I don’t want you to be like me.  You see, despite always being a raving fan of Adobe Lightroom, I only was familiar with my normal routine within the program.  I knew what I knew (and very well at that) but there is so much more to Lightroom that I didn’t even know about for far too long.

One of those items was Lightroom smart collections.

…and then Lightroom came out with smart collections which have become an immense time-saver that I never even knew about!

Today I am going to show you the similarities and differences between Lightroom regular collections vs smart collections and break it down so you have exactly what you need to know to start using this powerful functionality.

lightroom collections vs smart collections

What Are Collections?

Collections are simply a place in Lightroom where you can store images. Think of a regular Collection as a playlist for your photos. You can create as many regular collections as you want and put lots of pictures on it. 

At the left side panels of the software’s interface, you’ll find the Catalog dialog and Folder structure that show where your pictures are located on a computer. This is also where you can see the Collections panel. 

There’s a Quick Collection that allows you to search and group pictures for certain tasks temporarily. However, if you want a more advanced way of archiving your photos, that’s when you must use Smart Collections. 

What is a Lightroom Collection?

A regular collection is nothing more than a group of photos that you’ve “collected” from different folders within your Lightroom collection.  That’s it.  Why would you need a smart collection rather than just use folders? 

Sometimes you might want to group together photos from different photo shoots or folders or even pull your favorite wedding photos for a portfolio – those are great examples of when collections might make sense.  Here are some other aspects of collections you will find helpful.

  • You can add photos to a collection by dragging and dropping from main view to a collection OR if your collection is set as target collection simply add by hitting the “B” key on keyboard.
  • Any updates or edits you make to a photo in a collection, the edit or adjustment is carried through in both the collection and its original folder location within Lightroom
  • To delete a photo from a collection, just click delete or backspace.  However note that this deletes from the collection only and not from the original location within the Lightroom catalog.

What is a Smart Collection? And How Smart are they?

Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could build collections without having to do the collecting?  Of course!  Well, you can do so with Lightroom smart collections.  Lightroom smart collections are “smart” by using filters based on metadata to return photos that meet the criteria that you’ve defined.

Want to group all of your photos taken with a certain lens? You can do so with a smart collection.

Want to only see your favorite portrait photos?  Yep, you can do that with a smart collection, too.

How Smart Collections Differ from Regular Collections

While the two both allow you to save and group photos, let’s take a look at the differences that make Smart Collections better than Regular Collections.

Choosing Images 

The main difference is that Collections group pictures together based on any number of criteria. Meanwhile, Smart Collections follow user-defined attributes.  

Creating Smart Collections depend on how you filter your images. You can drag and drop images to a regular Collection, whereas you can only add photos to Smart Collections if they pass the criteria you set up for that collection.

For example, you want to collect the best shots of a particular location or person coming from all regular Collections. With user-defined attributes, a Smart Collection can automatically gather those specified photos from your Lightroom Catalog.

Arranging Photos

While a regular Collection enables you to sort pictures into your desired order, a Smart Collection only follows the default sort order options in Lightroom:

  • Capture Time
  • Edit Order
  • Edit Time
  • Edit Count 
  • Rating 
  • Pick 
  • Label Color 
  • Label Text
  • File Name 
  • File Type
  • File Extension 
  • Aspect Ratio 

What Are the Advantages of Using a Smart Collection?

A Smart Collection is a more efficient way of sifting through all your photo information. If you want to improve your workflow, here are tasks that a Smart Collection can help you:

  • Add Captions: Create a new Smart Collection with “Other Metadata > Caption” and “is empty” to show images that need captions. 
  • Add Keywords: Choose Keywords from the Other Metadata menu, then set the option to “are empty”. Use this to add keywords to a photo for your Smart Collection. 
  • Add Copyright: Create a Smart Collection with the rule “Copyright Status”. With this feature, you can have a smart collection that sets the copyright information. 
  • Event Work: If you want to exclude shots that are out-of-focus or have bad angles, use the flag or star rating systems to reject such pictures for your smart collection. 

Default Smart Collections

There are six default Smart Collections in Lightroom: Colored Red, Stars, Past Month, Recently Modified, and Without Keywords. Lightroom puts any picture from your Catalog meeting that meets specific criteria into one or more of these Smart Collections.

Right-click on an existing Smart Collection to modify it. Within the dialog window, you can change the Smart Collection rule or add another one that suits your needs.

How to Create a Smart Collection

To create a smart collection, the first thing to do is click on the little ‘+’ sign at the top of the Collections panel header. You can see the Collections panel in the Library Module’s Left Panel. Choose the command “Create Smart Collection” from the flyout menu.

Adding the Rules

In the Create Smart Collection dialog box, the rules section defines what will be in the smart collection. There are three smart collection options in the match flyout to help you manage your smart collection:

  • All: The photo must match every rule to be included in the Smart Collection. 
  • Any: As long as a picture matches one of the rules, it becomes part of the smart collection. 
  • None: As long as an image doesn’t match a rule, it’s included in the smart collection. 

Use the All option if you want to narrow down and organize your smart collection files to a limited collection set of images. Set the Rating of the collection set to 3 stars and apply “is greater than or equal to” in the pull-down menu. 

Other options include: is, is not, is greater than, is less than, is less than or equal to, and is in the range. These enable you to refine what shows right up in the collection. 

The Grid View should now show all matching pictures added to your smart collection. If you change the rating of one of the visible photos to 2 stars, it will automatically drop out of the collection because it no longer matches the collection rules, which is 3 or more stars. 

Adding More Rules

A Smart Collection enables you to save as many rules as you want to narrow down the images. At the end of the Rating line, you should see a plus (+) icon, which you can click to add another rule. A minus (-) icon will appear at the same time, which lets you remove the rule at any stage. 

Lightroom will select Rating as the new rule by default. You can change this by clicking Rating and choosing from the possible rule options in the pull-down menu. For instance, get Capture Date from the Date menu to gather the recent images. 

If you want more recent dates, choose “in the last” from the list and enter a number. Then, pick from days, weeks, months, and even years. In this way, you can view all photos taken in the last 30 days with 3 stars. 

Adding a Color Label 

Select Labels to imply the status of your images. From the context menu, choose Add Color Label to Collection, and select a color from the submenu. 

It’s up for you to decide what colors you want to use in the smart collection you’ve created. For example, pick red for photos that need editing, yellow for under processing, and green for final pictures.  

Smart collections are pretty awesome and a real time saver!

Want a visual example of collections and smart collections in action?  Check out the video: below!

Conclusion

Now that you know how Smart Collections work, you can improve your editing process by organizing your images. The easily accessible Smart Collections are a great alternative to using a folder system on your computer or laptop. With many ways to use regular and Smart Collections, you can set criteria that suits your preferences well.