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My take on having defined criteria for rating wildlife images ....

During a year end review of my Lightroom catalog I realised that despite having a robust and well thought-out ‘library’ module system for filing and finding my wildlife images, there was one particular aspect of the overall process where I’d become rather inconsistent, which was with the application of star ratings. 


Lightroom provides a number of different ways of naming, labelling or tagging photos so that you can quickly find them in the future. Personally I like to ensure that all my images are named in a similar way - month/year/custom name/sequence - and filed by type which, in simple terms, is by year in either a ’travel’ or ‘general’ subfolder structure. Each image then has location metadata added as well as numerous keywords relating to both where the photo was taken as well as the full species information. This procedure provides me with a very robust system that enables both quick access to any photo in the catalogue as well as ensuring that images directly uploaded to my Flickr photostream are fully keyworded. 


Once your photos are uploaded, reviewed, developed, named, keyworded and filed, you’ll want to have a system for marking and subsequently finding your favourite images - the most common methods being star ratings and/or colour labels, or the use of collection sets.   


Although I utilise all three methods, I’ve found that they have very different, albeit somewhat related, uses. I guess that star rating images would be the most popular method simply because it’s such a simple system. I’ll come to that in a minute but, before I do, I thought that for completeness I should briefly explain my use of coloured labels. I’ve tried a couple of different systems over the years, but have found that if you use more than one label set you can very easily use the required colour from the wrong set, which can lead to all sorts of confusion if you don’t immediately spot the error. Another problem can arise where certain photos need two colours because of how they are being used, but where the second applied colour simply supersedes the previous label. For these reasons I now use just one simplified set, which is primarily for identifying images that I have used in the main sections of my website. Those images are also referenced within a special collections set that mirrors the sections and content of the site. 


All in all, it’s a very tightly controlled system that works well and requires little input other than a disciplined approach. It has been refined over the years to satisfy new requirements and, particularly with my extensive keyword list, to remain current and relative.  


However, one’s perception of what actually makes a good wildlife image - a topic that I will write about in my next post - changes over time. I’m sure that I’m not alone in saying that what I rated as a good image ten years ago would certainly not warrant the same ranking today. In fact many of the star-rated photos in my archives should be stripped of their status if not consigned to the trash bin! Over time my once liberal use of higher star-rated images has changed a lot, but until now there has been no clear understanding of how ratings should be applied. 


Coupling the above with a new workflow system that I’ve been working on - the subject of another future post - I decided to give the matter of star-rating some rules. I use the term ‘rules’ loosely, because I’ve always been of a mind that rules are there to be broken on occasions but, for the point of this exercise having some rules, or guidelines if you like, will help me maintain some level of consistency. 


In the past I’ve tended to rate images from a given session or trip in isolation to the way I would apply the ratings to the next batch of photos I’d be reviewing. It’s this anomaly that I want to address, so by establishing the following guidelines I now have a reference point and no excuse for rating a photo higher than it should be rated just because it was the best image from a given trip.

This is what I came up with :-

Unrated : any unedited image that I’ve decided to retain for possible future reference or simply because I had better or similar images that were processed, even if the ‘unrated’ image was just as good. In simple terms, if I’m saving an unedited image it should not be star-rated.


1 star : this is the base point for all my images initially defined as a ‘keeper’ that will be subsequently processed (after further culling). The single star rating will be retained unless reclassified. It’s worth noting that I’m pretty ruthless in terms of deleting photos that don’t make the grade, which makes it much easier to select the images that truly warrant a 2-star or 3-star rating. 


2 stars : a photo that meets all the general requirements of being a good shot, but doesn't have the extra something that would move it to the next level (with a bird photo the subject could be static or in flight).


3 stars : a good photo as above but with added interest, which could be some action or behavioural activity such as species interaction, feeding, fighting etc (or, in the case of birds, taking off or landing, rather than simply flying).


4 stars : a really good image that incorporates much of the above, but is enhanced by the setting and composition. These are the shots that as a wildlife photographer you’re always trying to achieve, but in reality are difficult to capture due to a number of reasons. From a personal point of view I’m not defining images in this category by the subject. It could be a common bird or a rare animal. It doesn’t matter as long as the final image merits the criteria. Here you need a degree of subject co-operation, the right environment, a good position and angle of view (whether you’re on foot, or in a boat or safari vehicle) and, of course, appropriate light and weather conditions. A number of factors that seldom come together, but when they do you know you’ve nailed a 4-star worthy image.


5 stars : would only be given to those rare photos that encapsulate the above, but have an added or special ingredient that takes them to the next level. Some would say that these photos would be classified exceptional or of National Geographic standard, but in my opinion that is not always the case. When a professional wildlife photographer categorises an image at this level he/she will instinctively know that it meets the required standard, but an enthusiastic amateur, like myself, has a different perspective regarding what they believe makes a top level 5-star rated image. Whilst I have some really nice wildlife photos in my portfolio and some that clearly deserve a 4-star rating, I very much doubt that I have more than a handful of images that could realistically be put in this category. 



One important thing to note though before I follow on with a few example is, that if I have a number of similar images, I will select the ‘best of the bunch’ and upgrade its rating accordingly at the editing stage so that I don’t have to re-examine the complete sequence of shots later on. The selected image is then instantly recognisable for when I want to post it later on to either my Flickr photostream and/or Instagram account, or possibly to my website. In this respect I don’t mind using the same image as my audience and small number of followers across these mediums will be different. 


So let’s look at a simple example. The following ’screen shot’ from Lightroom shows two related sequences that were taken just a few minutes apart. The three photos in the first sequence (top row) are okay - good enough to keep but, particularly in light of the following images, are shots that will never get used. If you look at them in isolation, they could merit a three-star rating in accordance with the above criteria because they’re behavioural shots but, in my opinion, they are not good shots and, therefore, remain at the base one-star image rating.

Lightroom Screen Shot


After their initial mating session the lions moved slightly to the left, and I asked our guide to move the vehicle a bit further round so we could get a better angle and slightly cleaner background. It wasn’t far, but it was enough to make a difference. Unfortunately the light was dropping off rapidly as you might be able to see from the change in ISO from ISO1400 to ISO4500 despite reducing the shutter speed from 1/1000 to 1/800 and opening up the aperture from f/6.3 to f/5.6. But, even so, the resultant images are much better than the first sequence. All three warranted a three-star rating. The middle shot was my favourite, hence four-stars. You’ll also note that it has a red bordered colour label, because it’s an image that I’ve featured within my East African Safaris ‘collections’ album.

African Lions

Lions mating | Masai Mara


Obviously the whole subject of what makes a good wildlife image is subjective, particularly when trying to decide which is the best image from a sequence. If you have a good photo of a bird for instance that is taking off or landing you will probably get three or four images that are all post-worthy and the selection process may simply be down to the head or wing positions - not dissimilar to the previous example with the lions where I preferred the male’s head position in the middle image. With close scrutiny you may find that one photo is sharper and if it’s down to a choice between that photo and a similar one then, in most cases, the sharper shot will get the nod. 


Most of my decent bird photos are either 2-star or 3-star rated based on the type of shot as noted above. If I follow the ‘rules’ I can rate them correctly and consistently, only dwelling on the sequence shots to find the ‘best of the bunch’.


Here are a few examples :

Greater Spotted Eagle

Greater Spotted Eagle | Mara North Conservancy, Kenya

Greater Spotted Eagle

Greater Spotted Eagle | Mara North Conservancy, Kenya


Whilst the above photos could be considered similar, in the second shot the eagle has its wings back and its feet dropped ready for touch down, which for me clearly puts it in the higher rated 3-star category.

Montezuma Oropendula

Montezuma Oropendola | Boca Tapada, Costa Rica


I would like to think that anybody that looks at the above image will agree that it's a really nice photo of the bird. In the context of the shot I don't really see how it could be improved. For sure, if the Oropendola was calling or preening the photo would be more interesting, but in this shot it's just perched, so there's no justification to rate the image higher than 2-stars.

King Vultures

King Vultures | Laguna del Lagarto, Costa Rica


Personally I wouldn't like to say that either of the above images taken in Costa Rica is better than the other. I really like both shots, but the King Vultures are interacting and, consequently, the image warrants the 3-star rating.

And finally, let's look at two photos taken in Iceland that both have the same rating.

Red-necked Phalarope

Red-necked Phalarope | Lake Mývatn, North East Iceland


The above photo was taken during a successful early morning trip to the lake. The conditions were really good and the birds were close in. When I looked at all the shots of the Phalaropes swimming around I selected this image as the 'best of the bunch', hence the elevated 3-star rating. All the other shots from this particular sequence were left with a 2-star rating.

Slavonian Grebe

Slavonian Grebe | Lake Mývatn, North East Iceland


The Slavonian Grebe was one of my main target species for this trip so I was really pleased to come home with a number of good photos. However, nearly all the shots were of the birds simply swimming around - great light, great detail, but not doing anything that justified more than a 2-star rating, except (as with the Phalarope) where I wanted to identify the best shots from each session I had with them. On just two occasions that I can recall the bird I was photographing raised itself up to shake excess water from its wings. There were only a couple of photos that I liked, and both of those automatically gained a 3-star rating.

Out of interest, from the above six examples, only the King Vultures image made it into my 'collections' gallery.

Final thought :

Although these standard rating levels are well defined for typical wildlife photos, there are always going to be situations or different types of images to categorise. An example would be where the view as a whole and the scenery within the shot are taking precedence over the subject, but one where the subject although generally small within the context of the overall photo is still well defined and the main focus point. This could be a bird, probably in flight, but more likely to be animal or group of animals in the distance. Obviously images like this cannot be star-rated in the normal way so it’s a case of adapting the system and ensuring consistency. 

Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale | Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia


As you can see I gave the above image a 2-star rating, whereas many similar shots were left as 1-star. All I wanted to do here was to separate the better photos while I was editing them. I could just as easily have given all the Humpback Whale photos I retained from this trip a 2-star rating, with images like this one increased to 3-stars. The result would have been the same.

In my next blog post I'll discuss what I think makes a good wildlife image regardless of the species, the situation, or indeed its final rating within my Lightroom photo library.

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