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How to use flags, stars and labels together in Lightroom

Stars and stripes flags

Lightroom has many powerful tools to help organise and review photos. In fact the choice of options for setting up a workflow is almost overwhelming. In this article I’ll explain how you can use these tools together to quickly shortlist and edit photos.


When I was still a beginner in photography, I started using Lightroom’s “star” ratings in a manner that is popular with many other photographers. 5 stars for my best “portfolio” shots. 4 stars for the “best of the rest”, etc.

This worked for a few months, but then it all quickly fell apart. And here’s why:

Let’s face it: when we start out as a beginner photographer, our photos are often just not that good. I know I struggled to identify what made a “decent” shot. So rating photos is a real struggle.

With practise our photography improves (hopefully), rendering older ratings rather irrelevant. Early “best” photos eventually become “mediocre” compared to later work. This is a good thing, of course, but to keep star ratings up to date would mean having to revisit and revise the ratings of an entire collection. It makes no sense.

Later on, as I started out as a professional photographer, I realised that the whole idea of trying to “rate” photos is pretty meaningless. Faced with an ever-growing database, what I actually needed was a quick and effective way to shortlist and select photos to work on. If I could do this, then pulling together a collection of my best work as and when I needed it would be easy, and could be done simply using Lightroom “collections.”

So after many years of trial and error, here is the workflow that I have found works best for me:

Ingest and organise your photos into folders

The first place to start is to make sure all your photos are organised in a consistent filing structure, and ideally imported into a single Lightroom catalogue. I’ve written an extensive article about how to name and organise photos, but the key point is the need to organise them into meaningful batches, either using folders, collections or metadata. This then forms a structure in which to review your photos.

Since I’m now shooting almost on a daily basis, and sometimes several times a day, I’ve started using a folder structure organised by date and shoot name, e.g.:

      2020-10-30 COVID-19 testing

This allows me to use “folder color labels” in Lightroom to mark the status of a shoot. This is a feature that didn’t exist in Lightroom when I first set up my workflow.

To apply a colour to a folder, simply right-click on a folder and select “Add folder color label”.

  • I mark folders that are still to be reviewed as “yellow.”
  • Once done I mark them as “green”.
  • If I’ve taken a series of photos and I feel they are a bit weak, I’ll mark them “blue”, meaning defer/reject. I may never come back to these.
  • Folders with personal snapshots etc. get marked “purple,” so I know I don’t need to work on them.

When I’m deciding what to work on next, I’ll mark one or more folders “red,” meaning “priority”.

Apply a filter for “red” folders only, and all the other distracting folders disappear like magic. Then we’re ready to go to work…

A first pass to review and cull photos

Once you’ve imported photos into a folder, the next step is to review them. If you have a large backlog of images to review, then this article may help.

I always start by building 1:1 previews. (“Library > Previews > Build 1:1 previews”.) This makes Lightroom quicker when zooming in. It uses up a fair amount of disk space, however, so I set Lightroom to discard them after a week. (See “Edit > Catalog settings…”.)

Next, go through every photo in a series, assessing each one and also checking for sharpness and other issues. I give one star (shortcut key 1) to any photos that look like good candidates for selection. If a photo is out of focus, badly composed, or simply uninteresting, then I’ll flag it to “reject” (shortcut key x). I’ll delete these later on, once I’m happy with my final selects.

Once this first pass is done, I now have a shortlist of potential “candidates” marked with a one-star rating.

It’s worth mentioning that for high-end cameras this first pass can be done in-camera, at least to some degree. I currently shoot with the Canon EOS R5, and like the 5D series it has a nifty “RATE” button on the back. I’ve set this to cycle only between 0 and 1 star, rather than the full 5 star ratings. This way it acts as a simple flag by which I can mark my keepers. It’s a handy way to flag a photo at the time of shooting once I feel I’ve finally “nailed it.”

Shortlist the best and apply pick flags

Having done an initial shortlist of photos, then use the filter bar to show only those photos with a one-star rating or higher.

Now is a good time to use the “survey” view (shortcut key n) to see all the photos on-screen. Then try to whittle them down to the strongest photos only, removing any duplicates and similar images from the selection.

Once you’re happy that you’ve only selected the strongest images, give these a 2-star rating. (Use shortcut key 2, or alternatively use “[” and “]” to increase/decrease the rating.)

If I still feel like I have some weaker images in there, I’ll repeat the whole process again. Filter to show only 2 stars or higher, and give the strongest images a 3-star rating.

Repeat this process as often as necessary. (Although I find I rarely need to use more than between one and three stars.) The aim is to end up with a good set of photos, each one standing up on its own merit, but also adding value to the overall series.

Once you’re sure that you’ve narrowed the photos down to only the best shots that you want to work with, then give these a pick flag. (Shortcut key p.) These are your final “selects”.

You’ve probably worked out already that the star ratings do not need to have any consistent meaning from one folder to the next. So you’re not trying to “rate” a photo on a scale of 1-5. The pick flags, however, do have a consistent meaning. They are always your best photos from any particular shoot.

In theory, now you’ll never want to look at any photos again, unless they have a pick flag. Why work on anything less than your best photos?

But if you do find that you’re not happy with your picks, or you want to revisit a folder to look for more photos, then the star ratings provide a solid way to filter and review your initial selects without having to go back and review an entire folder of images again.

Don’t jump into processing too soon

You’ll notice that at this stage I haven’t mentioned doing any image processing at all. Admittedly, I do sometimes play around with an image a bit in the develop module, just to see if it is worth picking.

However, I invariably find that if I am doing this too much, then it is because the image was weak to start with. Or I’ve allowed myself to get drawn into editing a photo before properly reviewing and shortlisting the whole folder.

Neither of these is ever a good reason to spend time editing a photo.

Process and label the end products

So you’ve reviewed a folder and narrowed it down to only the best “picks.” What next?

This is when to start processing. First, use the filter bar to show only the “pick” flags. Then work through each photo in the develop module. I may initially select several similar photos, and use auto-sync to speed things up. I rarely use presets to achieve a certain “look”. Instead, I’ll process each series from scratch, using presets only to speed up certain mundane things such as setting white balance to 5000K. I typically work with a Loupedeck+, which makes editing in Lightroom a joy once you get used to it.

Some photos that need special treatment, I work on in Photoshop and save as tiff files. I make sure they appear back in Lightroom and that they have the correct star rating and pick flag.

Once happy with the processed photos, mark them with a “color label” to indicate that they are finished. I use this colour scheme: Red = Processed in Lightroom, Green = Processed in Photoshop.

Any intermediate files I mark with a yellow label. For instance, if I’ve merged several raw files into an HDR image, then all the input raw files get labelled yellow. Once processed, the output .dng or .tif file gets labelled green.

I use blue and purple for certain special cases.

Once finished, I can find all my best photos in the catalogue by filtering for “pick” flags. I can also find which photos have been “processed” by filtering for colour labels.


Hopefully, after reading this article, you can see how I’ve used Lightroom’s rating and filter tools to build up an effective workflow. You may find this suits you just fine. Or perhaps you want to take some bits and adapt them to suit your own needs. In any case, here’s a quick summary:

  1. Review photos in-camera when possible, to delete bloopers and (if your camera allows it) to star your best shots.
  2. Import photos into a consistent folder structure in Lightroom.
  3. Use folder colour labels to mark the status of the folder: e.g. yellow for “to-do”, or red for “priority”.
  4. Review photos and give candidates one star. Cull weak photos with the reject flag.
  5. Filter for one or more star, then start shortlisting by adding an additional star. Repeat as required.
  6. Give your final selects a pick flag, and filter to show only these picks.
  7. Process each of your final selects and give them an appropriate colour label to mark them as “processed”.
  8. Delete any rejected photos.
  9. Mark the folder green for “done”.

So that’s it: a consistent way to review and shortlist photos using Lightroom. As I mentioned in the intro, after reviewing a catalogue using this workflow, it becomes pretty easy to pull together a collection of “best work”, such as for a web portfolio. I just gather photos together into a Lightroom collection, often using keywords to help find and filter for photos on a certain topic. You can make as many collections as you want this way, without ever again having to agonise over whether a photo is a “4” or a “5”.