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How do you use star ratings?

PhotoJoseph's picture
January 12, 2010 - 8:19am

Aperture provides a 5-star rating system, which is pretty much universally standard (I think every app does a 5-star system). Which is of course actually 7 “ratings”, including –1, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

Ratings in Aperture

So what qualifies as a 1-star, or 3-star, or 5-star picture? How do you decide if it’s worth, say, two or three? Is it because you really like it, or you really really like it, or really really really like it? Probably not the best criteria to go on, especially as you want to search your entire library years down the road, and you won’t want to search for 3-stars and be thinking “why on earth did I give that a 3-star rating”!

As with anything in this business, there are no right answers. But here are some guidelines to go by that I think work quite well.

Reject is easy… that’s anything that’s blatantly out of focus, or the lens cap was left on, or anything you generally don’t ever ever want to look at again. It gets a lot harder from there.

I’ve found that most effective rating system involves multiple passes. Ratings are of course subjective, and while you might think that shot #100 is the best one you’ve seen so far, and so you give it a 5-star, when you get to #200 you might be thinking that now it’s the best one so far, so it gets a 5-star, but now what about that #100, do I downgrade it? Hmm…

Enter the multiple-pass rating.

  1. I’ll go through the photos and either reject [–1] (failed image), ignore [0] (not notable but not so bad I’ll kill it), or rate [3] (I like this and it’s worth looking at again).
  2. Then I’ll do a quick search for all 3-star images [control-3], and go through them againQuick-search for 3-star rated files or betterNow that I’ve looked at all the photos at least once, it’s easier to gauge that one might be better than another. So I’ll use the [+] and [–] keys to rate up and down. Knock one down a level that I like a little less; push another one up a level that I like a little more.
  3. Now I have basically three ratings; 2-, 3-, and 4-stars. I’ll go straight to the 4’s, and have a look through those. Do I have enough to show the client? Too many? Any that really really really stand out? OK those will get a 5. And to be fair, I may have already spotted one that I just know is a 5-star, and have tagged it already, but here’s a chance to compare those to my 4’s and see if I still feel the same about it.

If you don’t have enough, then you can revisit just the 3’s and see if any stand out and are perhaps worth upgrading. Too many? Go through the 4’s only, and knock a few back again.

Show ONLY the 3-star images (or 4-star…)

The more times you look at the same photos, the more critical you’ll become of them. This is another reason the multiple-pass rating works so well. If you grow tired of an image that you thought you loved, that’s a pretty good indication that it’s not really all that great. If you keep loving it, that’s a good sign it should be upgraded.

Apple Aperture

I quickly review all photos and discard any that obviously have to go (out of focus unintentionally, etc.). On the second pass, I give a three star rating to all photos I like and may want to keep . I don’t bother with 1s or 2s. I then make a third pass and decide which 3s should be post processed. The resulting photos may get upgraded to a 4, and very few rate a 5. I then review the 3s and discard any that don’t make a final cut. At the end I have 3s, 4s and 5s only - all of which are keepers.


Basically, I use four of the seven possible “ratings.”

I’m a motorsports shooter and typically will shoot 4,000 - 5,000 images over a three day event.

At import, all images are given a custom file name, basic meta data, copyright etc. and some keywords… event name and such. I have a custom preset for this.

After import, I reject what I don’t like, do nothing to those that are “keepers,” and give three stars to those I like.

All three star images (approximately 600+) get full keywords referencing the car, class, team, drivers, engine etc.

I will then go through and review each image performing adjustments on those images that I feel really stand out…. approximately 150-200. These will receive five stars after processing. These are the images that will be transmitted to clients and my Photoshelter galleries.


After reading Peter Krogh’s DAM (Digital Asset Management) book a few years ago (before Aperture was released), I decided to follow his advice and be very stingy with my 5 stars.

My routine is to do a first pass, rejecting the garbage and giving 1s to images I want to come back to. If something looks “good” I’ll give it 2s at this point, and if it looks “great”, I’ll give it 3s.

I always take a quick look thru my rejects before deleting to make sure nothing accidentaly gets tossed.

Then I set up smart albums for the shoot/project/folder/library> 1s and above, 2s and above, 3s and above, 4s and above, 5s

Now that I’ve done a once thru, I’ll go back and start with the 1s and above album. With the benefit of having done a quick once thru, I take a closer look. I’ll compare if needed and apply 2s and 3s freely, 4s if something really is great, but I try to hold off on the 4s as much as possible. Also anything that doesn’t hold as a 1s might get knocked down to 0s (or even rejected.)

Now, I can go thru my 2s and above folder and take an even closer/harder look. I am usually doing alot more comparing at this point. By the end of this round, I’ve got my keepers as 3s, my maybes as 2s, and the “great” ones as 4s.

The 3s and above folder is for final selects. Sometimes I’ll dip back into the 2s to compare.

The 4s and above folder is for my top images

The 5s and above I reserve for shots which I know are really special, those that (may) stand the test of time and rise up above the noise. I try to be really honest with myself about these images and often will demote something from 5s to 4s after looking at it for awhile. On the other hand a 4s that sings out from the rest may get promoted. In any case this is the kind of rating that might be used 10 or 20 times a year, not 10-20 times a week.

When I have time (sometime after I die), I’ll go thru the 0s and delete the ones I don’t care about. In the meantime with 2GB drives at $180, its easier to keep them.

I realize this method is more time consuming and may not work for someone on a tight deadline, but I found that it gives me more time to get to know my images and make better decisions.

"There is nothing worse than a sharp photograph of a fuzzy concept." Ansel Adams

I actually do exactly the same as you JT!
Funny, I thought I was alone.

I came across a less subjective system that I’m finding helpful. After import I do the usual reject thing, and assign 1 star to my ‘picks’, anything I think may have merit. On my second pass I give 2 stars to anything I want to edit. Finished edits get 3 stars. 4 stars go to those that I now want to share. 5 stars is the most subjective part, these are my ‘portfolio’ shots (very few in here). I duplicate a smart album structure based on this for each project I import.

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