Making the Most of Color Labels in Lightroom Classic: Part 1

Color labels in Lightroom Classic can serve a variety of purposes. Most importantly, I think of them in terms of what aspects of my photography would be helpful to me to represent visually. Each of us would answer that question based on our own photography and how we think about our photo libraries, and there is no one right answer. In addition to our photos, recent updates have given us the ability to apply color labels to folders and collections too, so I thought it would be worth exploring how we can make the most of those colorful labels.

What is a Color Label?

Color labels applied to photos are slightly different than the color labels we can apply to folders and collections. The colors are all the same (red, yellow, green, blue, and purple), but color labels applied to photos have both a visual color we can see around the thumbnail and an associated metadata tag that is also applied to the photo’s metadata space (color labels applied to folders and collections do not do this). It may seem like a distinction without a difference, but the difference could be useful to some. If you go to Metadata > Color Label Set, you will see that there are three different color label sets to choose from—Bridge Default, Lightroom Default, and Review Status. Lightroom Default will be checked (by default). There is also an Edit option at the bottom. If you click on Edit it will open the Edit Color Label Set dialog box.

Looking at the Lightroom Default set, you will see that each color label is simply assigned the name of its color. Click the Preset dropdown menu and look at the labels for Bridge Default and Review Status. You’ll see that there are different labels associated with each of the colors in each set. These different labels may start to give you ideas about how you might make better use of the color labels too.

It is also possible to enter your own custom labels into each field, and save that as a new set. Note, that if you do this, any photos that had previously had a color label applied using a different set will lose the color representation (color goes to white, which is no color), though the old label will remain in that photo’s metadata. That means if I had previously applied a yellow color label to a photo, that photo will have a yellow tint around the thumbnail and the word “yellow” inserted into the Label field of the Metadata panel.

If I were to switch away from the Lightroom Default color label set to one of the others, or my own custom set, the tint around that thumbnail will go away, but the word “yellow” will remain in the metadata. This isn’t a problem per se, but worth noting before you change anything if you already have applied color labels. Also, worth noting is that the Label field is searchable via the Library Filter bar and smart collections. So, I don’t recommend going in there to change anything until you’ve given the issue some thought, and only if it makes sense to your workflow. I just leave mine on the Lightroom Default, and assign my own meaning to the colors.

Putting Color Labels to Use

Hopefully, seeing the different options in the different label sets has started you thinking about how you might use these to your benefit. I’ve seen color labels applied to photos in two main ways, either as a workflow tool to indicate where in the workflow a set of photos are (such as red = needs editing, yellow = work in progress, green = ready to deliver, and blue = delivered), or as a way to identify photos as belonging to some larger grouping (such as red = for focus stacking, yellow = for HDR merge, green = for HDR pano merge, and blue = for pano merge). There’s really no wrong way as long as it makes sense to you and that you are consistent in your application of labels for that purpose.

In my case, I like to shoot HDR, panos, HDR panos, and some focus stacking. Each of these pursuits tends to result in lots of source photos for the final merged results. I found that by applying color labels to the source photos for each kind it made it easier to look in a folder or collection and make sense of what those are all about. So, in my case I went with red = focus stack, yellow = HDR, green = HDR pano, and blue = pano (I bring purple in next week).

Because of the way color labels can be used by the Library Filter bar and smart collections it also makes it a useful way to find and gather those photos together or to filter the contents of a given folder or collection. As you think about how the labels can help your workflow, be sure to consider the role of filters and smart collections, as those can really supercharge their usefulness (we’ll explore those further in part 2 of this article next week).

You can apply color labels to photos by selecting the photos in Grid view or Loupe view, and clicking the corresponding color label in the Toolbar (press T if your Toolbar is hidden, and click the disclosure triangle on the right side if the color label icons are missing from the Toolbar). You can also right-click selected photos and choose the desired color label from the contextual menu.

A faster way is to use the associated keyboard shortcuts. While the 0 – 5 keys correspond to star ratings, the 6 – 9 keys are for the red, yellow, green, and blue color labels respectively (no shortcut assigned for purple). You can also see the shortcuts by going to Photo > Color Label menu if you forget.

Once you’ve settled on a scheme for how you want to use those labels, you want to develop a practice to use them all the time so that you get the most benefit from them. Come back next week and we’ll look at how we can expand that practice to include folders and collections, and then leverage all of that using filters and smart collections.



  1. Ed 1 October, 2020 at 17:35 Reply

    I set up a color scheme years ago and also use one for export (Purple). Have always felt limited with the 5 colors though and could use at least 3 more like Magenta, Orange, Cyan or Tan. After seeing your examples above I now see other possibilities. How about blank color labels with a color picker and we can make our shades and assign labels according to our needs.

    • Rob Sylvan 2 October, 2020 at 11:51 Reply

      Hi Ed, I can see how 5 colors could be limiting, and your feature enhancement has merit. However, I am doubtful this is a high priority area for change in the near future. Best to make do with what exists for now.

  2. David 30 September, 2020 at 20:59 Reply

    Back in 2006 Adobe purchased a product called RawShooter Pro. One of the features I relied on in RSP to this day still does NOT exist in Lightroom and that is the ability to see which images have already been exported. It’s very seldom that I have time to process an entire shoot at once, so I process/edit some, export them, do some more, maybe leave (or work on another set of images if an order came in) and then come back later, and continue where I left off. With RSP that was easy, I could see right where I left off and continue editing and exporting from there.

    Lightroom shows in its history that you’ve exported the images, but you can’t just glance at the filmstrip or even at a grid of images to know where you left off. Why this feature still doesn’t exist 14 years after Adobe purchased RSP, I do not know.

    However, right from the beginning LR offered color labels and that’s when I started using green to mean “exported”. So I highlight a series of images, I export, and immediately after I right-click and apply the green label. I have other color codes I use as well, but green lets me know where I left off and it’s a label that gets used every single day.

    Maybe someday Adobe will grant my wish and have a visible status on images so that I know which ones are exported so that I don’t have to do this extra step. After all … the whole purpose of automation is to reduce redundant manual tasks.

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