Stars are Better than Hearts and Flags for Ranking Photos

Cliff and Canyon, Grand Canyon, Arizona. Nikon D800 with Nikon 70-200mm f/4G, 1/90 sec, f/8.0, ISO 200. Two-frame stitch.

Adobe Lightroom allows you to ‘Pick’ photos by flagging them. You can interpret ‘flagging’ or ‘picking’ a photo any way you want, but treating it as a way to mark your favorites (like using the heart on your phone) is pretty common. Lightroom also allows you to ‘Reject’ them, which is a handy way to mark them for the trash without actually putting them in the trash (yet). Its a simple enough system, which is why it has a lot of advocates.

Unfortunately, it is too simple to work well in practice.

The fundamental problem is all about math. Let’s say that you accumulate several thousand digital photos a year. In ten years, you have 25,000 photos. If you like 1 out of every 10 photos you keep in your catalog and flag it, then you end up with 2,500 favorite photos. Well, if you want to browse your “favorite” photos to put together a slideshow, for instance, it will take you 40 minutes to go through them all even if you only spend 1 second (!) on each of them. You can be more discriminating, choosing, say, 1 out of a 100 photos as favorites, but you also have a problem on the other side. You have too many non-favorites. Just because a photo is not an absolute favorite does not mean it isn’t worth keeping. This is especially true when it comes to family photos, but is also the case when you have a lot of photos about a particular topic or trip: many photos won’t stand alone to the point where you would put a print on your wall, but are great in a supporting role in a scrapbook or article. Or, while you would like to be able to easily find your best 20-30 photos of a trip to Colorado, only one or two of those pictures may be among your all-time favorites. Something more than favorite versus non-favorite is needed.

Adobe Lightroom allows you to rank your photos using 1-5 stars (as do other programs). In my catalog, every photo that I keep gets a 1-5 star rating. Here’s what they mean to me:

1: worth keeping
2: good
3: great; one of the best of an event/shoot/vacation/etc
4: all-time personal favorite
5: portfolio

A few comments. First, a photo can be worth keeping even if it is mediocre. It could be one of the few pictures you have of someone in your family or your childhood pet. I will often take a quick picture of trailhead signs, historical markers and maps/text/whatever at museums, national parks, etc., just for easy documentation of my photos. I may also keep a mediocre photo of something interesting or something I would like to come back and see again. And there are times when I need a photo of something for pure documentation purposes. All of these end up with one star.

Second, a photo can be worth keeping even if it is bad. I don’t usually keep bad photos, but sometimes I will keep a photo that would have been great if it had been in focus, had better light, or didn’t quite work out for whatever reason. If I want to keep it as something to learn from, or as an example, or as a reminder to do it differently next time, I may keep it. One star.

Basically, I allow myself the freedom to call anything I want one star without feeling like I need to defend the decision. It is easy to filter them out and pretend they are not there, so don’t agonize over it.

So, how do I actually go through the process of rating my photos from a particular event/trip/shoot?

Step 1. Go through every photo and either reject it (hitting X in Lightroom) or give it one star if you want to keep it (hitting 1 in Lightroom). Again, if it’s not very good, downright bad, or clearly inferior to similar photos, just reject it. If it’s the only picture of a wild mountain lion carrying a raccoon in its jaws that you have, just give the blurry thing one star and move on. The goal here is to not take too much time. When you are done, delete all the rejected ones and take a break.

Step 2. Go through all the one-stars again and figure out which ones to promote to two stars. Generally I will try to pick only the best one of every sequence. This may involve zooming in to check focus, etc. Sometimes I will promote two that are very similar if, for example, they had significantly different apertures, one was framed vertically and the other horizontally, etc. For photos that are not part of a sequence, you just have to decide whether it is a cut above the masses; if it is, promote it. During this step, when I am checking focus in detail, etc., I may belatedly reject a few that survived the first pass. After this pass, delete all the rejected ones and take a break.

Step 3. Now filter the photos down to just the two-stars and better. You should have a much smaller set of photos to work with at this point. Look at all the two-stars and just promote the best ones up to three stars. You are done! I don’t worry about handing out 4-star ratings at this point. Over time, you can decide whether any of these are absolute favorites or porfolio-worthy.

I recently spent a day hiking at the Grand Canyon. I don’t remember exactly how many photos I took that day, but it was in the 250-300 range. I rejected about half of them, so my Lightroom catalog now has 135 photos of the Grand Canyon distributed as follows:

1-star: 80 photos
2-star: 35
3-star: 17
4-star: 3

Over time, you may decide to promote or demote a few now and again, but it doesn’t really take too much work to get to this point. And the payoff is that when I really just want my all-time favorites, I can filter to 4+ stars. If I want to see all my really good ones, I can filter to 3+ stars. If that isn’t giving me enough choices, I can dig deeper and look at the 2+ stars. And so on. Obviously, if I am really interested in the Grand Canyon, I will be more likely to dig deeper so I have some choices.

I hope this helps!


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