Organizing Your Photos, Part 3: Tags, Ratings And More

Beyond keywording and subject categorization, your opinion of each image, as well as its intended end use, can be addressed in your organization workflow

When organizing my image library, keywording is simply where I begin. Yet there is so much more to consider, like ratings, colors and flags. Keywording images so I can find them when I need them is indeed crucial to my library’s organization, but simply finding images isn’t all I need. I mean, I’m looking through my library for a reason, right?

use ratings in Lightroom to track images

Figure 1. Beyond keywords, Lightroom offers the ability to add tags and attributes to our images, such as colors and star ratings.

My photography isn’t created so it can sit on my hard drive forever. There are things I want to do with my images. Portfolios need to be created for all kinds of applications. I often run slideshows. I gather images to add work to my website. I need to find images I want to post on Instagram or Facebook, to email friends, family and clients; to make prints or to make books, just to name a few. Keywording is just the beginning.

In the first article of this series on organizing your photos with Lightroom Classic, I identified the types of organization there are and how to use Lightroom’s Library Filter. In part two, I discussed techniques in Categorical Organization, such as how to develop keywording strategies.

This third article aims to tackle methods for both “applicative” and “qualitative” organization. What’s the difference? Qualitative organization refers to organizing by the quality of the image; in other words, separating my good images from my not-so-good images. Applicative organization refers to methods that allow me to identify images for a particular use, whether that be slideshows, social media posts, printing, etc.

Tags & Ratings: Separating The Wheat From The Chaff

After each import, as we bring our images into Lightroom Classic, there is always one of two things we have to do. We need to either create categorical organization by way of keywords or Collections, or we need to begin separating our good images from our bad images. It doesn’t matter which is done first, just as long as they’re done.

Creating this separation is simplified by adding tags or attributes to our images. At our disposal in Lightroom are Flags, Star Ratings and Colors, and which you choose to use is not as important as why you’re using it. For most of us, a binary choice is all we need. We need to identify which images are worthy of developing and continuing to work with and which ones need to be discarded. Everything in between can just stay on your hard drive for further review and consideration at a later time. There are a smaller percentage of photographers who will have more complex needs and want to tag for additional reasons. We’ll get to you later in this article.

Pro Tip: Be careful what you throw out. Other than images where I’ve left my lens cap on or taken a shot without meaning to, I tend to keep everything. How you see your images today as well as the tools available to you will both vastly change over the length of your career. You may not be excited about that image you see now, but give it time. I’ve revisited countless shoots to find hidden gems. So I say, keep everything!

Flags: The Binary Choice

A simple way to approach separating the good from the bad is to use what I call the “PUX” method. PUX refers to a set of hot keys you can press in Lightroom to flag your images in a particular way. There are two kinds of Flags you can apply to your images. You can add a Flag to pick images, or you can add a Flag to reject images. Now, keep in mind that even though there are only two Flags we can apply to any given image or set of images, there are three different Flag states: flagged, rejected and unflagged. Bearing that in mind, the hot key “P” is used to pick an image, “U” is to undo what you’ve flagged, and “X” is to reject an image. Hence, the PUX method.

I like Flags and PUX because they are easy to teach and easy to use. Simply scroll through your images and pick the ones you like, and X the ones you want to throw away, images that you shot where you left your lens cap on, that are totally out of focus, or that you just want to throw away and never see again.

Pro Tip: As you sift through your import adding Flags or other tags to your images, you can have Lightroom auto advance to your next image. This tends to make things go a bit faster. To do so, go to the main menu to “Photo > Auto Advance.”

Figure 2. When using Flags to separate your good from your bad images, it’s simple to filter out what you’ve rejected. Hit the hot keys Command+ Delete for Mac or Control+Delete for PC. Then choose to remove your images from your catalog, or delete them from your hard drive permanently.

In addition to the simplicity of using PUX, I like it because it’s also easy to isolate or filter out your rejected images for a quick throw away. Just hit the hot keys Command+Delete on Mac or Control+Delete keys on a PC. Your rejected images will automatically filter out from the rest of your images, and a box will appear asking if you want to remove your images or delete them from the disk, as shown in Figure 2 above. The difference between the two is that just clicking Remove will remove them from your Lightroom catalog, but the images will remain on your hard drive. Delete from Disk will remove them from both your catalog and your hard drive permanently.

PUX is just one approach. Like many things, there isn’t a right and a wrong way of tagging images. The important thing is to have your overriding goals in mind. You can use Stars and Colors to create groups of images as well; however, a word of caution here—Stars and Colors are often used in inefficient ways. Time after time, I see photographers two-star their nice images, three-star their really nice images, four-star their really, really nice images, and, of course, five-star images are thus really, really, really nice. Such an approach will make any growing library challenging to sift through over time, and photographers are left with a nebulous understanding of which images can be set aside for developing or other kinds of use. Instead, think with a binary approach to start. And don’t worry, your use of the other Attributes will arise as your library grows and your workflow needs evolve. Trust me.

Collecting Images For End Use

As mentioned in the previous article in this series, I’ve seen many photographers use Collections in Lightroom Classic as a place to maintain categorical organization. Not everyone uses keywords to add categories to their images. I have suggested to photographers working this way to consider instead using keywords over time, as a long-term strategy. Keywording is just more efficient overall for categorical organization.

Bearing that in mind, I suggest using Collections as a tool to organize your images for output or a particular application. Think of Collections in this way like using iTunes or Spotify to organize your music playlists. While each of these tools houses all of your music in its database, you can set aside lists of songs for different things. You may create one playlist for exercise, another for going to sleep, and another for parties. You create playlists for different applications. Collections can work in the exact same way. Notice in Figure 3, my hierarchy of Collection Sets and the Collections within those sets.

Figure 3. Use Collections and Collection Sets to organize images by their intended end use.

Begin by creating a Collection Set. To do so, look to the Collections panel header and click on the “+” symbol. Select Create Collection Set. The Create Collection Set dialogue then launches, as shown in Figure 4. Simply name your Collection Set and check the box to determine whether or not you want to include your new set inside of an existing set or not.

Figure 4. You can create a Collection Set by clicking on the “+” symbol on the Collections panel header, which launches the Create Collection Set dialogue.

Next, you can add Collections to your set by one of two ways. You can drag-and-drop existing Collections on top of your Collection Set, or you can hit the “+” symbol on the panel header again, and select Create Collection. This launches the Create Collection dialogue (Figure 5), which provides a few more options than the previous dialogue.

Figure 5. You can create Collections to place inside of Collection Sets by again hitting the “+” symbol on the Collections panel header and choosing Create Collection.

Begin with naming your Collection at the top of the dialogue. Next, check the box indicating whether or not you want to add your Collection to a Collection Set, and use the drop-down menu below to select your Collection Set of choice. Next, you can select to include the selected photos in your Collection, make images virtual copies or not, or set your Collection as a Target Collection.

Making a Collection a Target Collection is useful as you continue to comb through your library looking for images you want to add to your new Collection. By hitting the hot key B, any image or images you have selected will automatically go to your chosen Target Collection. Using Collection Sets allows you to tailor groups of image collections in any way you like. They are quite powerful in this way.

Pro Tip: You can make any Collection a Target Collection at any time. First select a Collection, and then launch the context menu (click on the Collection while holding down your Control key for Mac, or right-click on the Collection if you’re on a PC). Select “Set as Target Collection” from that menu.

If you’re already using Collections as discussed in the last article to help you perform categorical organization, know that I’m not saying you can’t do both. In Figure 6, I’ve done just that and organized my Collections using one set for Categories and another for Output. You can use as many sets as you need.

Figure 6. You can use Collections to organize images for their intended application, and you can organize them by categories as well.

Beyond PUX

Over time, your needs will grow—if they haven’t already. It’s likely you may want to tag or label images beyond the capabilities of Collections or the simplicity of the binary choice PUX offers. What those ways are will, of course, be decided by and defined by you, and consequently the possibilities are endless.

With my catalog, I have a handful of ways I use to create deeper separation of my images from one another. For starters, I subscribe to the idea of having all of my images in one catalog, so everything is searchable and easy to find. My work images, my personal images with friends and family, and even all of my iPhone pics live in one catalog. This means I need to separate my personal from my commercial work, my iPhone images from my images shot with my professional cameras, and my fine art worthy of printing work from my not-as-interesting stock images or filler images. I use color labels to help me with this, assigning a color for each category.

Your needs may be different. For example, you may work with others in a multi-user environment. I’ve helped train pro photographers who have used Star Ratings as a communication system between themselves and their editor to help indicate the state of progress in the studio’s workflow. One star meant the image has been imported and keyworded. The more stars added, the more the image has evolved in the workflow pipeline. Five stars meant the image was sufficiently organized, developed, approved by the artist, and ready for delivery to the client or whomever. Again, your needs will dictate how this will flow.

Hot keys will allow you to do all of this quickly. You can add almost any attribute using hot keys like adding Flags with the keys P, U or X. Star ratings can be added to any selected image or group of images by using keys 1 through 5—1 adds a single star and 5 adds a five-star rating. Colors also use hot keys. Well, they mostly do. After selecting an image or group of images, you can hit keys 6 though 9—6 is Red, 7 is Yellow, 8 is Green, 9 is Blue. But, there is also Purple, and 0 does not work with Purple. In fact, poor old Purple is left without a hot key at all. You have to set purple to an image selection manually.

Figure 7. You can add color labels to images manually by going to the main menu and to “Photo > Set Color Label.”

There are a couple of ways to add Colors or any Attribute manually. You can either look to the main menu and go to “Photo > Set Color Label” (Figure 7 above), or you can click on the Color you want to add from the Tool Bar at the bottom of your viewing window while in the Library Module. Do note that if you’re looking to the Tool Bar and don’t see Colors, Flags or Stars—or even the Tool Bar itself—don’t panic. To hide or reveal the Tool Bar, tap on the “T” hot key. For the Tool Bar to show your Attributes, go to the small downward-facing arrow on the left of your Tool Bar (Figure 8), and make sure Stars, Flags and Colors are all checked. Then simply click on any Attribute to apply it to your image selection.

Figure 8. What’s in your Tool Bar is customizable. If you don’t see the Colors or other Attributes you want to add to an image, click on the small downward-facing arrow on the right of your Tool Bar and select what you want to be shown.

The Greater Purpose Of Image Organization

As modern photographers take more images than ever before, it becomes a challenge to stay organized. It can be daunting to stay on top of all the processing, editing, separating the good and the bad images, and curating your work for the seemingly endless ways that we can share them, post them and apply them.

Keeping up with good practices in organization doesn’t just keep you neat and tidy; I believe it also will make you more prolific. If you know how to efficiently flag your good photos and eliminate your bad ones, how to set aside well-curated portfolios for sharing, you’ll eventually become faster and more effective. In turn, your work will be seen more. Your friends, family, peers, colleagues and clients will all appreciate the money you’ve spent, the time you’ve taken and the emotions you’ve poured into developing your craft. I can think of no greater purpose for your art.

Read Part 4: Smart Collections.

Jason Bradley has a unique set of skills. He specializes in nature and wildlife photography both underwater and above; he’s the owner and operator of Bradley Photographic Print Services, a fine art print lab; he leads photographic expeditions around the world, and is the author of the book Creative Workflow in Lightroom, published by Focal Press. Visit to see more of his work and find info on his upcoming workshops and expeditions, and to learn about his fine art printing services.