Labels are a Lightroom feature that photographers can customize for a panoply of organizing strategies, but like many of the program’s tools, a bit of planning is required first.
A label adds a word or phrase to a special field in the image’s metadata. If the phrase is matches one in a pre-defined label set, applying it will tint the grid surrounding the image thumbnail. Lightroom’s default set is essentially useless: the words “red”, “yellow”, “green” etc., are associated with their corresponding colors. It’s easy to create a custom set, and that’s exactly what I recommend. Once set up, applying labels with keyboard shortcuts is as easy as using flags and rankings.
Since the label field can only contain one label, they are only useful if your categories are completely non-overlapping. A label set that includes “needs editing” and “client file” is ambiguous, because both facts might be true about that image, so which descriptor takes priority?
Adobe allows you to create sets of labels so that you can use more than five pre-defined phrases, but the field itself will only hold the most recently applied label. And I would find it confusing to have 2 labels sharing the same color code. If you need more than five labels, however, it is possible to assign them in the Library module by using the command Metadata>Color Label Set>Edit to create a new set. But if you use them with the numerical shortcuts, you need to be mindful of which color label set is active or you’ll have riotous, worse-than-useless mess.
So what goes in a label? Some photographers use them to manage workflow, assigning one label to newly imported images, like “needs ranking”, then changing the label to “needs back-up” or “needs spotting” to track what stage they have completed for each image.
Other photographers define labels to track image usage; whether delivered to a client, submitted for stock usage, or rejected for publication. I have even read a suggestion that wedding photographers could use labels for “bride”, “groom” and so on.
My thinking is that keywords are for metadata that needs to stick to an image permanently. Unlike a label or ranking, it’s actually quite difficult to accidentally override a keyword with a stray keystroke. Some folks say that they won’t use keywords to describe things like the delivery of an image to a client, preferring labels to categorize that information. That argument makes no sense to me, because nothing is more permanent than “delivered” and that’s a fact I want permanently associated with an image. It’s easy to set up a keyword so that it does not attach to an image on export, so I’m not worried about recipients seeing my personal organizing notations.
As I thought about how labels could improve my Lightroom workflow, I gravitated to two features: labeled images are easy to spot if the grid tinting is turned on, they can be assigned as part of your import workflow.
Here’s my set-up:
The red label is set up for “unrated” and is initially assigned to all my images as part of my default import preset. I know if it’s tinted red, it needs to be reviewed, and probably keyworded as well. (I also use a smart filter to keep up with keywording, but that’s for another post). As I rank my images, any sequences shot for HDR are assigned with a keyboard shortcut to the yellow label, which I have customized to “HDR” and then stacked. I customized the green label “Pano” to manage panorama sequences in a similar fashion.
I use the blue label for an additional, temporary screen for sorting, mostly in conjunction with collections. I recently submitted 20 images to a competition. I used a collection to gather candidates for the submission. To refine the selection within the collection, I needed a marker to identify my picks, but I didn’t want to change the images’ permanent flags or rankings. I used the blue label to filter my choices until I reached a series of 20 images. In my custom labels, blue is customized as “Temp.”
The fifth label, purple, is not assigned to a keyboard shortcut, which makes it a little more sticky in the metadata. I used to take every image in Photoshop for final processing, but lately I am printing and exporting final images straight from Lightroom. Now I need a way to distinguish that an image has been completely through my develop process and is ready to print or delivery. If I override the “Processed” label with “Temp” for any reason, I need to be certain to restore its label. If I mess up, I can find the final images again because I have also added a “completed” keyword to them. The purple color is simply a visual cue for quick scanning of my catalog, and a handy additional sorting device for smart collections.
So the finally, is all this effort worth it? Over the weekend, I had another reminder that for me the answer is yes. I’m still here in Phoenix and had a request for some images from 2008 that were not with me on my drives. With R’s help, I was able to set up screen sharing to my Mac at the palace and access my Lightroom catalog. Images found, transferred, delivered. I have said it before: every minute spent entering data into my LR catalog has paid off in either time or reduced anxiety in the midst of some later deadline. Cataloging is work, but I’d rather do it now than sweat it later in the heat of battle.