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How to Use Lightroom Star Ratings to Improve Your Editing Workflow

Editing photos is time-consuming! The rule of thumb that it takes an hour of editing for every hour of shooting is not an exaggeration. You may find that sorting and grading your photos right after a shoot is one of the most tedious parts of your entire workflow – I know I do. Whether you are coming in from a long weekend of shooting wildlife or a busy day shooting a wedding, it is no small task to determine which photos to keep, edit, and store for later from a batch of a 1000 or more. Adobe Lightroom has several tools allowing you to sort, grade, and attribute your work to help you efficiently edit and store a photo. I will walk you through how I use the star-rating system to sort images for my editing workflow and long term archival storage.

Lightroom, Stars, Workflow, Help

My basic workflow is to import my images, use stars to curate the collection, edit the collection based on their ratings, keyword the collection, and then archive it.

Hot key stars

If you are thinking of stars as those little icons you click under an image to set the rating, let me change your world! Each star rating of 1-5 you can assign directly from your keypad! These “hot keys” are what makes the star rating system so convenient.

Your first assignment:

Open up Lightroom and select an image in your catalog. Now hit the “1” key on your keyboard. Lightroom tells you the image has now been assigned a rating of 1. With values ranging from 1-5, you can assign each value to an image for different things. Below, I’ll provide examples of how you may use these different values.

As a side note, Lightroom has hotkeys for everything. Learning them speeds up your workflow significantly; no matter which set of tools you are using to develop or print.

Lightroom, Stars, Workflow, Help

Lightroom has a star rating system which can be accessed under the thumbnail of each image in Grid View (G hotkey) in your Lightrom Library. Each image can be assigned a star rating of 1-5 by simply pressing the corresponding number on your keyboard. Using hotkeys will help improve your speed and make editing large photo shoots easier and faster!

Sorting files for deletion and advancing images to editing

Whether you are shooting wildlife, weddings, sports, or portraits the most important question you have after your import is: what photos do I keep? When shooting wildlife, you may have dozens of the same subject in slightly different settings or poses. At a wedding, you have many of the dance, but only a select few are going to make the cut to show your client, friends, or family.

You can use the star rating system to assign images for deletion. Why I prefer this over the “rejection” flag system is you can simultaneously start choosing what files to edit and which to delete using the range of values from 1-5 rather than the binary “yes” and “no” of the flag system.

Lightroom, Stars, Workflow, Help

There’s a lot going on during a wedding. When the day is all said and done you need to import the photos and then choose which you’ll keep, which you’ll develop, and which you’ll delete. Lightroom Stars can help you there.

Using Lightroom Stars to sort your work is easy and efficient.

Here’s a hypothetical situation: you import your photos and determine that a value of “0” (i.e., no rating) as photos to delete. You then decide that images assigned “1” are saved, but are a low priority for editing – perhaps these are b-roll images for applying general presets. You determine images set to “2” are developed immediately and images set to “4” are your best images. This multiple tier system ensures you only have to go through the images once and ideally not more than twice. That’s a huge time saver when dealing with large quantities of images!

I would recommend you avoid using “5” in your workflow. Reserve this for only your very highest quality images (more on that in the “Archiving content/ creating smart collections” section below.)

Once you’ve assigned ratings to all of the images, you can filter the image using the “attributes” filter while in grid view. Filter for all images = 0 stars to delete the images you no longer want and filter all images = 2 to start developing your shots.

Lightroom, Stars, Workflow, Help

Once you’ve chosen which photos to keep (rating 4) you can filter for them using the attributes filter in the Lightroom Library. Simply click “Attribute” and then set the rating to the image set you’d like to view.

Separating image content for keywording

If you are a wildlife photographer, and in particular if you are a bird photographer, it is very typical to change subjects (species) throughout the day. This may occur as much as every other shot. Once you’ve imported those images, it can be daunting to go about keywording your work so you can find them later. The star rating system can help you sort through them quickly!

Assign each star to a species and use your hotkeys to assign the star rating to that species. Once you’ve finished coding the species with stars, filter them using the attributes filter in Grid View and complete your keywording. You can then remove the star rating by highlighting the images and pressing the “0” key. There are many photography scenarios where you can apply this!

Lightroom, Stars, Workflow, Help

The diversity of birds creates a diversity of shots. It is critical to keyword your collection if you ever hope to find the images again. I used the star ratings assigned to different species to help sort them and keyword them.


Lightroom, Stars, Workflow, Help

Once a star rating has been set for a species filter for it to see all images with that rating. In this case, Marbled Godwit were given a temporary rating of 4, keyworded, and then the stars were reset for the image.

Archiving Content / Creating Smart Collections

Undoubtedly, you will create images you are proud of and want to save for future reference, printing, or portfolio work. As I eluded to above, these images should be assigned a value of 5 in your collection. Only a small percentage of your shots should achieve a rating of 5.

You can compile a portfolio of your best shots by establishing a smart collection in Lightroom. The smart collection automatically compiles all images in your catalog with a given attribute.

To create a smart collection right click on “Smart Collections” in Lightroom. Select create a new smart collection and then add the criteria for your collection. You can create a collection set from any attribute you can assign in Lightroom (e.g., stars, flags, keywords, etc.). As you go through the years, your 5-star collection set will continue to grow and document your progress and story.

Lightroom, Stars, Workflow, Help

You can create a smart collection to house your best work for printing or display by giving only your best images a rating of 5.


Lightroom, Stars, Workflow, Help

To create a smart collection you need to right click on Smart Collections and select create a new smart collection. Assign the attribute to the collection that you’d like it to contain. Simple as that!

That is it! I hope you see the value in using Lightroom’s star rating system in your workflow.

I’ll end by saying these steps are what work for me, but what works for you? Leave your thoughts on workflows in the comments below so we can learn together.

As I always say, “pixels are cheap!”. Be sure to make lots of them and then sort through them using Lightroom Stars.

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Ian Johnson
Ian Johnson

is a photographer, scientist, writer, wildlife biologist, musician, and woodworker located in Hoonah, Alaska. Described as a Renaissance Man, he lives and breathes the challenges and opportunities that life in rural Alaska can present. You can find him subsisting-in and photographing Alaska simultaneously. Ian writes a personal blog and sells print products on his website here.

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