It’s not specifically a Lightroom thing, and I say the same about Aperture and Expression Media 2. And I admit that I am a bit out on a limb here in holding these opinions….. But I find hierarchical keywords to be an utter pain, and simply not worth the effort.

It doesn’t matter how much I try, how disciplined my working practices, how well I understand Lightroom. The trouble with hierarchical keywords is I always end up with child keywords somehow re-appearing at the top level. This can happen, for instance, when I re-import a picture that’s been processed in another app. Or I notice that a group of child keywords has managed to become duplicated in more than one part of the hierarchy. Usually this is because I’ve done something like change the hierarchy at some point and imported an older file, or more often that I changed the hierarchy on my laptop and then brought files over to the main PC. Whatever I do, something always screws up my neat, logical structure.

So rather than continue banging my head against hierarchical keywords I’ve simply gone back to a flat keyword list – and I’m much happier that way.

The trouble is – I think we’re trying to make hierarchical keywords fight two very different battles:

  • increasing the number of keywords per image
  • speeding up finding our pictures

Deep down, I’m far from convinced you ever want to confuse data entry tools with how you may subsequently search for pictures.

Instead of putting any effort into maintaining a hierarchy, my attention is now turned to alternative ways of making keyword entry as efficient as I can. That means I now have many more keywords sets and metadata presets – the latter also include keywords so I can target all sorts of IPTC fields in one hit.

Finding pictures isn’t just a job for keywords, so I focus on collections and particularly on smart collections. For example, I might have a Collection Set for weddings, which contains criteria for “keywords contains weddings” and “keywords contains candid”, and similar ones for finding other aspects of the wedding. My flat “candid” keyword therefore exists once in my catalogue and is not a child of “weddings”, so if I subsequently add “candid” to a bit of street photography, that picture won’t find itself grouped with weddings and I won’t find “candid” under two or more parents.

It’s worth saying I only build these collections for groupings when I actually have a specific need. Surely this must be a better use of time than building a hierarchical keyword structure simply because one believes or convinces oneself that one day it will help you find pictures?  Another point is I also build SCs rather than using the Filter Panel because I feel that I have needed to look up a particular combination of keywords and other metadata, there’s a fair chance I’ll want to look them up again. So I may as well save the query as an SC and save myself time in future, and I can group SCs with any dumb collections which might relate to the pictures.

Another aspect is that a catalogue is rarely keyworded perfectly. In my own catalogue for example, older pictures of the Castlerigg stone circle in the Lake District might just have a single keyword “Lake District” and other info in the caption or title, while more recent pictures of the same subject would have many more keywords. Let’s say I then have a need to find these pictures. Searching in keywords for “Castlerigg stone circle” doesn’t give me all the pictures, while “Lake District” gives me too many. Using a SC means I can look for “keywords contains Castlerigg stone circle” or “caption contains Castlerigg” or “title contains Castlerigg”. So a SC returns more accurate results in many real world situations.