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“Take Control of Your Digital Photos,” Chapter 5

by Jeff Carlson

Sorry about the link in the TidBITS intro for Chapter 6 [1] that incorrectly points here! The correct URL is [2].

This article is a pre-release chapter in Jeff Carlson’s upcoming “Take Control of Your Digital Photos,” scheduled for public release in August 2013. Apart from the introduction [3], these chapters are available only to TidBITS members [4]; see “Streamed Advice for Managing Your Digital Photos [5]” for details.

Judge Your Photos

The title of this chapter was originally “Rate Your Photos,” but that just wasn’t the right term. Rating implies something casual, like comparing pears to see which ones are the most ripe. Your photos are more important than that.

Instead, you need to be judgmental about your images. That means scrutinizing them with specific quality levels in mind. Sure, it’s easy enough to say one photo is okay and another isn’t so hot, but where does that leave you? With a lot of gray area. And in your mission to take control of your digital photos, you don’t want gray areas. You want to take specific actions to make working with your library better and easier.

Judging your photos achieves two goals. It sets up a practical workflow for later, so you know right away which shots you want to share with others and which ones need work in an image editor before being ready to be made public (and which should be deleted or hidden). Judging also helps you become a better photographer, because it helps you look at your shots critically to determine what you’re doing right or wrong, and in what areas you excel or need to improve.

In this chapter, I offer a system for judging and flagging your photos to make them most useful in your library. I also discuss what to do with the shots that don’t make the cut.

(And remember, if you’re in a hurry you can start with a minimal rating system, as I described in Chapter 1 in Alternative Strategies.)

Develop a Consistent Rating System

Despite my encouragement to be a ruthless editor of your imported photos, this step is usually a lot of fun. You get to study the images you shot and experience the sense memories of capturing them.

In most applications, you can assign ratings—typically a scale of zero to five stars—by pressing a number key. In Lightroom and Aperture, for example, you press 2 for two stars, 3 for three stars, and so on. In iPhoto, press the Command key in addition to a number key, such as Command-2 for two stars. Each program also gives you the option of clicking rating buttons that appear under the image thumbnail, in an information sidebar or panel, or both (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Rating a selected photo in Lightroom using the mouse." />

Figure 1: Rating a selected photo in Lightroom using the mouse.

I prefer using the keyboard to apply ratings as that allows me to tap a number key and then tap the right arrow key to switch to the next photo. This way I can move quickly through a set without touching the mouse or trackpad.

Tip: Make sure you’re viewing photos large (or full-screen) to get an accurate sense of their quality levels.

But before you start assigning stars, make sure you know what each of those stars means for your workflow. Not only do you need to be judgmental while reviewing photos, you also need to be consistent. You can assign any weight you wish to each star level. The suggestions below are my recommendations not only for assigning stars, but also flags and labels (if supported in your program).

Star Ratings

Here’s the rating system I use:

  • One star. A single star is the baseline, meaning the photo is in focus or not a shot that occurred by accidentally pressing the shutter button. (I’ll address what to do with photos that don’t meet this standard in just a moment.)
  • Two stars. The photo shows promise and is worth revisiting. For me, two stars is my “on the fence” rating—it’s better than competent, but doesn’t stand out as much as others.
  • Three stars. The photo is definitely one I want to keep, and is worth editing to refine its appearance. When I’m doing my initial review pass, I rarely assign photos higher than three stars, but often a three-star image will turn into a four- or five-star image after editing.
  • Four stars. A four-star photo is in good shape, likely edited somewhat, and is one I’d be happy publishing or sharing online.
  • Five stars. A five-star photo is something I’d be proud to put in my portfolio or hang on my wall. It’s also a good reference for days when I need inspiration or when I’m not happy with the photos I’m capturing and want to be reminded that I’m not wasting my time with all this camera business.
  • Reject. Lightroom and Aperture offer a Reject rating (also available as a keyboard shortcut: X in Lightroom and 9 in Aperture). Rejected photos are, well, crummy. It happens. iPhoto and Photoshop Elements let you hide images that aren’t good instead of rejecting them (press Command-L in iPhoto and Option-F2 in Elements) . See Cull Bad Photos, later in this chapter, for a discussion of what to do with these shots, since there are a few options.

You’ll notice I didn’t start with zero stars (unrated)—that was deliberate. As mentioned in the last chapter (specifically in Apply Metadata at Import), some photo-management applications let you assign a baseline rating to all of your images during the import stage. I tag every incoming photo with one star during import, because I’m confident that at least most of my shots will meet this minimum qualification.

But why not start at zero—the default rating—and build up from there? After all, I’m going to review and assign ratings to every photo anyway.

A few reasons: I’d rather reject a few bad images than potentially tap the 1 key dozens or hundreds of times. Also, to my mind, unrated photos are in a photographic limbo—since they’re not rejected and not rated, they’re “undecided.”

Tip: I still have thousands of unrated photos in my library from the time before I began assigning one star to every photo on import. But I’m slowly working through the backlog: when I have time to update my archive with ratings, I use a smart album I set up that displays only unrated photos. See The New Shoebox: Organizing Photos into (Smart) Albums.

It also helps me think more critically as I’m evaluating the shots: I’m not deciding whether a given photo is just good enough to include in my library, I’m looking to see if it rises above the others. When I do encounter a shot that’s obviously no good, I mark it as rejected.

Tip: Reviewing and rating photos also requires a healthy dose of self-control. Believe me, you’ll want to stop rating and start editing. A crop here, some tonal adjustments there…resist that urge! It’s too easy to get lost in editing, taking you away from the review process. Spend too much time editing and the chances that you’ll abandon reviewing the rest of the shots increases. Try to stick to reviewing in one pass, and then you can spend all the time you want on editing later.

Labels and Flags

Star ratings aren’t the only options for judging photos. In Aperture and Lightroom you can apply color labels to photos as well. Aperture, Lightroom, and iPhoto additionally include a flag—an on-or-off label—for marking photos. Labels and flags act as an extra layer of metadata describing your photos, usually for specific purposes.

For example, you may want to assign a color label to photos belonging to a client or related to a particular job. Or maybe the labels signify steps in your editing process: regardless of rating, you could mark photos you want to edit first in red, less-important photos in orange, etc.

Flags act as labels for short-term actions. For example, I often use flags to mark photos I want to upload to Flickr, because it’s easy to quickly display only photos that have been flagged. In Lightroom, choose Library > Filter by Flag > Flagged Only, or click the Flag button next to Filter in the Filmstrip panel; in Aperture, press Control-/ or choose Flagged from the Search field’s pop-up menu (Figure 2); in iPhoto, select Flagged in the sidebar. When I’m done uploading the photos, I remove the flags.

Figure 2: Displaying only flagged photos in Aperture." />

Figure 2: Displaying only flagged photos in Aperture.

Tip: Lightroom also has a feature called Quick Collection, which is a permanent album that you can toss items into just by pressing B or choosing Photo > Add to Quick Collection. You get the benefit of assembling a group of photos without worrying about whether they’re flagged or rated. I sometimes use a Quick Collection when I’m in a hurry and want to set aside a handful of images to upload to Flickr.

Another way I’ve found labels and flags to be helpful is when reviewing a group of photos with someone else. After a vacation or other photo-heavy outing, my wife will often want to choose photos I’ve shot to share with family members. However, no matter how much I respect her opinion (she has a great eye), I don’t want her to change my ratings. Instead, she can label or flag photos she likes.

I want to reiterate that there are no solid rules regarding rating, labeling, or flagging photos. The software developers put the tools there for you to use as you wish, so you can determine your own rating system.

Cull Bad Photos

After you’ve passed judgment on your photos, you’ll end up with a set that probably includes a lot of one-star images, a few two-star images, and a sprinkling of three-star and four-star shots as well as some rejected or hidden ones.

The next question becomes: what to do with those unwanted photos? Some people don’t want to throw anything away, and fortunately the price of hard disks makes that possible. But are you really going to scan through your rejected photos someday to see if perhaps a hidden gem is there? Also, storage isn’t infinite, especially if you’re using an SSD. You have three options: do nothing, hide the photos, or delete the photos.

Do Nothing

Having rejected or hidden photos in your library isn’t going to hurt anything, and requires no more work on your part. The downside is that they occupy a lot of storage space on your hard disk; also, in Lightroom, you’re confronted with them whenever you scroll through your images. If they weren’t good enough to keep, why let them clutter the library?

Hide the Photos

Depending on your software of choice, you can hide the photos from view. For iPhoto and Photoshop Elements, hiding is your only choice. You can make them visible again easily enough: in iPhoto, choose View > Hidden Files; in the Elements Organizer, choose View > Hidden Files > Show All Files.

When you mark a photo as rejected in Aperture, it’s hidden by default; view rejected images by selecting the Rejected item in the inspector. (In Lightroom, rejected photos still appear in the library, but are dimmed. )

Tip: You can hide rejected photos in Lightroom, but it’s a little cumbersome. Choose Library > Filter by Flag > Flagged and Unflagged Photos. That makes all photos other than rejected photos visible. Then, when you reject a photo, it disappears from view.

The advantage to hiding photos is that they’re out of the way, but still around if you believe that nothing should be thrown out (or in case you realize that some blurry outtake is actually a fantastic abstract work of art). The disadvantage is that those hidden photos take up space on your hard disk.

Delete the Photos

If you really don’t want the bad image files stealing your disk space, delete them after you’ve gone through your initial pass. (You could also delete individual photos as you review them, but I think it’s more efficient to stay focused on finishing one task—rating and flagging—before moving to the next.) Each program treats deletions differently, so I’m including instructions for each application I mentioned in Chapter 3.


In Lightroom, choose Photo > Delete Rejected Photos. You’re given the option of removing the images from the library’s catalog (in case you want to hang on to the originals) or deleting the image files from disk; I recommend the latter.

  1. Choose the Rejected heading in the Library inspector.
  2. Select the rejected photos (press Command-A or choose Edit > Select All), and choose File > Delete. The images are put into Aperture’s Trash.
  3. Right-click (or Control-click) the Trash in the inspector and choose Empty Aperture Trash from the contextual menu.
  4. In the dialog that appears, make sure to check the option labeled Move Referenced Files to System Trash, and then click Delete.
Photoshop Elements
  1. Choose View > Hidden Files > Show Only Hidden Files.
  2. Select the hidden files and choose Edit > Delete from Catalog.
  3. In the confirmation dialog, mark the Also Delete Selected Item(s) from the Hard Disk checkbox.
  4. Click OK.
  1. Choose View > Hidden Photos. Unfortunately, iPhoto doesn’t offer a way to view only hidden photos.
  2. Select the hidden photos you want to remove (they appear with an X in the corner, Figure 3) and choose Photos > Move to Trash, or click the contextual menu button that appears when you move your mouse over the bottom-right corner of a thumbnail and choose Trash. The images are moved to iPhoto’s Trash.
  3. Click the Empty Trash button at the top of the screen. Or, right-click or Control-click the Trash item in the sidebar and choose Empty Trash.
  4. Click OK to confirm that you want to delete the items permanently.
    Figure 3: The photo on the right is marked as Hidden." />

    Figure 3: The photo on the right is marked as Hidden.

Read More: About [6] | Chapter 1 [7] | Chapter 2 [8] | Chapter 3 [9] | Chapter 4 [10] | Chapter 5 [11] | Chapter 6 [12] | Chapter 7 [13] | Chapter 8 [14] | Chapter 9 [15]