While there are a variety of methods available for identifying your favorite photos from a given trip or photo shoot, star ratings remain a popular solution for this purpose. Star ratings are widely supported and somewhat easy to understand. But I actually use a somewhat unique approach to using star ratings, which I thought I would share for your consideration.

Redefining the Ratings

Star ratings are available in a range from one star to five stars, or of course the option to not assign a star rating at all. It is perfectly logical to assume a one-star rating would indicate a bad image, and a five-star rating would represent one of your best images. However, to me, this approach doesn’t make a lot of sense.

I don’t feel there is a great benefit to taking the time to assign a one-star rating to an image to indicate a bad image. If the image is one I am not likely to use, I could simply delete the image or leave it without a star rating at all.

As a result, I define star ratings for my images in a way that is not aligned with what would be the natural assumption for star ratings. Instead of representing a bad image, when I assign a one-star rating it represents an image that I consider a “keeper”. The definition of a “keeper” could certainly vary from one photographer to the next, or even from one photo shoot to another. But the point is that an image that receives a one-star rating is an image I think I will likely use in some way.

Ratings of two through five stars represent images that are among my very best, which I’ll explain in more detail later in this article.

The One-Star Pass

The first time I review photos from a given shoot I will only use a one-star rating for any images I feel are among my best. Using only a one-star rating for my first review pass makes that process much simpler. For each image I only really need to make a “yes” or “no” decision. If I feel the current image is a good one that I would like to use, I assign a one-star rating. If an image is a reject, I’ll simply skip it without assigning a star rating, moving on to the next image.

By limiting myself to only a one-star rating—or no stars at all—for each image during my first review pass, I’m helping to make sure I don’t apply a higher rating to an image than it really deserves. During a later review pass, preferably after at least a little time has passed, I will review the photos again and “upgrade” my favorites to a higher star rating.

Once I’ve reviewed every photo from a new photo shoot, I know that my favorite images from that shoot have a one-star rating assigned to them, and my rejects do not have a star rating. If you prefer to delete outtakes at this point, you can simply delete all images without a star rating. Perhaps more importantly, when browsing the images from a given photo shoot, you can simply filter based on having a one-star or greater rating, and you’ll only see the best images from the current set of photos.

Upgrading Ratings

After completing the first review pass for a new set of photos, the keepers will have a one-star rating and the rejects will not have a star rating. At this point, you can effectively ignore (or even delete) the images without a star rating. For example, you could simply apply a filter so only images with a one-star or greater rating are displayed.

You are then ready to perform a follow-up review, during which you might “upgrade” some of the images to a higher star rating. My personal approach at this stage of my review is to limit myself to a maximum rating of three stars. So, the images I’ve deemed to be among my favorites up to this stage have a one-star rating assigned to them. As I review each of the images with a one-star rating, I will decide which images deserve a higher rating.

So, an image that I think is particularly good might get upgraded to a two-star rating. An image that I think is among the very best from a given trip or photo shoot, or of a given subject, I might give a three-star rating to.

While my focus during this second review pass is on upgrading my very best images to a higher star rating, I might also downgrade some images during this second pass. Upon further review, I may simply decide that one of the images isn’t as good as I had originally thought. Or, more likely, I may realize that I have assigned a one-star rating to more than one very similar images, and therefore will remove the one-star rating from the lesser image (or images) among that set.

At the conclusion of this final review, I have a very good idea of which images from a given photo shoot I’m most likely to use. The three-star images represent my favorites from the shoot, and the images I will likely want to share with others. The two-star images are my “runner-up” images, which I may or may not be very likely to use. And the one-star images are those that I will likely not use other than in a supporting role, such as to provide context in a scenario where I’m sharing multiple images from a single photo shoot.

The Final Review

At some point later in my workflow, some of my photos may get upgraded to a four- or five-star rating. I don’t actually have a set “schedule” when it comes to a final review where I might further upgrade the star rating for an image. Instead, I perform this review on an as-needed basis, essentially while I’m otherwise working with my images.

My basic concept when it comes to assigning a star rating of four or more stars is that I don’t want to apply that higher rating until I’ve had a chance to work with an image a little more extensively, and perhaps have even shared the image with others.

So, for example, while applying adjustments to an image I may realize that I really like it quite a lot. Or I might make a print and feel that the image is one of the best I’ve ever captured. Or perhaps I may share the image through a variety of different ways, and see what sort of feedback I receive.

The point is that before I assign a four- or five-star rating to an image, I want to spend some time working with the image, and perhaps get some feedback from others. I will then assign a rating of four or five stars when I feel confident that a given image is one of my favorites of all time.

Through this process, of course, I don’t end up with too many images with a four- or five-star rating. But in my mind, that’s a good thing. By taking a deliberate approach, I’m carefully filtering out my very best photos over time, while always having an easy way to evaluate images with lesser ratings that I am also happy with.

Another thing I find interesting is that over time my opinion about what star rating a specific image deserves may change. This often happens when I photograph the same location or subject multiple times, for example, and manage to capture better images on a return visit. Or I might have particularly special sky conditions on one visit to a given location and a more dreary sky on another visit. And, as I’ve improved my photographic skills over the years, pictures I thought were good long ago now don’t seem quite so good.

I find it very helpful to take a very deliberate approach to assigning star ratings to my images. While the process I use helps ensure I can better find the specific images I need at any given time, I also think it helps me improve as a photographer, by virtue of being a little more thoughtful about my photographic images during the review process.