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Tips & Tricks

Culling Is Critical & Lightroom Is The Tool To Do It With (If You Know How)

By Kishore Sawh on February 21st 2016

It’s interesting how, in life, some of the best moments, the most eagerly anticipated moments, are followed so quickly by a little bit of a downer, or a little bit of dread. In photography, that moment for many is the moment you return from a shoot, and you’re about to see the fruits of your artisanal labor – bringing up the images on-screen that you just shot.

It’s exciting because, during the shoot and prior to, you’re full of ideas – during, you execute them, and then now you’re about to see them realized. But as the flood of norepinephrine and dopamine intoxicates you, you realize that the most time consuming and often gut-wrenching part of the endeavor is about to take place – the cull.


Regardless of your level of experience, it is absolutely critical that you learn how to think about culling and how to actually use your program of choice to make culling more effective. It is a daunting task, and emotionally involved because it means you’ll part ways with some of your shots, but it is oh-so necessary. If you ever struggle with why you should, even if you have unlimited storage, think in terms of time, and think in terms of your client. In fact, in almost every part of your shoot, it pays to take a step back and run it through your own neurology as if you were the client.

A Few Words On How To Think About Culling

If you do that, you’ll understand that you, the client, have hired a photographer to shoot and edit, and part of editing means you want to be shown the best. You are paying for a service which doesn’t mean you want to be shown all the work on the back-end. No, you are paying for the decision-making ability (to some degree) of the photographer/studio. A client wants just enough as not to be overwhelmed, and enough that they feel they actually have options to choose between.

One of the ways to help you strike that balance is to think before the shoot, and during culling, about reaching a 60/40 ratio of what you know the client likes, and what you like. Of course, you can change that ratio as you see fit, but it helps, because as stated above, you’re being hired for your vision and ability, so they want to see your creativity and tastes too. If you shoot and cull just for clients, you’ll lose your drive, but if you do it just for yourself,  prepare to lose clients.

High Speed Pass

I’ve previously spoken about the benefits of a first & fast flyby – meaning go into the set of images, say in Lightroom, and scan them all at blazing speeds. I mean barely a second an image. What you’re doing at this stage is looking for glaring issues that would render that image useless, and believe me, they’ll stand out at that speed. What we’re talking about are things like truly blurry or out of focus images, poor framing, wrong light, eyes in mid-blink, and poor backgrounds. But it also gives you a quick recap of the entire shoot, reminding you of all what’s there.


The added benefit to this, too, is that the next time you go through, you can do it a little less quickly, and it’ll seem much slower, much like how driving at 40 seems like you’re hardly moving after getting off the highway.

Once you’ve done that, you can move on to the more detailed review, and Lightroom really comes into its own at this stage. Here are a few pieces of advice on how to use Lightroom to assist you in decluttering and culling.

Lightroom Tips On Culling

There are two basic ways to approach this, but, generally speaking, it involves going through each image and giving it a rating, after which you’ll use the LR filter to only show a certain selection. Some, or probably most, will start from the top and flag the picks as they go by hitting ‘P’, and this is fine and can be done in Loupe or Grid views. However, it may benefit you to do it a little differently, and that is by setting all the images as rejected, and then going through and hitting ‘P’ for the picks.

When you do it this way, it makes for some easier sorting at the end, and it changes how the images are actually seen in Grid view. If you do this, and you go through and make your picks in the Grid view, the images will be clear, and the rest will be faded. It just helps to draw your attention to where it matters. Of course, the filtering comes into play here as well. Generally speaking, from any given shoot, there are going to be fewer keepers than there will be ones to toss, so keep that in mind.


I do find it helpful to take advantage of Lightroom’s ability to remove screen clutter and distraction by hitting ‘L,’ which gives you different levels of background fading. You can fade the background or make it essentially vanish by turning into black, giving you a clean view of your images. You can see what I mean below, and while in here you can use the ‘+’ or ‘‘ signs to change the size of the thumbnails.

At this point, it has surely crossed your mind that you’d likely want to see some of these images zoomed in at 100% to check for sharpness and so forth, and the idea of double clicking for maybe a thousand photos sounds horrid. What’s nice about Lightroom is that there’s no need to double click. You can simply use the ‘Z’ button.


Regardless of your view, you can hit the Z button, and it will zoom in the image you’ve currently selected to 100%, and you can scroll around on it quickly. To go back, you’d just hit the Z again. However, you may have noticed that Instagram has this feature where if you are in grid view of someone’s Instagram page, you can press and hold on an image, and it will pop up to fill the screen, and when you let go, you’re back at grid view. The same functionality is in LR with the Z button – just hold it and scroll around at 100%, and then let go when you’re done to move on.



view with ‘TAB’ engaged to hide sidebars

Speaking of moving on, it helps to employ the Auto Advance feature in LR which simply means as you make a flagging or rating decision on an image, LR will automatically move on to the next photo, saving you a step. Turning the feature on can be as simple as ensuring Caps Lock is on, OR going to Photo>Auto Advance.



I hope this has provided some insight into the value of culling, and Lightroom as a tool to do it. It’s the kind of topic that doesn’t get enough coverage, since it’s not as sexy as vintage film presets, or frequency separation, but absolutely critical. It’s the tip of the iceberg of what you’ll learn in the Lightroom Workflow Collection – it’s the only thing I recommend, and worth a look.

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Karl Johnson

    Thanks for sharing such an effective content with us! You are right! Photo Culling, selecting or choosing out of many same looking images is really a tough job. If you try to DIY manually, you would be confused. But, if you use Adobe Lightroom, this work can be easily done. Here you can checkout some lightroom preset

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  2. Ian Browne

    Instead of using “P” for flagging an image; the “`” (top lhs; same ~ key) makes more sense and it not only flags but also unflags and can change the X flag to a white flag. I have no idea why this is not widely known and taugh.
    Must admit I did like the thought of Xing all files to start with.

    Just of interest I don’t use stars for rating. Flagged is really good, and Xed is rubbish and deleted without a second look. Those without a flag the maybes . Lets face it; we only want the best files to become a picture; so what’s the good of 3 star or 2 star? (??). Try the yes no maybe way folk

    Still a great article from which I have picked a few tricks to try. TFS

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  3. Tyler Friesen

    Photo Mechanic is by and landslide better for huge jobs of 1000+ images. I cull entire weddings roughly 2000 images per in under an hour now. It used to take 3-4 hours for the same job in LR. Thats alot of money on the table if you consider time is money. For those concerned about workflow with LR you can simply star the keepers, select only the starred images then click and drag them right into LR. There is no need for multiple file structures. Once they are imported close PM and your done!

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  4. Gareth Wignall

    Completely agree with using P.M. For some of our shoots we even go a step beyond and move the ‘Picked’ images into a new folder, before LR import…
    It’s all about the workflow that works for YOU!

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  5. William Irwin

    Make sure you have Render 1:1 Preview setup when you import your batch. It will make moving through the images much quicker.

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  6. Victor Zubakin

    Sorry, but Lightroom is painfully slow in my opinion so my advice is if you have a large number of photos to cull & sort out – use Photo Mechanic. It’s much faster to import & sort out your images and rate them, etc.

    Lightroom is great for editing bulk photoshoots with features like batch editing with syncing or the match total exposures feature.

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    • Jean-Francois Perreault

      Hey Victor, I’ve just downloaded Photo Mechanic for a trial run and the first thing I noticed is how fast it is compared to Lr!
      I’ll try it out some more in the next few days but the speed difference is uncanny. P.M. loads images in a fraction of a second! Makes me wonder how and why Lr is so slow.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Hey Victor. If this was 2013 or even 14 I would much more easily give PM the big lead in this department, and I am a fan of PM for sure. The ability to import/ingest multiple cards at once, and to do so at blazing speeds is brilliant, and it shows 100% without any loading, and that’s also brilliant.

      Mind you, for some it will matter that PM does this because it doesn’t actually show you/render the raw file at 100%, but instead brings up the embedded JPEG – which in some instances is still a full resolution JPEG but it still loads much faster. It’s one way that PM is able to appear so fast. Of course it’s generally going to be faster given it’s single purpose built.

      However, some will find the move to PM and then into LR or Capture One or whatever after, a pain. While the interruption isn’t very time costly, depending on how you use LR, if you do, it can be annoying.

      While Ill always agree LR is a resource hog and slow, if you have rather powerful computers, it may be good enough. I just don’t see much lag on mine, and not enough for me to warrant adding in PM as an extra step all the time. Perhaps if shooting a massive multiple shooter wedding with D810 or 5DSR files, but LR of late has been ok, so for many there’s no desire or need to go spend $150 on PM.

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    • Randy Kepple

      It’s 2016 and Photo Mechanic is by and large, without question, still the leader in speed for culling images. Lightroom is a great tool, no doubt, but it’s painfully slow and as long as it’s been on the market, that should have been resolved by now. $150 for PM is a bargain and a write off if you are a professional photographer. How much is your time worth? I would gladly drop three times that to avoid the frustration and agonizing slowness of LR, even with rendered previews. And moving from one piece of software to another? Seriously? That’s funny.

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    • Randy Kepple

      Not to lessen the information in the article, which I agree with completely. It’s a process that few photographers talk about. Culling is hands down the single more important thing you can do for your business and your clients. The day I learned to “Edit In” changed my workflow for the better. Great article and spot on points! Thanks!

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Randy, I hear what you’re saying, and I agree. $150 for what could amount to tens upon tens of hours saved isn’t much to many, but many starting out are unsure of how to go about spending the money they’ve allocated, and need to make the best out of what they’ve got. but again, I agree, for high volume shooters, PM is worth it.

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  7. Russell Roca

    Another additional knowledge grasped. thanks for the tips sir.

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  8. Tanya Goodall Smith

    Excellent tips Sir.

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