This is a reprint of my March 2011 Under the Loupe column in Photoshop User magazine. A subscription to Photoshop User magazine is benefit of becoming a member of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals. You can join NAPP and get Scott Kelby’s Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 Book for Digital Photographers and a Lightroom Killer Tips Preset CD as a signup bonus. 

I don’t often get questions about how to apply keywords to photos, but I do hear from people who are struggling to regain a bit of order over an unruly keyword list, so it is to them that I devote this column. Unfortunately, there is no magic wand to wave and automatically fix a disorganized keyword list, you’ll need to roll up your sleeves, put the kettle on, and just get down to business. Keywording is a manual process, and while I do suggest that you check out the resources I mention at the end of the column, you still need to be prepared to do the heavy lifting.

Creating a Hierarchy

If you have already assigned keywords to photos and you want to retain those assignments and create a more structured list you should first consider creating that structure right in the Keyword List panel. You can drag and drop one keyword onto another to nest them together. Let’s say I have a flat keyword list that contains Animals, Dogs, Mammals, and Golden Retriever. I can drag Golden Retriever onto Dogs, then drag Dogs onto Mammals, then drag Mammals onto Animals and create a logical hierarchy while maintaining all the assignments I’ve already made with those keywords.

You can also move a child keyword out of a parent-child relationship by clicking and dragging it above its top-level parent keyword until you see the space above the parent keyword become highlighted, indicating you are leaving that structure, and release the keyword.

Some people find it helpful to create their keyword list outside of Lightroom in a plain text file (here is a great tutorial on that You can also simply purchase very large keyword lists (see Resource at the end) that you can import right into Lightroom. While these are both excellent methods to consider I do want to point out that the importing of a new keyword list will not replace your existing keyword list. In other words, if you have a long flat list of keywords that you’ve assigned to various photos and you import a beautifully structured keyword hierarchy it is not going to magically transform your existing flat keyword list into a structure, but rather you will now have your old list with the new list appended on to it, all sorted alphabetically, and it is still up to you to assign the new keywords to your photos, or organize your flat list into a structure.

Re-Assign Keywords

Using my previous keyword example, if I had created that same keyword structure in a plain text file and imported it into Lightroom (instead of creating the structure inside of Lightroom) I would still have the same four top-level keywords, and in addition I would have my new logical structure under Animals. The problem is that I’d now have to re-assign the photos attached to keywords from my original list to the keywords in the new structure.

Here’s how to transfer photos from one keyword to another:

STEP ONE: Working in Grid view with the Keyword List panel expanded, move the cursor over the assigned keyword until you see the arrow appear to the right of the keyword total, and click that arrow to filter your catalog to only images tagged with that keyword.

STEP TWO: Press Cmd+A (PC: Ctrl+A) to select all photos showing in the Grid.

STEP THREE: Move the cursor over the new keyword until an empty checkbox appears to the left of the keyword, and click the box to assign that keyword to all selected photos.

STEP FOUR: Remove the check from the box next to the original keyword to un-assign it from those photos, or see the next section on removing keywords completely. Photos are now only assigned to the new keyword.


Remove Unwanted Keywords

If you simply want to remove a keyword from all photos and remove the keyword itself from your keyword list you can select the keyword in the Keyword List panel and click the minus sign that appears in the panel header. Removing a parent keyword will also remove its children. Proceed with caution.

Tip: You can select multiple keywords in the Keyword List for removal as well. To select continuous keywords, click the first keyword then hold the Shift key and click the last keyword you want to select. You can select non-contiguous keywords by holding the Cmd key (PC: Ctrl) while clicking individual keywords.


Keywording Resources