The Digital Darkroom; File Management

The Digital Darkroom is a new series of weekly posts for those who have just started or want to know more about image editing. There are many different editing programs out there, the flagship being Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. We should not forget Gimp, Photoplus, PaintShop Pro and Picasa.  In the Digital Darkroom series I will be focusing on Photoshop and Lightroom.

If you wish to watch the companion video for this series you can so here

Is there a difference between Lightroom and Photoshop?
Lightroom is primarily a File management system with “basic” editing adjustments. Created for the digital era, Lightroom was design for people taking a lot of photos downloading, sorting and then editing them, before sending the files out for multiple uses; web, publishing, cd and print. Photoshop was design in the era when files were scanned 10 at a time and editing was for one output, printing. Photoshop’s file management, Adobe Bridge, was coded later as the digital revolution took hold. Photoshop does have more power than Lightroom and although 90% of editing can be done in Lightroom there will be a need from time to enter Photoshop.
One way to look at it is, Lightroom moves pixels and Photoshop bends them.


Editing software can be daunting the first time you open them as there is no hand holding while you and your precious files are pushed into the deep end. I learnt nearly everything I know about photo editing from experimentation, reading tutorials and books about how to edit pictures. To really learn Photoshop and Lightroom be ready to make mistakes and come back to pictures and edit them again. Even after using Photoshop for 10 years I still pick up new things all the time.

File Management

Before you jump into editing software you need to think about file management. I know I sound like a kill joy.
“I want to edit!” you may be screaming, but with a little work now you will save yourself a bit of a head ache later. Trust me, I have spent hours trying to untangle a huge migraine. You need to think about where your pictures will live. I have a dedicated Hard Drive called photography where all my work can be found before it is backed up. In having a dedicated space for your Capture (files from your camera), Editing and Output files can help when you need to find, back up or make changes to an existing file.

Photoshop and Adobe Bridge


Photoshop comes with a program called Adobe Bridge, designed to be a file management program for all Adobe products (except Lightroom more about that later). If you don’t have Lightroom and only have Photoshop I would use Bridge for your file management.

bridge-importDownloading pictures from your camera is simple with Adobe Bridge. You connect your camera and then click the icon at the top with the camera and the down arrow. Select your device (camera) and say where you want the pictures to go.
This is the beginning of file management. I would recommend creating a folder for your capture files to be downloaded to. I have a folder called “Digital Negative”, inside are sub folders dated with a quick description of the shoot or what I shot, for example “2014-03-28 Lady Bird”.
Organised like this you can then locate a file first by when and then it’s content.
With Photoshop I would also create two other folders Editing and Output. All of the editing files can be saved in the editing folder and Jpeg versions of the editing files can be saved to output. In these I would create separate folders based on content, for example; Holiday Las Vegas 2014 and inside are all those pictures.

If you already have a big mess this would be a good time to try and sort it. It does mean a bit of sitting down and concentrating but the benefits of quickly finding a file will save you so much time in the future.



Lightroom has its own system for managing your files, because it has file management built in at its core. As with Adobe Bridge you need to find a home for your photographs. Clicking on import, just as with bridge, you will need to choose and name a location for your capture files to be downloaded to. However unlike Adobe Bridge you don’t need to worry about editing locations as all editing in Lightroom is saved in a side car file (a separate file linked to the picture) this means that all editing is non-destructive and at any time you can reverse the changes you have made.


Lightroom has three parts to its file management.

File-managementCatalog– where all the information for your pictures are stored; edits, metadata, previews. You can create multiple catalogs but you can only access them one at time. Each time you want to switch catalog Lightroom restarts with the selected catalog.

Folders– the location of your pictures as dictated by you. If you ever move an imported folder you must do this with Lightroom, if not it will cause a headache with your catalog and extra work to sink everything back up together.

Collections– Personal groups of photos within a catalog. By creating a collection you can group all landscape, food, holidays, children, blog …. photos in one place. A picture can be in multiple collections, in the Las Vegas holiday collection as well as Black and white, landscape and portfolio collection. Lightroom also has Collection Sets where you can group collections, for example Holiday (collection set) with all Holiday picture collections inside. If you remove a picture from a collection this does not delete the picture from the computer it just removes it from that group.

With files in the right places we can begin editing.

 The Digital Darkroom Series is all about learning and the part of learning is asking questions, if you have any questions let me know in the comment box below. 


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18 thoughts on “The Digital Darkroom; File Management

  1. I think one of tne most important habits to get into is keywording. It is invaluable and I derive a lot of my smart collections using keywords. This is a mundane task but getting set up properly is critical. I have one top file on an external HD callec Lightroom Pictures. Then I have a sub-folder for 2015 and sub-sub-folders for different dates or events. Its pretty easy to find things. Backing up regularly means I don’t worry unless both external HDs die on me.

    • Hi Andrew Key wording is an important element of management and is something I will be discussing later when it comes to meta data as a whole. The file organization sounds familiar to mine, a logical ordering of files.

  2. Good morning, Ben. YEAH! Just what I am looking for. May I have some examples of catalog, folders, collections? In Andrew’s example, which one is catalog? Are folders under catalog? (I know nothing about lightroom. 😉 THANKS!!! (I am very excited to learn all these.)
    Also, another external hard drive to backup? How often do you backup? Thanks.

    • Hi Helen, In Andrews example he is talking only about folders. When you install Lightroom and open it for the first time it creates a catalog- a catalog holds information about the pictures. One Catalog is usually all you need but if you have a lot of pictures it can help to have multiple catalogs to prevent Lightroom from slowing down.

      Folders are where your pictures are physically kept on your hard drive. In Andrews example he has a folder on his hard drive where all his pictures are. In this folder he has a sub folder called 2014 and in this folder subfolders dated with his pictures in eg Computer – (G Drive) – 2014 – 20140130. When you download files from your camera to your computer you choose the folder that the files will be downloaded to.

      Catalogs are separate again and you create these. To group pictures together.

      In Lightroom Under the Library on the left and side you can find the tab with Navigation – Catalog – Folder – Collections. A screen shot example is in the post.

      It is good to have a second and even third hard drive to back up to. How and when you back up is up to you. I try to do this once a week and I back up my raw files on Import.

      I hope this helps,

  3. This is a great post Ben. With Lightroom you really need to get file management right from the start, if you start moving and renaming files afterwards, Lr sometimes struggles to find them.

    • Hi Katie, I have found that as long as you rename and move in lightroom it doesn’t mind too much as it updates the catalog. It most definitely does not like it when you do it outside as the files no longer link to what it has in the catalog.

    • Hi, Keywording is just as if not more important than collections. I am writing a post later in the series about keywording and metadata. I didn’t cover it in this post because I wanted to get people moving towards editing as I know that is what people want to do.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment and you contribution.

  4. Hi Ben, this is a great post for all of us who have vowed to make 2015 the year of organization! each day I renew my vow, because I seem to be a whole lot less than perfect. without keywording I would be lots or should I say images would be lost forever on my hard drive!!! I must learn more about collections though, I suspect it isn’t as complicated as it feels, but I get the feeling of being overwhelmed at times when I think about all the time I could be spending doing this stuff when I would rather be out with the camera. still hoping for better file management skills in 2015! all the best to you and your family!

  5. Reblogged this on Aperture64 and commented:

    As promised the video companion has been added to the first post in the Digital Darkroom Series.
    Raewyn, Amy, Andrea, Carrie and Mike you said you would be interested in videos I hope you like the first one.

  6. Hi Ben, I learned much from you back in January. I just watched the video again and have learned a few new things. Thank you for the reblogging it.

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