How to cull photos in Lightroom Classic quickly (2024 guide)

Every photographer has an opinion on how to cull photos in Lightroom, because we have three culling tools and several ways to use them. Plus different types of photography have different requirements. So here are the three ways to cull photos in Lightroom Classic, plus my exact culling process as a portrait photographer.

This will help you to figure out the best culling workflow for you.

What is culling in photography?

Just to be clear, in photography culling means selecting the best photos to edit from a photoshoot and deleting rejected photos. Image selection is the first stage of the editing process, after importing photos from a memory card.

Developing an efficient culling workflow will save you a lot of time selecting photos and you won’t waste time editing photos that you later reject. Culling photos also saves space on your hard drive and helps you to keep your photos organized and your folders uncluttered.

If speed is important to you, an added advantage of culling photos before editing is that you can move through unedited photos faster than edited photos. It might only be a fraction of a second per photo, but when working with thousands of photos like wedding photographers do, every time saving trick helps.

Speaking of which, I’ve listed all the keyboard shortcuts for culling photos at the end of this tutorial, as well as my top tips and tricks for a fast cull.

Lightroom grid view for culling photos

Best Lightroom module for culling photos

Culling can be done in either the Library module or the Develop module – the tools work the same way in both modules.

However, the best Lightroom module for culling photos is the Library module, because:

  • It’s faster to move between photos in the Library module than in the Develop module
  • You can view your images in grid view or loupe view

culling in photography by flagging, star rating and color labelling photos

Lightroom Classic photo culling tools

It’s surprising that with only three photo culling tools, we have so many ways to select our best photos. The tools are:

  1. Flagging photos
  2. Star rating photos
  3. Color labelling photos

Now let’s get into the details of how to cull photos in Lightroom.

Pick and reject Lightroom flagged photos

1. Flagging photos

This flagging method is ideal for decisive photographers, or for a first pass through a photoshoot to cut out the immediately obvious rejects, such as:

  • Out of focus images
  • Images with odd expressions
  • Similar images

To pick or reject photos, assign a pick flag or reject flag to each image.

Keyboard shortcuts to pick or reject photos in Lightroom

  • Click P to pick photos – a white flag icon will appear in the top left corner of the thumbnail image in the film strip
  • Click X to reject photos – a black flag icon with a white cross will appear in the top left corner of the thumbnail image in the filmstrip and the thumbnail will appear faded in both the filmstrip and in grid view
  • Click U to remove flag – in other words to unpick or unreject photos

Lightroom toolbar with culling tool icons

Use the mouse to pick or reject photos in Lightroom

The pick and reject flag icons are in the toolbar, just above the filmstrip. If you can’t see them, click on the triangle at the far right of the toolbar and ensure that flagging is selected in the dropdown menu.

If you can’t see the toolbar, click T on the keyboard to unhide it. Or, in the menu at the top of the screen, click on “View” and then “Show Toolbar”.

Lightroom menu for culling photos

If you can’t remember the previous two culling methods, you could use the menu at the top of the screen. I really wouldn’t recommend it though as it takes so much longer.

  • Click “Photo” to open up a dropdown menu
  • Scroll down to “Set Flag”
  • Select “Flagged”, “Unflagged” or “Rejected” from the dropdown menu

culling in photograph with star rating

Star rating photos

Some photographers like to flag photos first and then assign a star rating to picked images to filter the best images. I personally don’t use the flagging method as it would add another step to my culling workflow.

Assigning star ratings in the first pass, rather than a second pass, is probably the most popular way to cull photos in Lightroom Classic. It’s the simplest and most logical photo culling method and you can instantly see the rating of an image.

If you find it difficult to delete images, this is the culling method for you. I’ll explain why below when I tell you my exact culling process, as I use a star rating system.

A photo’s star rating is shown below the thumbnail in the filmstrip. You can also see star ratings in grid view if you set it by clicking “View” in the top menu, then checking the “Show Rating Footer” box in the Library View Options dialog box.

How to star rate photos using the keyboard

  • Use the numbers on the keyboard to assign a star rating to photos, from one star up to five stars
  • To change a star rating, simply click a different number
  • To remove a star rating, click zero

How to star rate photos using the toolbar

  • Click on the number of stars to assign to a photo from one to five
  • To change a star rating, click on a different star rating icon
  • To remove a star rating, hold down the alt or option key and click on the current star rating icon

If you can’t see the star icons in the toolbar, click on the triangle at the far right of the toolbar and ensure that rating is selected in the dropdown menu.

How to star rate multiple photos at once

After selecting all the images you want to rate:

  • Right click the mouse
  • Go to “Set Rating”
  • Choose the rating from the dropdown menu

Or use the long method by clicking on Photo in the menu, scroll down to “Set Rating” and choose the rating from the dropdown menu.

culling in photography with color labels

Color rating photos

Assigning color labels is the least common way to cull photos in Lightroom, but it works the same way as star ratings. You just have to remember what each color means.

If you choose to use color labels for photos, I’d suggest a hierarchy that reflects the order in which they appear in the toolbar, namely

  • Red
  • Yellow
  • Green
  • Blue
  • Purple

To speed up the culling process, use the keyboard shortcuts for Red (6), Yellow (7), Green (8) and Blue (9). Purple doesn’t have a keyboard shortcut.

The color label that you assign to an image will be visible in the thumbnail surround in both the filmstrip and the grid view.

To remove the color label, click the keyboard shortcut again, or click the color icon again  in the toolbar. To change the color, just choose a different color on the toolbar or with either the keyboard shortcut.

How to color label multiple photos at once

After selecting all the images you want to assign a color to:

  • Right click the mouse
  • Go to “Set Color Label”
  • Choose the color from the dropdown menu

Or use the long method by clicking on “Photo” in the menu, scroll down to “Set Color Label” and choose the color from the dropdown menu.

how to cull photos in Lightroom with flagging, rating and labelling

Sorting photos to delete rejects

Whatever method you choose to rate photos, once you’ve completed this first step of selecting images, the next steps is to sort your photos. This makes it easy to work on batches of images at once. Again, different photographers use different methods.

To sort photos click on the sorting icon in the toolbar, then select from the sort criteria dropdown menu:

  • Rating if you’ve star rated photos
  • Pick if you’ve flagged photos
  • Label Color if you’ve color labelled photos

The next step depends on how you feel about deleting photos. You could delete rejected images straight away or wait until you’ve edited your final selection.

My system for a fast cull in Lightroom

Because I’m one of those photographers that doesn’t like deleting photos, I like about the star rating system. It’s also why I like to work in collections rather than folders.

Deleting bad photos is easy, but not the okay ones that aren’t quite as good as the best photos. So I find the fastest way to select the best shots is to work in a collection and delete rejects from the folder only after editing my best images. It gives me time to detach emotionally from the photos and the edited ones look so much better, which makes it easy to delete the rejects.

Culling photos in Lightroom – step by step guide

  1. Import photos from SD card to a new folder in my Lightroom catalog
  2. Create new collection
  3. Select all images in the folder and add to the new collection
  4. First pass – use the arrow keys to go through photos one and a time and delete bad images from the folder
  5. Push the caps lock key on the keyboard to activate auto advance and automatically move to the next photo every time you push a button
  6. Go through photos individually a second time, and assign 1 star to photos with acceptable sharpness
  7. Third pass –  assign 2 stars to photos with good composition, lighting, pose and expression
  8. Change to grid view to select similar photos to review in survey mode, and assign 3 stars to best photo of selected images
  9. Sort all photos in the collection by star rating
  10. Delete all images with 2 stars and below from the collection
  11. Edit final selection and rename photos
  12. Delete 1 and 2 star images from the folder

My star rating system

1 – acceptably sharp photo
2 – good photo
3 – it’s a keeper!

I also use a star rating system to help clients choose their favorite photos from a photoshoot, but that’s a tutorial for another time.

color and star rating images for culling in Lightroom

Tips and tricks for how to cull photos in Lightroom FAST

Culling photos in Lightroom or any culling software is a tedious task, but you can speed up the selection process. Some of these tips I’ve mentioned already, but it wouldn’t be a full list if I didn’t mention them again.

  • Cull photos before you do any editing
  • Work in the Lightroom Library module
  • Activate the auto-advance feature by clicking the tab button on your keyboard to avoid an extra step to move to the next photo
  • Use Lightroom culling shortcuts rather than your mouse to select or reject photos
  • Remove unwanted images to keep your Adobe Lightroom catalog clutter free
  • Select “1:1” from the Import Previews menu during Lightroom import process to quickly zoom in (without the delay of standard previews) for a closer look to check sharpness of an image

If you regularly work with a huge number of images, to speed up your culling time, consider running your photos through Photo Mechanic before importing to Adobe Lightroom. It’s the ultimate software for speed culling photos and you could then import only your best images to edit.

Lightroom keyboard shortcuts for culling photos

  • E – Library module loupe view
  • G – Library module grid view
  • X – reject image
  • P – pick image
  • U – unflag image
  • 1 – 5 – star rating
  • 6 – 9 – color labels
  • Ctrl or Cmd A – select all photos in folder or collection
  • Ctrl or Cmd D – deselect all photos
  • Ctrl or Cmd Z – undo (aka the most used shortcut ever!)

You can find a full list of my favorite Lightroom shortcuts and how to use them here.

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