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How to Review, Edit, and Sequence Photos in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:LongLanguages:
This post is part of a series called Better Photo Workflows: Post-Production.
In Defence of Presets: 5 Reasons to Automate Your Post-Production Workflow
Get Smart: Boost Your Workflow With Saved Searches in Adobe Lightroom
This post is part of a series called Photo Editing and Visual Sequencing.
How to Assess and Edit Your Photographs
Review, Rough Cut, Pick: Editing a Portrait Shoot in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

In our photo editing series we're getting down to business and the heart of the editing process. In this tutorial you'll learn how to review and select your best pictures, unlocking the hidden potential in your images.

Correct, Edit, Adjust, and Manipulate

Let's start by defining some key terminology. There are four distinct phases of post-production that we're concerned with for the purpose of this tutorial: image correction, photo editing, image adjustment, and image manipulation.

Image Correction: Not Too Anything

Image correction is the process of bringing your new digital files to a neutral, flat, and not-too-anything state. Correcting our images is an essential step before photo editing: good correction let's us evaluate our pictures in a clear and consistent way.

In Lightroom, image correction includes things like applying lens corrections, camera profiles, noise reduction, highlight and shadow recovery, and bringing up or down exposure for poorly exposed images. It also includes rough adjustments to white balance.

Photo Editing: Seeing Potential and Making Connections

Photo editing is the art of reviewing, selecting, and sequencing photographs. Editing is the final creative step of the photographic process, and the part of the process that we'll walk through later in this tutorial.

Because it is invisible to the viewer, editing is often misunderstood or overlooked by photographers. It's also very challenging to edit your own pictures. The ability to see good pictures in the editing stage is, however, an essential part of the photographic process.

Good editing is not just about making photo stories. Photo editing is also about seeing the hidden potential in images. From a practical perspective, editing is also the stage of post-production that can save you the most time. Fussing with pictures that aren't important is wasted effort, after all.

Image Adjustment: Creating a Look

Image adjustment is the process of creating a desired look and feel in a group of photographs. Adjustment happens only after you've selected a set of photographs to work on. When you adjust, you progress each photo in the group together through the stages of adjustment so that all the pictures in the group have the same look and feel.

Like editing, a significant part of adjustment is looking at your pictures and understanding their potential. What changes do the photographs need? What aspects do you want to emphasize, and what do you want to de-emphasize? What are you trying to communicate with your images?

In Lightroom, adjustment includes more controlled, but still global, changes: things like more specific white balancing, color balancing and toning, gentle changes to contrast, or black and white conversion. The purpose of adjustment is not to make a perfect image; the purpose of adjustment is to get a group of images looking good together.

Image Manipulation: Making Pictures Sing

Now that all your images are on the same page and looking how you want it's time to make each of them perfect.

This stage is what most people think of when they think of "editing." Technically, the work at this is a kind of editing: raster editing. Raster editing is the process of working with the actual image data, the pixels. Up until this stage, we've only worked with the RAW image in Lightroom. Everything so far has been tweaking RAW settings. Now you're actually changing the image.

Once we have a set of images that have all been corrected, edited, and adjusted it's time to leave Lightroom and open the RAW files in Adobe Photoshop. Raster editing is beyond the scope of this tutorial, so we'll leave it there and carry on with photo editing. Check out our tutorial on exporting from Lightroom for more information.

From here on out we'll call the process of working on the actual pixels image manipulation. Raster editing doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. From a creative standpoint, manipulation is also a more encompassing definition of what happens in this stage. Image manipulation in Adobe Photohop can take many different forms, from subtle to extreme, but all manipulations are fundamentally about conforming the image to your vision for a desired effect.

Alright, that's the process in broad strokes. Let's dig into the photo editing stage in more detail.

1. The Photo Assembly Process

The first part of photo editing is simply reviewing our images and getting rid of the bad ones.

Culling the Take

Culling is the process of evaluating your images and removing the ones you don't want. The cull is an effective workflow process because removing images saves time on all future steps. There's no sense in working on an image if it isn't worth looking at again.

The purpose of this step is to not to identify the best images, it's to identify the worst. At this point you're focused on removing the junk: blinks, misfires, impossibly over-or-underexposed images, and so on.

Perform your cull in the Library module. From the Grid (G), select the first picture and open up the Loupe (E) to evaluate the images, cycling through each, one by one, at full-screen view. Flag anything that can be discarded with a Reject (X) flag. From now on you can filter your images to hide the rejects from your collection display.

If you have a lot of pictures to review try turning on auto advance. Choose Photo > Auto Advance in the Library module. With auto advance on as soon as you add a flag or another label to an image Lightroom will immediately show you the next image. This speeds up the culling process considerably. I usually turn auto advance off for the later stages.

Making the Assembly

Before I spend any time adding more information or making corrections to the images I do a similar process to separate out the images worth keeping. I review my take quickly, looking at each image and making a quick judgment of it's potential. If a picture has any potential at all, if it sparks any feeling - even a feeling of uncertainty - it makes the cut and I give it one star (1).

Now you'll have a set of pictures that are rejected, have zero stars, and have one star.

The assembly is all the pictures that you've decided are worth paying attention to: one star. Sometimes the assembly is fairly large, and sometimes it is small. The size of your assembly depends on how much you photograph, how complicated the situation was, and why you were photographing. An assembly for a product shoot, for example, might be only a few files. A documentary project or a wedding, on the other hand, might have an assembly of several hundred images.

Cull Images Library Module
The cull is one of the most important parts of the digital workflow process. and I perform it in the Library module. Our goal here is to take images to the "Assembly" stage, where more finalized calls about an image's purpose will be made.

2. The Rough Edit

Usually you'll need to evaluate your images more than once. The assembly is a very quick initial review of your photographs. The second round of review is called the rough edit. This is where you compare images, look at details, and start to think about how pictures work with one another.

You may need only one rough edit, or you may need a few. The rough edit process is where you refine your collection of pictures and decided if an image really has what it takes. You can repeat the rough edit as many times as you need.

Using Stars for Nuance

All pictures essentially fall into two categories: images to keep and the rest.

If you don't know immediately whether an image is a keeper or not, fear not. Applying star ratings is an effective way to make the decision process smooth and consistent. Stars let you have first, second, and third pics on a given take, creating a hierarchy of "goodness" for your work. Filtering to one, two, or three stars allows you to quickly see your assembly (one star), rough edit (two stars), and final edit (three stars).

Rating to 5
Lightroom is an incredibly powerful tool with an entire toolbox of options for how we label our images. As your collection and processes grow, it's important to consider how you can use the tools to label your image collections.  Some photographers add star ratings to the images to make them easy to explore later on.

To add more stars your photos, use a similar process to the assembly. First, filter to the one star and higher images. Then move through these pictures one-by-one, and when a pictures stands out, give it a second star (2). If you have two similar images, use the Compare view (C) to see them side-by-side. The Survey (N) view lets you compare multiple images.

Once you've made your rough edit (two stars) you can make a second rough edit. Filter the images to two stars or higher and review again, this time applying three stars (3) to the selected images.

At this point, three stars, stop. Review your rough edit. Sometimes at this point you can demote an image back back to two stars, and sometimes you'll remember an image that has two but really should have had three.

Tagging & Meta-Tagging

Now that you've removed the rejected photos from your shoot and reduced your image pool to the keepers it's time to add some additional information to our selected files. By adding metadata to the image collection we greatly increase the usability of our catalog. By adding tags we can search and find images based on searches like "beaches" or "weddings." We do this through the power of keywords - a tool that no camera or computer can automatically add.

To understand the power of keywording, I highly recommend 3 Ways to Add the Power of Keywords to Images in Lightroom here on Tuts+ for a thorough guide to how to add keywords to your collection. Usually I apply three levels of keyword specificity: global keywords to images in the assembly (one star), more specific to the first rough edit (two stars), and even more specific to the last rough edit (three stars).

Saving Your Edit

Often it's handy to set aside images after you've edited so that you can revisit them later. I love using Collections to collect the images I'm currently working with and save my progress. Collections create a "virtual folder" that exist only inside of Lightroom, and we can quickly navigate into that folder to focus on those images. Any image can belong to an infinite number of Collections.

When I create a collection, the first thing that I do is select the images I want to add in the Library module, typically in Grid (G) view.

To get started with collection building, switch to the grid view and multi-select images. You can click an image, hold shift, and select the last image in a sequence to select all of the images in between. 

Select Images Library Module
The first thing I do to create a collection is select the images I want to add to it. In this case, I've picked a few images of a pier that I want to start a collection with.

After you've got a set of images selected that you'd like to add to add to a new collection, press the "+" button on the Collections panel and choose Create Collection.

Create Collection Button
On the left side of the Library module, press the plus button on the "Collection" panel and choose "Create Collection."

After you've launched the Create Collection dialog, you can choose to include selected photos (leave this checked) and add a description.

Create Collection Button
On the final screen, make sure "include selected photos" is selected, and press "Create."

Once you've created a new collection, it will appear in the Collections panel on the left side of Lightroom's Library module.

New Collection Created
Once you've created a new collection, it's available on the left side of the Library module on the Collections panel, where you can instantly select the images in it by clicking its name

3. The Final Edit

Once you're satisfied that you have your picks, it's time to make a final edit.

It's tempting to rough-edit forever, never settling on a choice of pictures, but this is a waste of time. No set of pictures is every really perfect. You'll always be able to look at your set and say "what if...?" Don't. It takes discipline to be okay with imperfection. Accepting that our work isn't perfect, and never will be, is a big part of being efficient. Don't get stuck in too-much thinking about potentiality.

Marking Your Edit

Flags are my selected system for choosing the images that I ultimately want to keep. By default, all images have no flags. We covered the Reject flag above. Now we'll mark our final images as Picks (P).

Film strip flag status
On the film strip, we can see the small icons in the upper left hand of the preview that shows that image's flag status. From left to right, we see an image flagged as a pick, an image flagged as a rejected photo, and a photo that has no flag status.

Once you've added those flag statuses, you can filter to pick images using the filter dropdown. This is located just above the filmstrip at the far right side of any module:

Filter-to-flags GIF

Collections and Sequencing Your Edit

Once your pictures are part of a collection you can do some neat things with them. Best of all, when you are working with files in a collection you can rearrange the order to create custom sequences that tell a story with your images.

In the Library module, get started with custom sequencing by ensuring that the toolbar is showing by pressing "T" on the keyboard. Then, change the "sort" to "user order."

After you've changed the sort to "user order" you can drag and drop images to any order that you would like. You can then export images in the same order to tell a story the way you wish to sequence it.

Variations and Collections Sets

You can make multiple similar collections for different variations, and store them together as part of a Collection Set. These sets are another hierarchy to organize your image library. Collection Sets are folders to put Collections inside of.

Create a set by pressing the "+" button in the upper right corner of the Collections panel and select Create Collection Set...

Next, you can simply drag and drop a collection into the collection set to place collections inside of the set.

Drag and drop collection into set

If you're already using collections to organize your image library, you're a step ahead of many photographers. Once you add another level of organization with a collection set, your images will be more organized than ever.

Wrapping Up

But, I can hear you saying, what about four stars and five stars? Yes, I haven't touched those. Over time, it's useful to have some space for your collection to grow. I reserve four and five for larger collections like long term projects, books, and portfolios that might span any number of individual collections.

Another decision to make when culling is what to do with your "rejected" images. Will you keep them on your computer, or delete them entirely? In my workflow, I usually retain all images from a shoot until I deliver to a client, and then dispose of all reject images sometime after I receive confirmation that the client is satisfied.

The process described in this tutorial is the essential cornerstone of a methodical photo editing workflow. As we've continued the process of exploring the digital workflow, we've progressed from setting up and structuring our data to beginning the image management and editing processes. These are key to scalability, or the ability to handle the growth of your collection.

You'll notice that in this tutorial we haven't done a thing to change the look of our pictures. We've spent a fair amount of time evaluating them, though: thinking about their potential, what to do with them, how they should look. This previsualization is the most important product of the editing stage. Previsualization will save us a lot of time when we start the next stage, image adjustment.

Recap

This goal with tutorial is to get you thinking about how you see picutres. Taking images from start to finish is complicated, and it's easy to get lost. Adding a bit of structure is fundamental to keeping your photography manageable. More importantly, though, photo editing its the foundation of the ability to see the potential in your own pictures.

Photo editing - seeing pictures -  is a skill that takes time to develop, but the workflow outlined here will help.

Over time, adding a disciplined approach to photo editing will make taking pictures easier, too. Editing your own photography with a critical eye is one of the the best ways to learn from your photographic experiences.

So, to conclude, the photo-editing phase of post-production has three major steps:

  1. The Photo Assembly, where images are culled and then "assembled" into a cohesive set of images
  2. The Rough Edit, where our image selections are further refined with star ratings
  3. The Final Edit, in which our images become sequenced and ready for delivery

See Also

In Review, Rough Cut, Pick: Editing a Portrait Shoot in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Harry Guinness and Jackson Couse demonstrate the process above in a real-life portrait situation.

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