It’s not specifically a Lightroom thing, and I say the same about Aperture and Expression Media 2. And I am a bit out on a limb here in holding these opinions. But I find hierarchical keywords to be an utter pain, and not worth the effort. No matter how much I try, I always end up with what should be child keywords also appearing again at the top level, for instance when I re-import a picture that’s been processed in another app. Or a child keyword will find itself duplicated in more than one hierarchy, usually because I’ve changed the hierarchy at some point and done Save As in Photoshop, or changed it on my laptop and then brought files over to the main PC.

The trouble is that I think we’re trying to make HKs do two things:

  • boost keyword data entry
  • speed up finding your pictures

So I’ve gone back to a flat keyword list, and switched effort from maintaining a hierarchy 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.

When you think about finding pictures, I don’t see a hierarchy as helpful enough to overcome the inconsistencies I described earlier, so I focus on smart collections. For example, I might have a Collection Set for weddings, which contains a two line SC for “keywords contains weddings” and “keywords contains candid”, and similar ones for other aspects of the wedding. My flat “candid” keyword therefore exists once in my catalogue and independently of the HK parent (in this case “weddings”) which first caused me to add it to the catalogue – if I subsequently add “candid” to a bit of street photography, that picture won’t find itself grouped with weddings and I won’t need “candid” under two HK parents.

It’s worth saying I only build these SCs for groupings when I do actually need them, but I find this a better use of time than building a hierarchical structure in mere expectation of needing the grouping. 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 your 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.