Tips on Managing a SmugMug and Lightroom relationship – and a caveat

This post is a collection of ideas, experiences (read as “mistakes”) and resulting tips that might be helpful to someone wishing to develop a SmugMug site that is supported by photo collections maintained and managed in Adobe’s Lightroom.

If the SmugMug site you wish to maintain is very straightforward, with a simple one-to-one match between a few collections in Lightroom and galleries in SmugMug, you probably don’t need this information. But if you expect to manage a more complicated website, then these ideas may prove useful. The first tip below can probably help you decide if you need to read more.

As background information (to aid in understanding the TIPs below and how they came about); I wanted to build a photo website and had already decided that SmugMug (SM), particularly the upgraded version released sometime around mid-2013, provided an excellent array of tools for doing just that. I’ve been managing all my images in Lightroom (LR) for some years now and am very happy with it so there was no question in my mind that I would want to maintain some sort of relationship between the two for the photos I intended to share.

What follows is a compendium of things I learned, in some cases re-learned, mostly the hard way (and is not a smack at either excellent product but more a reflection of my own hubris in believing it would be a much simpler process than it was). I’ve formatted this information first by describing the advisory TIP, followed by a description of the value of following that advice (by describing the mistakes I made and their consequences).

TIP #1:

Setup each collection (smart or regular) in LR so that photos are uploaded to one, and only one, gallery in SM. Setup those LR collections so that each photo is sufficiently constrained to just one and with sufficient additional metadata, such as keywords, that photos can be selected into smart galleries within SM. [This probably seems obvious to you – but read on.]

Mistake #1:

One of the website capabilities I wanted to provide was a way to show photos in different contexts. For example, I wanted to be able to show a particular photo as being taken in France (by showing it in a France gallery with others from the same country) and show it as one of a set of black and white photos (in a gallery of black and white photos).

One of the LR features I’m very familiar with is called Smart Collections. SmugMug (SM) has a similar feature called Smart Galleries but I’m more familiar (comfortable?) with LR’s functionality (which appeared to me to be more broadly adept than SM’s). I decided to manage all my collections within LR and create appropriate links between each of those and their corresponding galleries in SM. I was also revising a SM website that I’d built only six months earlier so I believed I understood SM well enough to just jump right in.

If I’d thought it through more carefully from the beginning I’d have realized that while LR doesn’t duplicate the images to manage different (smart) collections, uploading those collections to SM would indeed tend to duplicate every image that appeared in more than one collection into each gallery to which it was connected. Not only would this mean I was uploading many more images than needed but also that each version of that same image would need to be updated every time any change was made to the image or to its metadata. Moreover, if a visitor to my site did a search for something, they’d end up with a result that included each identical photo copy that satisfied the search criteria – not a happy circumstance.

I was pretty far down that track before I finally realized what I mess I was creating for myself. At that point I stopped, cursed a bit, and then set about changing the structure of my LR smart collections and re-creating my SM smart galleries to take advantage of my newly acquired understanding. It is all working much better now but it cost me quite a bit of redevelopment time.

TIP #2:

Spend some time, before you commit much time to a site, thinking about how to name things (galleries, smart galleries, folders, pages). Try to work out a scheme for creating names that are both meaningful to you and that will help you organize your site.

Mistake #2:

I knew I would be increasing the number of galleries and smart galleries dramatically. And I kind of had an idea how I’d name things but didn’t write it down (nor was my method very algorithmic so it didn’t take long for it to begin to fall apart).

Years ago (well, actually, decades ago) I used to be a programmer. I knew the value of setting up naming conventions but just failed to realize its importance to this task of expanding and complicating my website (if any of my old colleagues read this they will be snickering if not laughing out loud).

I just didn’t think of this as programming, particularly given the sets of tools provided by SmugMug. And, from my perspective, it really isn’t programming (SmugMug did loads of work to hide all that seriously complex technology). But it is very possible (probable?) that as you grow a site it will grow in complexity as well. And that means you need all the organizing aids you can think of. I was way too far down the road by this time to consider going back and changing the names of things – I was certain I’d seriously break the site in the process. …which leads me to TIP #3.

TIP #3:

Document (rinse, repeat)! Keep organized lists of the objects in the site, where they come from (especially for Smart Gallery rules), and how each item relates to the information maintained in LR. And keep it up-to-date. You may completely understand everything while you are in the midst of development. But much of the detail will fade away over time and you will thank yourself for that documentation roadmap when you return weeks or months later to make changes to your site.

Mistake #3:

Well, I felt it unwise to try to change to a more organized naming convention (as I mentioned in TIP/Mistake#2). But I found myself looking for the wrong things over and over again because I could not remember exactly which name contained the item I needed.

So I did stop development work, once again, to go back to the beginning to document everything. I started with the Menu Structure (that was actually documenting a plan, since it was the last thing I built before releasing the site). I also documented all the LR Smart Collections (and the collection sets). Most importantly, I documented each of the SM photo galleries (both regular and smart), the folders they were in, their relationships to each other, and where they came from.

Included in the “where they came from” was a simple summary of each smart gallery and how it was derived. For my site, smart galleries turned out to be either ones that combined other galleries together or those that selected certain photos from within a gallery (including other smart ‘combination’ galleries).

I was about halfway through development when I finally got the bright idea to document what I was doing. It was hard, tedious work to go back and document before proceeding with the rest of the site. But it paid off immediately; it simply made it easier to do the rest of the development, since I could refer to the documentation to make sure I was using the right object for whatever action I was working on. And then I was there, in the documentation, to add the new information to it as the site progressed.

Last Words

These are the lessons I remember learning (although I believe there might be others I’ve already forgotten). If I do remember something else, I’ll update this first ‘tutorial.’ I apologize for being so long-winded but hope you find this information useful.

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