Many newcomers struggle with finding an efficient Lightroom workflow that effectively transforms newly taken photos into finished products. How you work with your images is a very personal thing and will vary from photographer to photographer. Over the past 10 years I have come up with my own workflow that will hopefully help give you some ideas to come up with your own.

In this article I am assuming you have a basic knowledge of Lightroom. I have left out some of the more basic details in order to keep this article to a reasonable length and have concentrated more on the actual Lightroom Workflow itself. I will include links to more detailed articles as I write more articles on the topic 😉

Lightroom Workflow Step 1: Import Your Photos

The Lightroom Classic import screen
The Lightroom Classic Import Screen

The first step in any Lightroom workflow is to get the images from your camera onto your hard drive and into the Lightroom database. There are a few important details to get right during the import process that will set you up for success later on.

This section may seem a little long at first – but most of these steps are ‘set once and forget’.

1:1 Previews

Always ensure that you create 1:1 previews when importing a batch of images. Doing so ensures that browsing images and zooming in to check if they are in focus happens lightning fast. If you don’t create 1:1 previews on import, Lightroom will do it on an ‘as needed’ basis and you will find yourself looking at a blurry image and a ‘loading’ message as it renders the file. It will only take a couple of seconds per photo, but it can be really frustrating when trying to quickly flick through images and is much better done at this stage of the Lightroom workflow.

Smart Previews

Generating Smart Previews is completely optional in any Lightroom workflow and will depend on your work setup. As I often work on a laptop that is disconnected from the hard drive that holds all of my RAW files, generating Smart Previews allows me to work on my images away from my desk.

Initial Metadata

In order to cut down on work later on, always make sure that you set a standard metadata template which contains basic copyright information. Also enter any keywords that apply to the entire set of images you are importing (eg, the location, event name, etc). You can see in the screenshot above that a number of keywords will be added to all of the imported photos.

Rename and Organise

It is important during the workflow to make sure that the files are being imported into the correct location. I have mine set up to be organised into folders by date in the format of: /YEAR/YEAR-MONTH-DAY. You can use whatever structure suits you best.

Step 1b: Put the images into a collection

I’m calling this Step 1b as I rarely need to do it.

If you are going to be working on images that requires more than a single import (say, from two memory cards), you should create a temporary Lightroom collection and drag all of the newly imported photos into it, along with any subsequently imported photos. This way you have an easy way to have them all in an easy to find location in Lightroom.

Once you’ve finished working on the photos you can just delete the collection if you no longer need it.

Lightroom Workflow Step 2: Cull The Rejects

Once the import process has completed and the previews built you will now go through each image and reject the ones that are so bad they should be deleted (c’mon, no one takes great photos 100% of the time, right?). Clearly out of focus, mis-composed, mis-exposed or otherwise junky photos will be eliminated at this stage.

For this step you will need to know a couple of keyboard shortcuts that will make life much easier:

Shortcut KeyAction
left & right arrow keysMove to the previous (left arrow) or next (right arrow) photo
XMark the photo as rejected
URemove flags (if you make a mistake)
tabshow/hide the Lightroom panels
(bonus) LDim the lights (press once to dim, twice to blacken and three times to go back to normal).

Mark Photos as rejected

Double click on the first image in the collection to bring it into a large ‘loupe’ view and press the tab key to maximise your view. For this step I have my right hand on the arrow keys to move between photos and my left hand over the X key. Each photo should take less than a second to evaluate. If there is clearly something wrong with the photo, hit the X key followed by the right arrow key to move to the next image. If there is nothing obviously wrong with the photo, just hit the right arrow key to move on.

After pressing the X key, a photo will be marked as rejected. It will show as dimmed in the grid view and will have a black flag applied to it (see below).

You can see the status of the flag by checking the toolbar. The screenshot above shows a rejected photo.

At this stage only the absolute rubbish shots are marked as rejected. Completely out of focus, Unrecoverable exposure mistakes, Subjects with parts cut off, etc. As these photos will be deleted later, if there is any question that the photo should be kept you should not mark it as rejected.

Delete the rejected photos

Once you have been through all of the photos you will then go back to the grid view by pressing G on the keyboard. Next go to the ‘Photo’ Menu and choose ‘Delete Rejected Photos…’ (or just press cmd/ctrl+delete) You will then have a choice between deleting them just from Lightroom or deleting them from your hard drive. Which option you choose is up to you. Deleting just from Lightroom will allow you to use the files again later, whereas deleting from the disk means they are gone forever.

Select the Photo menu

Lightroom Workflow Step 3: Rate The Keepers

Now you are left with just the photos you want to keep. The next step is to go through and give each one a star rating based on how likely the photo is to become a fully edited final image.

As with the previous step, the process is much easier with a few keyboard shortcuts:

Shortcut KeyAction
left & right arrow keysMove to the previous (left arrow) or next (right arrow) photo
caps lockturn on/off auto-advance to next photo (explained below)
tabshow/hide the Lightroom panels
spacebarzoom in/out to 100% view
number keys 1-5give photo a star rating (1 = 1 star, 2 = 2 stars, etc)
(bonus) LDim the lights (press once to dim, twice to blacken and three times to go back to normal).

Press the tab key to hide the Lightroom side panels and maximise the viewing area (pressing tab again will bring them back). Then the caps lock key to first turn on auto-advance. Caps lock is optional and will mean that as soon as an image is rated Lightroom will automatically move to the next image in the sequence and saves pressing the right-arrow key.

Double-click on the first image in the grid to fill the screen and give it a star rating based on the table below by pressing a number between 1 and 5. If you need to zoom into the image to check for focus accuracy hit the space bar key (pressing it again will zoom back out). If you have the caps lock key turned on then Lightroom will advance to the next image as soon as you give it a rating.

Each image should take somewhere between 2-5 seconds to evaluate.

The photos are rated as follows:

RatingWhen to use
1-starUninspiring Photo. Nothing technically wrong with the photo but probably not worth editing.
2-starOK Photo. May or may not turn into a final image. Heavy processing will be required to turn it into something you’d want to publish/share
3-starDecent Photo. Something you will likely want to process into a final image.
4-starGreat Photo. Very likely to become a ‘keeper’ image.
5-starOutstanding Photo. Should make you go ‘wow’ when you see it and is reserved for only the best images.

Lightroom Workflow Step 4: Add Keywords

Many people don’t use keywords, or will only keyword their final images. I find the process a little tedious, especially when I have several thousand images to process, but it is really important to be able to find images later on based on their keywords so I persevere.

In order to make this part of the Lightroom workflow as painless as possible, make sure you work in a methodical way. First, select all of the images and add keywords that apply to the entire photo set. Next, select large groups of similar images and add keywords that apply to all of them… then select smaller groups and do the same thing… adding more specific keywords as the groups get smaller until each image is done.

The Lightroom Keyword List

For example, for a group of nature shots taken in two locations in Canberra, Australia.

  1. Select all of the photos and add ‘Australia, Australian Capital Territory, Canberra, Nature‘ (all photos)
  2. Select all of the photos taken at Tidbinbilla and add ‘Tidbinbilla‘ (large group of photos)
  3. Select all of the photos taken at Namagi and add ‘Namagi‘ (large group of photos)
  4. Select all wildlife photos and add ‘Wildlife’ (large group of photos)
  5. From the Wildlife photos, select all bird photos and add 'Bird‘ (smaller group of photos)
  6. From the Bird photos, select all photos containing Cockatoos and add ‘Parrots & Allies, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua galerita)
  7. etc…

Each person will have different keyword requirements, but for my use, by the end of the keyboarding session each photo should have a full set of keywords that describes the following:

  • What is the photo of? (Bird, Building, Mountain, etc)
  • Where was the photo taken? (Country, State, Town, Area)
  • Who is in the photo? (People’s Names, Baby, Bride, etc)
  • Are any actions being performed? (Running, Jumping, etc)
  • What style of photo is it? (Black & White?, Landscape, etc)
  • Any other describing words that will help identify the photo

Lightroom Workflow Step 5: Edit Your Photos

Now the fun bit of any Lightroom workflow: turning your images into masterpieces. Firstly you will want to select all of your 5-star images (the best ones) to edit first. To do this just click on the ‘Attribute’ filter and click on the last star. You will need to make sure ‘equals’ is chosen by clicking on the symbol between the word ‘Rating’ and the stars (see below).

Select all photos with 5 stars

Now edit your 5-star photos to your heart’s content. I tend to pick random photos from the list and edit in any order. Once I’ve finished with a photo I will give it a ‘green’ label to indicate that I’ve already processed that one, making it easier to select the next photo that I haven’t yet touched.

From an image quality standpoint it doesn’t matter in which order you adjust the sliders in Lightroom. Lightroom has a set image processing pipeline that executes when you export or publish an image.

Once finished editing you can move on to Step 6 to export / print / share your 5-star images. Once you’ve done that you can repeat step 5 for your 4-star images, then 3-star and so on…

Lightroom Workflow Step 6: Export / Print / Share

Everyone will have a different requirement for this step. But once you’ve finished editing a batch of photos you can export, print and share them as you require. This is done via Lightroom’s ‘Publish Services’ section in the Library module, the ‘Export’ function and the ‘Print’ module. A later article will cover these in much more detail.

Screenshot of the Lightroom Publish Services Area
The Lightroom Publish Services area

Summary

Once you have imported photos and followed the Lightroom workflow outlined above a couple of times it will become second nature and will be quite a quick process (depending on your editing speed). The aim of any workflow is to have a consistent set of steps to ensure all of your requirements are met by the end of each editing session.

A quick overview of the Lightroom workflow:

  1. Import the images

    Get the images from your camera’s memory card onto your hard drive with as many time-saving options selected as possible

  2. Cull the rubbish images

    Go through and mark the junk images for deletion. Delete them either from your hard drive and/or Lightroom when you’re done.

  3. Rate the remaining images

    Give each image a star rating to weed out the best images from your worst and all those in-between

  4. Add keywords to your images

    In order to be able to easily find your images at a later date, add keywords to all of the photos

  5. Edit the photos

    Edit your photos to your liking. Start with the 5-star images and work your way down. Most 1-star and many 2-star images probably won’t get edited.

  6. Publish, Print and/or Share your images

    Using Lightroom’s inbuilt tools, export, print or share your now polished masterpieces with whomever you please.

  7. Go and take more photos

    Now go and take some more photos so you can repeat the process.

Do you have a similar workflow? Do you do something completely different? Please let us know in the comments below so you can help others design their perfect workflow.

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