How to Use Color Labels in Lightroom Classic

by Andrew S. Gibson
How to Use Color Labels in Lightroom Classic

Editor's note: This month only – check out our brand new Creative Assignment Cards (all 250 of them) for just $19! Click here to learn more. Thanks for reading, Andrew.

Color Labels are a Library module tool for marking photos. They’re designed to be adaptable so that you can decide how to use them for yourself. 

In earlier versions of Lightroom, you could only apply Color Labels to photos. Now you can also apply them to Folders and Collections. This makes it easier to find certain Folders and Collections faster (as long as you use them consistently).

Color Labels and photos

Let’s start with Color Labels and photos, as that’s how most photographers are accustomed to using them.

There are five Color Labels to choose from – red, yellow, green, blue and purple. In the Library module, unselected images have a thick colored frame to indicate the Color Label (below). 

Color Labels

A selected image has a thin colored border that indicates the Color Label (below).

Color Labels Lightroom Classic

Tip: If you can’t see the colored borders, go to View > View Options and check the Tint grid cells with label colors box.

There’s a small colored rectangle under any photo with a Color Label (below). This is the Color Label rectangle.

Green Color Label

The Color Label of a single selected photo (or the Target photo if more than one image is selected) is shown in the Toolbar (below).

Green Color Label in Toolbar

The Color Label isn’t just a Catalog setting. It’s metadata that can be saved to the photo. It appears as the Label field in the Metadata panel (set the top menu to EXIF and IPTC to see it).

Metadata panel

There are several ways you can add or remove a Color Label.

1. Use the 6, 7, 8 and 9 keys to apply (or remove) the red, yellow, green or blue Color Labels. Purple is the only Color Label without a keyboard shortcut.

2. Click the Color Label rectangle (it’s gray if the photo doesn’t have a Color Label) to select a Color Label from the menu.

3. Select a photo (or photos) and click the Color Label square in the Toolbar.

4. Use the Painter tool (set the Paint menu to Label and select a color). Note that you can also change the name of the Color Label here (more on that later).

Painter tool

5. You can right-click on a thumbnail and select Set Color Label from the menu. 

6. You can go to Photo > Set Color Label.

Color Label Settings

As mentioned above, you can change the name each Color Label. Make sure you read that I’ve written below under the heading The White Color Label before you try it, as there’s an important drawback you need to understand.

Go to Metadata > Color Label Set > Edit. That brings up the following window, which shows the default Lightroom Color Label names (yours will look different if you’ve changed the settings).

Color Label Set Lightroom Default

If you’re an Adobe Bridge user, you might like to change the Color Label names to the Bridge Default set, so they match.

Color Label Set Bridge Default

Or you might like to use the Review Status set.

Color Label Set Review Status

You can also change the Color Label names to something different by clicking on any of the fields and typing in your preferred option.

Click the Change button to lock in the changes, or Cancel if you change your mind.

The White Color Label

But here’s where it gets complicated. 

As we’ve already seen, when you apply a Color Label to a photo, Lightroom Classic updates the Label field in the Metadata panel. Apply a Blue Color Label, for example, and Lightroom puts the name of the Color Label (“Blue” if you’re using the default settings) in the Label field.

Now, let’s say you go to Metadata > Color Label Set > Edit and select Review Status. This change the name of the blue Color Label to Retouching Needed. 

But it doesn’t change the Label field of photos that you’ve already applied the blue Color Label to. 

When you go to the Library module, Lightroom displays a white frame to indicate that the label color and the Label metadata field don’t match.

White Color Label

As a result you lose all the Color Labels that you’ve already applied to your photos. 

The only way you can get it back is by reverting to the original Color Label names, or by reapplying the Color Label to your photos. 

The second option isn’t practical, for obvious reasons.

So here’s what you need to think about before changing Color Label names.

* Does it matter if you lose the Color Labels you’ve already applied to your photos?

* Are you happy with the new Color Label names and using them from this point forward? 

If the answers are no and yes, then go ahead and change them. If not, it’s best to keep them as they are.

Tip: Click on the arrow next to the Label field in the Metadata panel (see below) to activate a Filter Bar search that for that Label text. This lets you see all the labels you’ve applied to your photos in one place. 

Metadata conflict

Extra tip: You can use both Label Color and Label Text as search criteria in Smart Collections.

Another extra tip: You can also do a search (or refine a search) using Color Labels under Attribute in the Filter bar.

Filter bar search

Uses for Color Labels for photos

Now you know how Color Labels work let’s look at some of the ways you can use them. These are a couple of ideas to get you started.

Idea #1

One of the simplest is the traffic light system using the Red, Yellow and Blue labels.

Red = Photo imported, but not developed

Yellow = Photo partially developed, but not completed

Green = Photo developed and completed

That leaves blue and purple for your own uses. For example, you could apply a blue or purple Color Label to photos that you want to print, add to a photo book, send to Instagram or add to your portfolio website.

Idea #2

This is a variation of the first idea:

Red = Photo imported, but no further work done

Yellow = Sorted out / rated, ready for developing

Green = Developed or partially developed

Blue = Finished

How to remember Color Label settings

The easiest way to remember your Color Label settings is to click on the Color Label rectangle under any photo in Grid View. This brings up a menu showing your settings. 

Color Label menu

Color Labels for Folders, Collections and Collection Sets

Color Labels have been around for a long time, but it’s only more recently that you could also apply them to Folders, Collections and Collection Sets in Lightroom Classic.

You’ll see the options when you go to Metadata > Color Label Set > Edit and click on Folders or Collections tab. This screenshot shows the Lightroom Default settings.

Edit Color Label Set

If you change the Preset to Bridge Default or Review Status then the Folders and Collections Color Label names also change. Unlike changing the Images Color Label names this doesn’t cause any metadata conflicts. 

You can change the name of a Collections or Folders Color Label as often as you like without losing the labels you’ve already applied.

Practical applications

To add a Color Label to a Collection or Folder, right-click its name and select Add Color Label from the menu.

I find this most useful for Collections. For example, I use the blue Color Label for Print Collections, and the purple Color Label for Book Collections. That gives me a way of seeing all my Print or Book Collections at one time using the search function in the Collections panel. 

Collections search

You can access the search menu shown in the screenshot above by clicking the magnifying glass icon in the search field.

The blue rectangles on the right indicate the Collection’s Color Label (see below).

Color Labels and Collections

You can use the same search technique in the Folders panel.

I don’t use Color Labels for Folders myself, but there are plenty of uses for them. If it’s useful to you to find certain Folders fast, then Color Labels could be useful.

For example, if your Catalog includes photos from more than one photographer, you might like to use a specific Color Label for each photographer. You could use the same Color Label for both Collections and Folders, so you can search in either place.

Or if you want an easy way to find photos of your kids, you could use a Color Label for Folders or Collections containing those photos.

Mastering Lightroom Classic: Book One – The Library Module

You can learn more about using Color Labels, Star Ratings and Flags to organize your photos in my ebook Mastering Lightroom Classic: Book One – The Library Module. Every aspect of the Library module is covered so you can speed up your workflow and use Lightroom Classic more efficiently.

Introducing Lightroom Classic ebookThanks for reading. You can get more great articles and tips about Lightroom Classic and photography in my popular Mastering Photography email newsletter. Join today and I’ll send you my ebook Introducing Lightroom Classic and 47 PhotoTips cards. Over 30,000 photographers subscribe. Enter your email now and join us.

Mastering Lightroom Classic: Book One The Library Module ebook

More great Lightroom Classic tips, tricks and tutorials!

Leave a Comment