeah buddy that’s f***ing cool” via my Amazon wish list.