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Photoshop Lightroom Reference Guide

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Change How Photos Are Sorted in Lightroom

Last updated Apr 25, 2008.

Lightroom provides a number of ways to arrange photos within folders, collections, and other photo groupings. The way photos are sorted affects the order in which they appear in slideshows, print layouts, and web galleries. If you’re wondering what the sort options are, or are frustrated because you can’t get a manual sort order to work, this tutorial should sort you out.

As photos pass through the Import process and start appearing inside the Grid view of the Library module, they’re in Import Order, which simply means the order in which they were imported. Typically, this should reflect the order based on filename and capture time, which makes sense because files are named sequentially as they’re captured. That’s a fine starting place, and perhaps in some situations it’s an order that never needs to change. However, for those situations when you want something different, Lightroom has other options to explore. There are two places within Lightroom that you can access the controls to switch among the various sort order options (see Figure 1):

  • View > Sort
  • Sort controls on the toolbar

Just choose the desired option from either place, and Lightroom sorts the photos in a snap according to the order you specified. With one exception (I’ll get to that shortly), all the available options affect the sort order of whatever image grouping you’re currently viewing, whether it’s a folder, a collection, or even a metadata grouping.

Now, about that exception. At least weekly, someone asks me about what Lightroom calls "user order," which most people call a "manual sort order"—meaning that you just want to click-and-drag photos into whatever order you want. The main reason why I get so many questions about this is because it just doesn’t work the way people expect. Let me tell you why.

First, user order works only under certain conditions. You have to be working within a single folder (with no subfolders—not even empty ones) or a single collection (with no subcollections). If you want to arrange a group of photos manually that are stored in multiple folders, you first have to put them all in a collection, and then you can arrange the sort order.

One of the most common stumbling blocks happens right after import. As soon as you click the Import button in the import dialog box, Lightroom switches to a special view in the Library module called "Previous Import." You may not notice it, but it’s located inside the Library panel, as shown in Figure 2.

Even though all the photos you’re looking at are stored in a single folder, the fact that you’re looking at them while in this Previous Import grouping means that the manual sort won’t work. A manual sort is limited to the two conditions I mentioned because the manual sort information has to be tied to a specific location—that is, a folder or a collection. The Previous Import view changes with each import, so there’s no way to tie a specific sort order to such a transient grouping.

So if you want to sort those newly imported images manually, you have two choices:

  • Right-click any image and choose Go to Folder in Library, which switches to the folder containing those photos.
  • Select all of the images and press Ctrl-N (Mac: Command-N) to create a new collection. (Make sure that the Include Selected Photos box is checked.)

Choose whichever option best suits your needs.

Once you have the photos where you want them, press Ctrl-D to clear any selection you may have made (unless you want to move multiple photos at once). Then click the photo itself (not its frame) and drag it to the new location. As you move the selected photo over the other photos, the space between the photos darkens (see Figure 3). This is a visual cue that if you release the mouse button the photo will move to that spot. Release the photo when you see the desired destination space change. You can do this from Grid view in the Library module or from within the Filmstrip in any module.

That’s all there is to it! Your manual sort order should remain whenever you return to that folder or collection. That is, unless you change to one of the other sort orders. If you do, you can select User Order from the sort options to switch back to the way you originally arranged it.