How do you rank your photos and decide which ones to edit?

As a newbie, I’m struggling to evolve a workflow for ranking my photos and deciding which ones to edit. I’m sure everyone does this a bit differently, so I thought it might be generally useful to have people discuss the workflows they use to whittle down hundreds of images from a shoot into the few that will processed.

For example, how do you use Lightroom stars and color labels? Do you use collections as part of your process? Keywords? Do you use virtual copies and, if so, how do you keep track of and label different edits of the same image?

This is something I struggled with for years Cathy, so you’re not alone! I finally found a system that works very well for me.

I use a combination of star ratings (only 3-5) to cull the herd, and color ratings to make final selections.

I use various smart collections along with this to filter them in my catalog. I don’t have my Lr catalog in front of me at the moment, but I can share some ideas later if you like. I hope this helps!


Thanks David, super helpful. I particularly like the idea of marking ones that are to be edited or in progress as a way to refine the starred groups. Also the concept of a final edit… mind blowing! (I can never seem to stop tweaking them).

When you do edit, do you start with the 4 and 5 star ones or just plow through all the 3+ stars in chronological order?

Oh, and yes it would be great if you can share smart collection ideas too! Thanks!

Good question for sure. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed at the sheer number of photos I need to get through - especially if I’ve been to a workshop or spent a day of intense shooting.

Basically I go through and check for quality - anything really badly exposed, out of focus or with technical problems I can’t fix gets marked with a Rejected flag (X key in Lightroom). In the Photo menu at the very bottom is Delete Rejected photos and that’s what I do in the end.

Anything that stood out as particularly good gets a Pick flag (P key). From these I work my favorites first.

I don’t star rate everything, but the standouts get 4 and 5 stars so I can sort through those at the end of the year to pick my best work.

For a while I tried using a To Edit collection, but it just became one more thing to have to maintain and I dropped it.

Color coding falls into a couple of uses for me. When I do stacking and I don’t have to use all the photos I took, I mark the beginning and the end of a series with the same color flag (yellow or red) so I can edit them together and then get them to my stacking software.

Otherwise Blue = needs key wording/metadata, Green = exported to hard drive, Purple = published to web gallery (final edit).

Key words are there so I can find stuff easily. I have one (NPN) for everything I’ve submitted here.

Phew! I hope that’s at least a little helpful. Finding your own workflow is really important so you don’t get overwhelmed and that you can make sense of your catalog. It’s one of the reasons I stay with Lightroom - I like the flexibility and the organization it gives me. Plus my catalog is enormous now I’ve been using it for 14 years! LOL.

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I’m sure I’m the odd one out here, I’ve stopped using lightroom. I find I always end up in photoshop any way so why not just start in camera raw. I also found I simply don’t like the LR file handling so I use Bridge. It has all the feature I need and the response time has been greatly improved. I use the rating stars to narrow the field , then when I find one I want to work with I use the labels: Red to identify Master I keep it so I always have the original raw file. As I edit I use wk ( work copy) yellow I often don’t complete editing in on session.
When I’m finished editing I have a pr( print ready) labeled copy -Blue. If I make a down sized file for the web I label it web which is green. Copies I make to send to the lab ,I generally increase the brightness so that file is labeled Lab which is purple. It sounds more complicated than it is. I have 3 external drives, raw untouched files are duplicated to a back up drive as I bring them in from the card reader. I edit etc. on the second drive. Every couple weeks I back up to a third drive. Drives are cheap.


I’ve been using keywords in Lightroom to help my searches after the image has been taken. I don’t use stars as I haven’t found that useful. I label images with geographic locations. Each image gets wide keyword (California) and narrow keyword (Yosemite, Redwoods, etc). This works for me because I’m not a voluminous shooter. 10 images in a day is max. Usually 4 or 5 on a good day. I don’t shoot ICM.

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Here is my “system” that I’ve been using since around 2010 ( back when Lightroom was a t version 3). Interestingly, it’s pretty close to what @David_Kingham is doing!

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@_Kris @dgh @Igor_Doncov @Tom_Nevesely
Thanks for the great ideas! It’s very helpful to see the systems you all have developed. Doug, interesting that even though you don’t use lightroom, you have a similar system in Bridge.

Common organizational themes seem to be

  1. initial picks using stars or flags
  2. optional further rankings with more stars
  3. editing categories/status, mainly using colors

I’ve also begun using automatic stacking by capture time to pile up bracketed and simlar shots, which makes it less overwelming when screening all the photos from a shoot as well as the edited versions. How do you all use stacking?

That auto stack feature is a godsend!

I mostly use stacking in macro and I use Zerene for that. Sometimes I use a couple or three shots in a landscape and use Photoshop to blend those.

I create a subfolder for each stack of images at the operating system level. Then I collapse the stack in Lightroom so that it appears as one image. I see little value in being able to retrieve the stack from Lightroom. It’s just clutter.

PS. You can achieve the same thing as stars, flags, and colors using keywords. Far more flexible. In fact, those are really keywords anyway.

I shoot everything bracketed ( I think it gives a better dynamic range) I usually don’t use auto stacking but do use staking. I can’t recall why I stopped using auto stacking, maybe I’ll give it a second try.

Hi Cathy,

I’m responding just to offer probably a completely contrary response. I loath “favorites”, labels or any attempt to “systematically” categorize my images. Primary reason I have no interest in LR. I don’t want Adobe cataloging my images; RAW or processed.

My workflow, I have a RAW folder where my images are downloaded from the camera. I cull and review and any image I decide to work on, I put in a subfolder called PSD. Only files that I like and want to work on that I think have potential go in this folder. If I have a PSD file that is worthy and I create a print or web image from the master PSD, I save in a Web or Print folder. No labels, no stars
or Favorites tags… nothing… When I come back from a trip and I have 800 RAW files… sorry… I have no interest in labeling, starring or ranking. Not going to rank something that’s going in the round file.

Funny, back in the film days, I used to track my success rate on a roll of film. IE, how may shots were worth keeping out of a roll of 36… So I kinda did that back in the film days… but with the switch to digital, the volume compared to just 36 images in a roll of film… the volume of images just didn’t make sense to try and evaluate/lable/tag RAW images.

So now with digital, once I have files that I think are worth processing, and subsequently create jpgs or tifs for print, I most certainly make use of the Metadata templates to populate keywords and camera exif info.

The downside to my system is that I can’t sort my large portfolio with location, favorites, ranks or any other variable other than keywords - but those have only been applied to images I’ve worked on. But I have no desire to touch or action hundreds, or thousands or RAW images and tag them with ranking, labels or anything else. I can however, very specifically sort and find images via “keywords” that I have applied to images that I actually processed.

I store my images and catalogue them chonologically and by date. For example, I have a RAW folder for 2023, and then Sub-folders for example Yosemite_1105203.

I think it’s safe to say that for most of us, we only process a very small fraction of the RAW images we actually capture with the camera. Not interested in cataloging those RAW files that I’ll never use.

Just my .02. But I don’t have a desire to cull, lable or otherwise tag images that will never see the light of day.

For macro, stacking seems essential! So many files to keep track of!

The auto stacking works well for me for bracketed images. But it’s not perfect for grouping different shots of the same subject, so I’ve been adjusting those manually to declutter the library overview.

@Igor_Doncov @Lon_Overacker
Very interesting. It seems like lightroom rankings and system folders are different ways to achieve the same goal of selecting and separating the best images for editing. With of course varying levels of refinement, so like Lon said, I don’t waste time ranking images that will never be used.

Many of you mentioned keywords! Thank you! Now that you point it out, I see how they are very powerful and I will implement them more going forward. I had superficially only thought of using keywords like location or subject. But now I see that I could also use editing keywords to accomplish a lot of the same things as stars or colors, for example to mark images with editing in progress or, like Kris said, to mark images that were submitted to NPN.


I’ll tell you my primary reason for keywording - and it’s not for sorting in Bridge or for any editing.

I place keywords in the meta data for Image search on my website. I’ve had my site on Smugmug for a few years now, but prior to that I had my own home-built website.

So, when searching for location, a color, a subject, a mood or whatever, a visitor can search for those keywords and pull up all the images relating to that search. For example, someone could search for “autumn” on my website and get all the related images. But even deeper than that, I may put description kewords like yellow, orange, leaves, fall color, etc. Along with location keywords and even seasons or conditions like “windy”, “Freezing” or whatever.

Of course you can use the keywords in LR/BR, etc. to sort/catalog your images that way.

But again, the downside to my own method is that I can’t search Bridge (or LR for those who use) for a term like Autumn, fall color or yellow, because the search would only return those few images that I decided to process and or create jpgs for my website or say NPN.

To each our own I guess!

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I bit the bullet and purchased Photo Mechanic on somebody’s advice. I first upload my RAW files to Photo Mechanic which allows me to quickly look at all the files and I rate only possible keepers as 4 stars, When I finish going thru all of the files I select only the 4 stars then drag them into Lightroom then in Lightroom I further scrutinize, and treat the ones that work then, the last thing I do is open the treated keepers in Photoshop to the last sweetening up then save and send them back to Lightroom to be filed in their proper folders that I’ve created for various subjects. Hope this helps.

I’m with you Doug. I don’t care for how Lightroom stores images/edits and the need for one huge file , or the continual need to reindex. I love Bridge and use ACR and PS for editing. I saw a recent article opining the death of Bridge. I hope not - I think many use it. Ultimately, Adobe should know - I’m sure they are tracking usage.

Thanks . If Bridge is discontinued ( which I don’t think will happen) there are numerous alternate products. The use of AI for image sorting, searching etc. is becoming more and more common which I find exciting.

@Dave_Douglass Thanks for your feedback and sorry I missed your post while I was away for the holidays! I’m curious about the upsides of Photo Mechanic over LR. Is it as @Bill_Lathrop mentions that LR has the single catalog file that’s a bit of a cumbersome liability? Or are there other aspects of Photo Mechanic that you particularly like? Bill, hope Adobe listens and keeps Bridge as an option since so many people use it. @dgh Interesting idea about AI for sorting/searching – is that image-based or keyword based?

Regardless of the tools, it seems that a commonality is that most people have some process for a quick overview of all the files and for identifying potential keepers. I’ve been slowly evolving ways to accomplish those goals in LR. In addition to quality stars, my recent breakthrough is using stacks to group all the shots of the same photographic idea (exposure brackets, different viewpoints, etc). That way if I have say 100 shots from a day, the grid might have only 8-10 images/ideas displayed. Within each stack, I rearrange the order so the version that best captures the idea is displayed in the grid when the stack is collapsed. This process has been helpful for me in deciding which images to process. When I decide to process an idea, I can expand the stack to access all the data I have on the topic.

I did a google search for AI photo storage here’s the result:
6 “Best” AI Powered Photo Organizers (January 2024)

  • PhotoPrism. One of the best AI-powered photo organizers on the market is PhotoPrism, an app that helps users manage and organize their digital photo collection more efficiently and effectively. …
  • Excire. …
  • QuMagie. …
  • Imgix. …
  • Monument. …
  • edenphotos.
  • I also found a new system from ON1 that looked good. I’m waiting a bit because I think Adobe will have to come out with an AI based organization soon.
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Thanks for the info Doug! I’ll look into them because AI organizing is a new idea for me. However I think you are right that Adobe will probably get on this bandwagon, which would be easier for me since I’m they already snared me in their ecosystem.