Ratings are a kind of metadata used to tag images for quality. They can help you find the best images in a collection. Ratings can also help you focus your work on the best images in your collection.

Prioritizing images with ratings
Using ratings to find images
Developing your own ratings system
Ratings metadata
Refining ratings over time
Using ratings to cull
Filtering instead of deleting images

Prioritizing images with ratings

Rating is the evaluation of images based on relative quality. This is what you do when you look through a group of images and indicate that some are better than others. Unlike some metadata, the rating is a purely subjective tag. You may love an image while a close associate does not like it so much. We suggest that you develop a system for adding rating stars to images that is well thought out, and that produces a pyramid, as shown below.

Ratings are one of the most valuable forms of higher metadata — in many ways they are the key to a streamlined digital workflow. By using ratings comprehensively, you make your best images easily discoverable, even if your collection is very large. A systematic use of ratings also lets you focus more of your time on your best pictures, since they will be so easily identified. You are likely to spend a lot more time perfecting a four-star image than a one-star image.

Figure 1This video illustrates how ratings can be used in a collection to show only the best images, and how ratings can be combined with other metadata fields.

Using ratings to find images

Ratings, keywords, and other groupings are different categories of evaluation that can be used together, narrowing your searches to a small number of likely results. For example, if you are looking for “good pictures of Josie” for some purpose, your work assigning ratings, keywords, and groupings can be very helpful. If you use a comprehensive rating system, you can define the concept of “good” by the rating (eg all three-star or better images) and the concept of Josie by the keyword "Josie". (You might also want to expand the search for all images tagged with "Family" or "Krogh", if you have not been using the Josie tag regularly.)

In general, when searching for images, you will first want to look through pictures with the highest rating. If you are unable to find a suitable image among those, you can move down the pyramid, broadening your search to include images with the next-highest rating, and so on. By using ratings this way, you can instantly reduce the size of the haystack you are looking through in order to find your needle.

star pyramid Figure 2The ratings pyramid. Ratings are most effective when used to float the best images to the top of the collection.

Developing your ratings system

Ratings are most useful if they mean the same thing collection-wide. We suggest that you develop your own system for ratings, and use it as consistently as possible. Here are a few suggestions for developing your system:

  • Try to keep your collection pyramid shaped. The most valuable images in your collection should be the easiest to find. Think of ratings as a way to float the best images to the top of the collection.
  • Allow for growth. If you plan on producing photography for a long time, your collection will get larger. Just because there are five ratings stars, does not mean you need to use all five now.
  • Don't try to make ratings mean too much. We strongly suggest that you use ratings to mean general levels of quality (whatever that means to you.) Ratings also get very confusing if you want them to mean something like "Art Director Favorite". Use another tag, such as a label or keyword to save that type of descriptive information.

Here's a sample of some ratings definitions:
-1 Star: Reject or Outtake Image – may be deleted at a later date
0 Star: Image is not deleted, nor shown to client (Use this for diary images, pano or HDR elements)
1 Star: Image is presented to client
2 Star: Image is best-of-shoot, will be recommended to client
3 Star: Best of Collection image (Use the third star once the 2 Star category gets too crowded, and images need to stand out)
4 Star: Portfolio (Use this when 3 Star category gets too crowded, and needs additional segmentation)
5 Star: Portfolio – Second Level (Use this designation once the 4 Star category gets too crowded)

Ratings metadata

Most programs that show ratings use stars with values of 0–5. This is saved as XMP metadata to the file or the sidecar file. Therefore, it's easily accessible by any application that chooses to support embedded metadata. Bridge CS4 added the use of –1 as a negative rating, showing the image tagged as Reject. Bridge CS4 was the first application that we are aware of to use a negative number to indicate a negative rating. It makes a lot of sense, and we hope it will be adopted by the industry.

At the moment, even Lightroom does not read or make use of the negative tag, so images tagged as Reject in Bridge will simply show no rating in other programs. In order to make this information visible to other programs that don’t support negative ratings, you will need to write the information in some other field. For instance, you could make a keyword called Reject or Outtakes and add that keyword to all images that have the Reject tag in Bridge CS4 and later.

Refining ratings over time

While we suggest you create a clear definition what ratings indicate, we do not mean that the rating for an image is permanent or stuck to the image for life. As you spend time with you pictures, you may find that your tastes change, and then, in turn, you may find hidden gems in your collection. You also may find that the lower designations get more crowded, causing you to promote lower rated images up to the next level.

Using ratings to cull

Ratings will also be valuable if you ever want to thin out your archive at a later date. Having a systematic, organized rating process will streamline the tasks of searching for pictures and identifying images to throw away. For instance, you might want to throw out any images labeled as “outtakes” once a job has been delivered and paid for, or you might eventually want to delete all neutral images from shoots with a large number of similar frames.

Filtering instead of deleting images

Lots of people feel a strong desire to get rid of any images with imperfections, usually because they distract from the fewer, better images in their collection. While you can use negative ratings to tag images for future deletion, a well-constructed ratings system removes a lot of pressure to delete bad pictures, which can save you time. Because you can use the ratings to instantly filter out all the lesser photos, your best pictures don’t get lost.

It’s easy to think that deleting low-rated images saves, but we suggest that it often costs. The savings you realize in disk space is likely to be very small in monetary cost: with hard disk storage as cheap as 10GB/$, you’d have to delete 500 20MB files to save a dollar in media costs. To “pay” yourself even $5 an hour, you’d have to delete 2500 images an hour (although if you factored in the cost of backup media as well, perhaps that number might go down to 833 — still a lot of images to delete to save $5).

And making the decision to delete images might require more work than you think. You might want to consider whether a poor photo is actually the sole image you have of a particular subject. You might want to consider whether you’ll ever want to use a specific element from one photo to composite with another. You might want to make judgments about what kind of new technologies are coming that can repair poor focus or exposure, or eliminate noise. You might want to double-check critical focus to make sure the photo really is unsharp. None of this is fast, easy, or fun.

Of course, there are new technologies that will become available that may be able to make use of images in ways you might not imagine today. Several years ago, it might have seemed an easy decision to toss out exposure-bracketed frames that were over- or underexposed. HDR stitching has changed the value of those “rejects” in ways you might not have imagined. The future promises many more such innovations. Moreover, in poring over defective photos, as you look for ones to delete, you are spending your precious time on the worst photos in your collection, rather than the best. Use ratings to help you ignore the bad ones so you can focus on your best pictures.

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Last Updated September 22, 2015