Curating Inspiration

Using Lightroom Collections to build thematic portfolios can help strengthen your unique point of view and prompt new creativity
Screenshot of photographs organized using Adobe Lightroom Collections

Lightoom Collections and Survey functions can help focus your curation process, allowing you to examine relationships, similarities and differences between images in a group.

Over decades of teaching photography, I have greatly enjoyed helping photographers both in the field and in online classes. It’s been so rewarding to share amazing landscape locations like Acadia, Death Valley, Yellowstone, the Tetons and, of course, Yosemite, helping folks connect with nature and realize ways to express their experiences through their images. I want people to appreciate that they have a unique and valuable point of view. The process of discovery, of learning about themselves and engaging with the wonders of nature, can enrich our lives immeasurably. Learning to trust one’s feelings is vital for anyone wishing to develop their artistic abilities and communicate their own way of seeing the world around them.

During those years of teaching, returning students have brought their recent images to the workshops for our image review sessions. I would often see a few good new photographs, but I would rarely see substantial progress on building a body of work on a location or subject that inspired them deeply. I wondered how I could help them.

As I learned to use Lightroom, I found that specific projects, like editing for a new book or exhibit, moved me toward the idea of thinking about themes. The central themes in my work, Landscape of the Spirit, By Nature’s Design, Meditations in Monochrome and Impressions of Light, all took shape as books or e-books with the power of Lightroom Collections in Adobe Lightroom. What worked for me could work for my students, too.

Developing Lightroom Collections

Lightroom’s tools for organizing large numbers of images into manageable groups helped me immensely to visualize what I already had in my library—and know what I needed to add to strengthen the group. In seeing these advantages for myself, I wanted to pass my approach on to students, and I wrote an eight-week online course called Portfolio Development. As I taught the course over many years, I was delighted to see the resulting improvements in student portfolios and to hear their responses from learning to edit tightly and to express their passion for their subject matter more clearly.

With the significant asset of the Collection module in Lightroom, I have created dozens of Collections and Smart Collections, some focused on specific projects for clients, some for portfolios I’ve been developing over time, and some based on ideas I have for future bodies of work. A few of those seedling ideas go nowhere, while others take root to form important bodies of my work. I also use Smart Collections to organize my images by ratings, keywords or chronologically by day, month or year.

The editing process starts with downloading my digital files into Lightroom. Before I click on the Import button, I add keywords vital for searching for specific photographs later. As I edit, I rate them on both technical and aesthetics. Both rating and keywording help me during each future editing session to be more efficient. I can go to a group of images in folders or Collections and easily pick up where my editing left off.

In both my editing and field sessions, my theme ideas help funnel photos into my Lightroom Collections. Each new photo session often results in a few images that build depth to that theme or even multiple themes. Collections can grow rapidly in a short time, like my Antarctica portfolio, which was created in five days of intensive shooting, or take decades, like my Yosemite portfolio that developed over 45 years of living in or near the park.

The Art Of Curation

I see my photography in three parts: Creating the photographs with my camera, processing those images in the digital darkroom, and the presentation of the resulting artwork. From my many years of teaching, I feel that if photographers spent a little more time refining their presentations in terms of curating and refining what others see, their satisfaction level would rise substantially.

I am currently working on a new Yosemite book, going through the same process of curating I describe here, selecting only the finest photographs that communicate my decades-long love affair with Yosemite. Factors such as season, scale, lighting and subject matter will all be considered. The images that are the most expressive and unique will receive the highest priority.

Besides this broader view of subject balance, we can apply other criteria for a given project, such as the quantity of photos to include, compositional variety (e.g., intimate landscapes versus wide scenes), or older work versus new photographs.

As an example of my curating process for the book, the screenshot here shows a small selection of Yosemite winter photographs. They will be a significant aspect of the overall book, so I turn to Lightroom’s Survey function to get a clearer sense of what I have in my library.

In this grouping, I have two black-and-white images, five focused on trees with snow, four with a broader-angled view, and three featuring ice or frost. Although I like the overall balance of scale that emphasizes my preference for small scenes, I question whether I have too many “snow on branches” frames. I’ve also included two frames taken at Inspiration Point, so they are “maybes” because the book will be emphasizing less iconic imagery. Once you learn the value of Lightroom’s Survey function, you can apply your own criteria when you need to evaluate any set of images.

Inspiration From Curation

As you get comfortable working with Lightroom Collections and develop a few themes, ideas will come more easily for new projects. I find myself remembering photographs hidden deep in my archive that I could use for new themes. Sometimes, when I look at a grouping like this winter set, I get ideas for where or how I might add a fresh photograph to the set.

Take your passion for a place or subject and build a portfolio around that passion. Make your statement about more than just the literal, like “Yosemite” or “Waterfall.” My intended title for the Yosemite book is Yosemite: Sanctuary in Stone. This landscape has been my sanctuary for four decades, a refuge of solace and peace. Despite the park’s issues of being overcrowded, it is easy enough to walk away a few hundred feet from the road. Every trip I make into the park, my sense of wonder for nature is rediscovered, and it enriches my life.

To reach the next level for your photography, think about what you want to say. Then put it all together in a portfolio to make a powerful statement beyond what a singular image can convey. What is your passion?

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.