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Ways to Use Lightroom to Find Photos Worth Revisiting

ways to easily use lightroom yo find photos worth revisiting

I don’t have to tell you these are abnormal times. Like many others in every profession, photographers are experiencing a huge decrease in business due to stay-at-home and social distancing restrictions. While we hobbyist photographers may not rely on photography for our income, we just aren’t getting out as much to take pictures. So, maybe this is the time to go “back to the mine” (your photo archives), to see if you’ve overlooked some diamonds in the rough worth revisiting. Let’s take a look at how to use Adobe Lightroom to find photos you might have passed over. Also, how to use it to do some cleanup you just never got around to before.

Use Lightroom to find photos you might have passed over.  You could discover you have some diamonds in the rough just needing polishing.
I’d passed this shot by after an edit session I did years ago following a trip to Trillium Lake in Oregon. Now, using Lightroom to find photos I’d passed over, I found it was a diamond in the rough, simply needing some polishing.

See if this describes you

You’re a photographer and make photos pretty routinely on trips, photoshoots, studio sessions, weddings, portrait work, or whatever genre of photography you do.

You make dozens, if not hundreds of images, during just a single shoot.

Then, you want to quickly edit and get the best shots to your client, perhaps print some, or post the best to social media. When done, you’ve cherry-picked the best shots, edited them, wrapped up and moved on.

Left behind on your drive are perhaps the other 95-percent of shots that didn’t jump out at the time. There are quite possibly some good images still there that might only take a little extra editing to polish up, diamonds in the rough as it were.

Perhaps the shots were taken years ago, maybe even with lesser cameras, but now with more editing experience, you have skills to bring them to life.

There are also photos you’ll never use. Trash that just never got taken out. Images just taking up room on your hard drive.

Let’s cover how to use Lightroom to find photos, flag them for a second look or clean them out.

Get a DAM

Lightroom is a very capable photo editor, but there’s little dispute that Photoshop is the more powerful program for really serious photo editing.

Other programs have also risen to the forefront; Skylum Luminar, Phase One Capture One Pro, Corel Paintshop Pro, DXO Photolab, and ACDSee Ultimate. The list is growing and joined by many free and quite capable photo editing programs.

Lightroom flagging, rating, and color-coding tools
Using the Flags, Star-Ratings, and Color Codes in Lightroom is a great way to better manage your photo library.

One of the greatest strengths of Adobe Lightroom, however, is as a Digital Asset Management (DAM) tool.

In layman’s terms, that means it does a great job of organizing your photos, helping you search for images using keywords, ratings, color-codes, flags, collections, filters, and other means of organizing, sorting, and searching. At its core, Lightroom is a database program.

Many photographers who have spent years learning Photoshop still use that tool for most of their editing but are now looking to Lightroom as a partner program for organizing their photo libraries. What they had previously done with Adobe Camera Raw and Bridge can be done with Lightroom, which if desired, can simply send images out to Photoshop for editing or be used as an editor and more.

A jealous secretary

A concept many new Lightroom users find hard to grasp is that the photos you work with while using it are not “in” Lightroom. Lightroom is strictly a note-taker, a “secretary” to use that term, that records everything about an image; where it is, the metadata, how you’ve rated, flagged, color-coded, keyworded, and otherwise tagged it.

When you edit a photo in Lightroom, each and every step of that edit, text data, is stored in what is called the “catalog.” Your images are never altered, Lightroom just appends “notes” to them.

I tell you that to tell you this – Lightroom is a “jealous secretary.” She will keep meticulous notes about everything you do with your images, so long as you use “her” to do the work.

If you work with your images outside of Lightroom, say using the File Explorer in Windows or the Finder on a Mac, you are essentially working “behind Lightroom’s back.” She will let you know it too, losing track of where your images are and what you’ve done to them.

Ever see a “?” mark on your Lightroom photo or folder? That’s your secretary scolding you. There are ways to recover from this, but my recommendation is if you are going to use Lightroom as your DAM program, keep your jealous secretary happy and do all your image management with her exclusively.

Lost folders or photos in Lightroom.
Question marks on folders of photos in Lightroom means the program can’t locate the item. This will happen when you use tools outside of Lightroom to move or change your image.

A culling session

If culling is not a term familiar to you, here’s a dictionary definition: “A selection of things you intend to reject.”

In Lightroom, one of the first things you need to do to work with images is to “import” them. This is sometimes where people become confused. An “import” in Lightroom is simply a means of telling the program where your images are.

Let’s use two examples of how this might work.

  1. Returning from a shoot, I have my images on my camera card. I pull the card from the camera, put it in a card reader, open Lightroom and using the Import process. Here, I copy the files from the card to a location on a computer hard drive, be it an internal or external drive. Lightroom copies the images to that location, builds thumbnails for them, and stores the information in its catalog.
  2. I already have the photos somewhere on one of my computer drives. I use the Import function of Lightroom to Add the photos to the LR catalog. Lightroom does not move or copy anything, it simply now has information about those images and where they are.
Using the Lightroom Copy method of Importing
If you are importing images from a camera card into Lightroom and want it to copy them to a location on your hard drive, the “Copy” method is what you want.

In both scenarios, the photo files are not “in” Lightroom, and not in a subfolder of that program. They are wherever you chose to store them. However, now your “LR secretary” is keeping track of them.

Using the Import Add method of bringing images into Lightroom
If your images are already on one of your computer drives and you simply want to be able to work with them in Lightroom use the Import “Add” function, not the “Copy” function.

Once visible in Lightroom, the temptation is to look through them and start editing the ones that jump out at you. I’ve done that many times, in a hurry to get to the obvious “nuggets” and start editing them.

Instead, I’d like to introduce you to a way to more formally, and with greater organization, go through a folder of images.

The proper way to do this is when you first start working with that new folder of images. But, if you are like me, you might not have known to, were lazy and impatient, or for whatever reason just didn’t do this. No worries, it’s not too late for a proper culling session.

Here are the steps:

  • Go to the folder where you have the images. You should be in the Library module of Lightroom and in the grid view (Hit “G” on your keyboard) so you can see all of your images.
  • Do some folder-level keywording. If all of the images in the folder were, for example, taken at the beach, you might want all of them to have that keyword to aid in searching later. Hit Ctrl (Cmd on Mac) A to select all of the images. Then click in the Keywords section at the right and type in the keywords you want. If you want more than one to apply to just certain selected images, pick those first and then use a comma between them. i.e., Fireworks, Still-Life, Sparklers.
Keywording an entire folder of images in Lightroom
This entire folder of images were shots of fireworks, so I selected all images in the folder and added the keyword “Fireworks.”
Multiple Keywords in Lightroom for Selected Images
Selecting several images within the folder, I added additional keywords – Still-Life, and Sparklers. You can have multiple keywords for an image if you separate them with a comma.
  • Time to quickly go through your images one-by-one. To move faster through the images, first, turn on Auto-Advance. You can either turn this on by going to Photo in the top pulldown menu and selecting Auto Advance or simply by holding down the Shift key while you work. Now bring up just the first image in Loupe View (Hit the Enter key).
  • For this first pass, you want to flag the images you want to keep and cull out the ones you know you’ll never use. Viewing each image, hit either the “P” key to flag the image as a Pick or “X” key to reject it.
  • If you just can’t decide, the right arrow key “>” to move on.
Flagging images as Picks or Rejects in Lightroom and using Auto Advance to move through them.
To quickly cull your images in Lightroom, turn on Auto Advance and then use the “P” key to flag an image as a Pick, the “X” key to mark it as a Reject, or just use the Right Arrow Key to move to the next image with no flagging. Note the white flags are picks, the black flags with an X are rejects.

Try to be selective here. This does not immediately throw out any images and you can change your mind later. However, your objective ought to be to do some serious housekeeping, X-ing out the images you are unlikely to ever use, and Picking the ones you will probably want to edit later.

Everyone is different. Some people are tidy and have no problem tossing things out they don’t expect to use. Then there are folks like me, packrats for whom this is a tougher task.

Time to be brave. You can check to see which images you flagged with an “X” as rejects if you like. Hit “G” to go back to the Grid view. Now using the Library Filter (top of the grid), click the word “Attribute” and then click the Black flag. This will show the images you flagged as Rejects with the “X.” You can take another look at these if you have to and if you decide it is not one you want to be rejected, hit the “P” key to change it back to a Pick.

Taking out the trash

So let’s get rid of the rejects. To see what you flagged with an “X” as a reject, hit Ctrl- Backspace (Cmd on Mac). You will see two options:

  • Delete from Disk – This will permanently delete the images from your hard drive. You might still find them in your recycle bin if you accidentally pick this, but consider this the trash for the most part.
  • Remove from Lightroom – The files will remain on your drive, but you will no longer see them in Lightroom. This is the safer option if you are unsure, but it’s also like just putting your garbage in the hall closet. If you plan to clean the house, do it and don’t look back.
The warning message will pop up when you are about to delete your rejected photos.
Decision time. After you’ve using the culling step to flag your Picks and Reject images, hit Ctrl-Backspace. This question will appear. You can delete your rejected images entirely or, simply remove them from showing up in Lightroom but retain them on your drive. Choose wisely.

Colors and flags and stars, oh my!

If you were disciplined, using the Pick and Reject options helped you separate the wheat from the chaff, getting rid of things you’ll never use and perhaps freeing up all kinds of space on your hard drives. So now let’s use some tools to go a little deeper, helping you to organize and find images warranting further work.

Lightroom lets you tag photos with several different things to add in organizing, sorting, filtering, and finding them. Let’s look at the options.

  • Sorting – There are many different ways to sort your images in the Library view of Lightroom. This doesn’t change anything but simply allows you to see them in whatever sort order you like. Some are obvious, like sorting by Capture time so you can see the images in the order you took them. Others, like sorting by aspect ratio, are less obvious but sometimes very useful. Say you need an image for a magazine cover and want a portrait-orientation image. Sorting by aspect ratio is the ticket. Explore what this very simple option can do for you.
Finding photos with Lightroom - sorting by aspect ratio
Using the Sort by Aspect Ratio option can be handy if you want to group your portrait and landscape orientation images together.
  • Color – You can flag your photos with any of five different colors (Red, Yellow, Green, Blue or Purple). What each color signifies is strictly up to you. Maybe you want to flag all of your very best images with Red, your Landscapes with Green, your images you want to edit with Yellow – whatever you like. To flag an image, click on the image(s) you want that color applied to, then click on the color patch you want to apply that color tag to. You can also use the keyboard shortcuts – 6-Red, 7-Yellow, 8-Green, 9-Blue. There is no number shortcut for Purple.
Finding photos with Lightroom - Sort by Color
If you’ve used color codes to identify different photo types, sorting by color can be useful.
  • Star Rating – How to apply a star rating is easy. When on an image, just click the number key for the rating you want to assign or use the star symbol on the toolbar at the bottom. What a certain rating means…that’s your call. Is a 5-star image your best ever? Is a 1-star image one that barely escaped deletion? What does a 3-Star rating mean? Whatever you come up with, be consistent and the rating system will be more useful.
Finding photos with Lightroom
Come up with your own scheme of using the star-rating in Lightroom and then sort by rating.
  • Flags – We already discussed flags earlier. Basically, they are a way to mark an image as a pick or a reject. Use several or none. You can use these tagging tools singularly or in combination, depending on how you choose to mark up your images. For example, a really great landscape photo might be a green, 4-star, flagged as a Pick image. The power comes in how once marked up, you can filter and sort your images.

Finding, filtering, and sorting

So you’ve cleaned up your folders, eliminated the rejects, and flagged your images with color codes, star ratings, and perhaps added some keywords. (We didn’t get into keywording much as that can be an art unto itself. I refer you to this article to learn more about the power of this tool).

Now we want to use this organization to help us find all our best lighthouse images taken in the past three years, for example. If we were good about marking up our images, we might have put the keyword “lighthouse” on them, flagged them with red (which we decided were our best photos), or maybe just made our top images 5-star.

How do we use the markups to find what we seek?

Use Lightroom to find photos with ratings, color codes, and keywords.
Creative use of the Library filter in Lightroom can bring up just the image you’re looking for if you’ve properly labeled your images with star ratings, pick flags, color codes and keywords. Here, I was looking for all my photos that had the keyword Lighthouse, were 4-star images, and color-coded red.

The better you are at marking-up your images, the greater the degree of precision you will have in finding that needle in a haystack when it comes time for that. I personally have over 100,000 images in my Lightroom catalog. (That’s a big haystack!) So, to use Lightroom to find photos requires some creativity with the Library filtering tool.

You will be able to search through basic things you may have added; keywords, file names, folder names or anyplace else where text might be. You can search your Attributes, the star ratings, color codes, flags.

Another very powerful Attribute is being able to search for unedited photos. Note the filter selection in the image below. Using that icon, I can have Lightroom show all photos for which Lightroom has no edit history.

If I bring up a folder with images that were edited elsewhere before coming into Lightroom, they will also show up as unedited. But, assuming this is a folder with images that have been brought in directly off your camera card and never been touched with anything other than Lightroom, this is a fantastic way to show those “passed over nuggets” we might want to revisit.

Use Lightroom to find photos.  Need to see all the images in your Library you've not edited?  Easy with the Lightroom Library filter.
Using the Library filter, I’m able to see all the images for a particular year shot with my Canon 6D that are unedited by Lightroom. Creative use of the Text, Attribute, and Metadata filter in the Library Filter function of Lightroom can tell you much about your images and help you find that missing needle in the haystack.

Searching through metadata can also be a powerful way to find photos. Without you even having to enter any information, your camera captures a wealth of data about each image it takes. (Have a look at my article on Irfanview which gets into metadata.)

So, say you’re still looking for those lighthouse photos, but you never put keywords on them. Searching for “lighthouse” isn’t going to help. But say you do know you took the photos on a trip in September of 2017 and shot them with your Canon 6D. Putting just that information into the search filter in the Library module should greatly reduce the size of the “haystack.”

The more precise you can be with your search parameters, the more precise your search will be. Explore all the search options in the Text, Attribute, and Metadata areas and how using them in combination can greatly help you find what you seek.

Become a Collector

Using the Library filter is a great way to search through your photos when you’re looking for something, particularly an ad hoc search for something you don’t need to find often. When you really want to tap the power of the database that is Lightroom, Smart Collections are really cool. First, let’s describe what a Lightroom collection is.

Say you like to take pictures of flowers. Even when you’re out on some other kind of shoot, when you see a nice flower, you take a shot. Thus, you have flower pictures scattered throughout your folders. Now, how would it be to see all of those in one place, without having to move, copy, or duplicate anything? That’s what a Lightroom collection can be, a “pointer” to images that groups them all into one “folder” without moving anything.

There are two kinds of collections in Lightroom.

The first is a regular collection. You can add the photos manually. You can drag them from their folder location to a collection you have set up. Alternatively, if you designate a collection as the “Target collection,” while viewing that image in the Library module, you can just hit the “B” key on your keyboard to add the image to the target collection. You can also select multiple images in the Library module, hit the “B” key to add them all to the target collection.

Remember that nothing really moves, no duplicates get made, no additional drive space is needed. Collections are virtual – only pointers to the original files.

Collections can be very handy. When I’m gathering photos for an article, I will often create a Lightroom collection with the title of the article, make it the target collection, and then as I prowl through my library looking for photos I might want to use, I hit the “B” key on the keyboard and they are added to the collection. Fantastic!

Be a Smarter Collector

Collections are a great tool, but we can go a step further.

Let’s go back to our flower photos example. If I took some flower shots every time I did a shoot, I want them to automatically show up in my Best Flowers collection without any additional work on my part? A smart collection uses filters and conditions like the Library filter but runs continuously in the background.

To set up a new Smart Collection, go to the Collections tab in the panel on the left side of Lightroom. Click the + symbol. Select Create a Smart Collection. Then use the controls in that menu to set up the parameters defining what will be selected.

So, if I set up a smart collection, name it “Best Flowers” and use the parameters where, for example, keywords contained “flowers” and the rating was 3-stars or above, any photo added meeting those conditions automatically appear in that smart collection without any additional work by me. Once built, your smart collections just work silently in the background of Lightroom. (I would just have to remember to be diligent about rating and keywording my flower photos each time I had some new ones brought in.)

Ways to Use Lightroom to Find Photos Worth Revisiting
Once you set up the parameters for a Smart Filter in Lightroom, it will watch for any images that meet those qualifications and add them to the collection. Here, I have a filter that looks for photos with the keyword “Flowers” that are rated 4-stars or higher. Now, if I’m good about rating and keywording my flowers photos as I take them and import them into Lightroom, they will automatically be added to this collection

Another great use for a smart collection – make one to show all your unedited photos, wherever they might be in your library.

Set your smart collection parameters to something like my example below. It has the Has edits set to False, the camera as the one I’m interested in, my Canon EOS 6D, the File Type Raw, and the Pick Flag is on.

Now, unedited images I’ve flagged as Picks will immediately show up here as soon as I imported them in Lightroom. As I edit them, they will fall off this list. Think of this kind of Smart collection as your “In Box” of photos for editing.

I can also use the other tools and filters we’ve discussed to determine if I will keep them at all. I can do additional culling here if I decide I won’t edit them and perhaps delete them.

Ways to Use Lightroom to Find Photos Worth Revisiting
Use a Lightroom Smart Collection to act as your “In Box” telling you which photos need editing. I’ve set this Smart filter to add photos that are not edited (Has Edits is False), where the file type is Raw, I’ve flagged the photo as a Pick, and the photos were taken with my Canon 6D. Smart Collections can be very powerful and the beauty is, as collections are strictly virtual, there’s no need for additional copies, folders, or duplicates that would take up more drive space.

Also, remember images in a collection are just pointers to the original files. So if you click on an image in a collection and open it in the Edit module to make changes, you are also editing the photo in the folder where it really lives.

Polishing up the diamonds

When you can’t be out taking more photos, a good use of your time might be to use Lightroom to find photos worth revisiting.

I’m betting that you’ve passed over many diamonds in the rough, and a trip back through the mine that is your photo library will yield some yet undiscovered treasures. Happy prospecting. For now, stay home, be well, and “Live long and prosper.”

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Rick Ohnsman
Rick Ohnsman

Photography isn’t just a hobby, it’s an adventure! Photography is about sharing my personal vision. From the ’70s, with a film SLR and a garage darkroom, college work with 4×5 view cameras, Kodachrome slides and into the digital age, I’ve pursued photography for over 45 years. An enthusiastic member of the Boise Camera Club, I share this common passion and enjoy teaching new members. See my work here – on 500px and on instagram.