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Unlocking the Power of Lightroom Color Labels

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This post is part of a series called Adobe Lightroom Workflow: Import, Edit and Beyond.
Shooting Stars: Rating and Filtering Pictures in Lightroom
Building a Location Database with Lightroom

Unlocking the power of Adobe Lightroom is all about using the program's built-in tools. With Lightroom's metadata abilties, it's easy to manage a huge collection of images. One of these tools is the color label system. In this tutorial, you'll learn how you can apply those color labels to your images and take your workflow to the next level.

What are Color Labels?

Color labels are one of my favorite tools for adding context to my images in Lightroom. With color labels, you can add simple tags to your images so that they can easily be found again later.

Five color labels in Lightroom
Color labels can be added to any image in a Lightroom catalog. You have free reign to give these labels whatever meaning you wish to use. Many photographers will use specific colors to choose images to be exported to Facebook or delivered to clients. Tools like color labels give you plenty of power in Lightroom to separate and tag images.

The best part about color labels is that they mean whatever we want them to. If you want to use a red label for images to post to Instagram, you can do that. If you want to use green labels for photos you want to print, you can do that too. If we tag all the images we want to post to Facebook with a blue label, we can filter to those images and run a quick export. With color labels, you can shape the tool to your needs. Adding the color labels to a group of images sets those images aside so that they can be easily selected later.

How to Add Color Labels

I add color labels to my photos in either the Library or Develop modules. To add a color label, start off by selecting an image. Number keys on your keyboard can be used to add the color labels. You can add a red label by pressing 6, a yellow label by pressing 7, a green label by pressing 8, and a blue label by pressing 9**.

An alternate way to add color labels is by selecting an image and choosing Photo > Set Color Label from the menu. You'll also notice that this allows you to add an additional color label - purple - that isn't available with the keyboard shortcuts.

Selecting color labels from the menu
Color labels can also be added from the Photo menu. Red, yellow, green and blue labels can be added from keyboard shortcuts, but purple labels are available only on the Photo menu.

You can accelerate the process of adding labels by turning on auto advance. This allows you to add a color label and then immediately see the next image, ready for a label of its own. To turn on auto advance, make sure you're working in the Library module and choose Photo > Auto Advance. Doing so will allow you to add the color labels one after another.

Filter to Color Labels

After you've spent the time building up your label system in Lightroom, you'll want to take advantage of the power by filtering for those color labels.  

To apply color label filters, start by clicking Filter, shown below the panels on the right side of Lightroom. After doing so, you'll see new buttons that represent each color label. Clicking any of these will filter to images with that color label. Keep in mind that you can combine these color labels so that you can filter to red and green labeled images, for example.

Filtering color labels
If you don't already see the thumbnails for the color labels, click filter to open the option to filter images based on color label.

Other Systems

Lightroom has other tools that allow us to add meaning to our images. Many photographers prefer to use color labels with other tools for tagging images, such as stars and flags. Using colors with flags and stars can add layers of context to our images - each meaning different things about the images that they are attached to.

Stars

Many photographers use the stars rating system to categorize their images. Lightroom allows you to rate an image from 1 to 5 stars. You can add the stars to your image by pressing the corresponding rating 1-5 on your keyboard.

Adding stars to your images
In this image, I've clicked the five stars filter to show only the images that I've rated with five stars. This system is used by many photographers to classify their favorite images.

Stars are a great system, but their use is more hierachical than color labels. Adding a star rating is typically an endorsement of the quality of the image.

Flags

Flags are another system to add context to our images. Lightroom gives us three options for how to use flags with images: flagged as pick, flagged as reject, or unflag.

Flags are more straightforward than stars, but less flexible than color labels. Personally, I use the flag system to simply decide which of my images are keepers and which images I won't deliver to my clients. Later on, I can add ratings or color labels for additional options on how to view my images. Flags are usually my first pass through the images, simply selecting which images are worth keeping by adding a flag.

Personal Preference

As I mentioned above, the systems above can be used in combination. I use flags on every set of images I process to determine which images can be kept, but that doesn't stop me from adding other tags such as color labels. 

Color labels have a place in my workflow because I can design different ways to apply them. On one collection of images, a red label may mean images to use as sneak peaks for clients, while in another collection I may use that same label to indicate images that should be printed at a later time. In short, color labels are a flexible, nimble way to filter your images on the fly.

Wrapping Up

This tutorial is meant to get you thinking about ways to use Lightroom's color labels to apply meaning to your images. Every photographer's personal workflow stlye differs and I encourage you to experiment with your own system.

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