Curate For The Next Level

William Neill at Yosemite Valley
Using Lightroom Collections To Organize Thematic Portfolios Can Help Strengthen Your Unique Point of View and Prompt Greater Creativity.

Over the 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/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.

Finding Your Focus Through Thematic Development

During those years of teaching, I’d have returning students who would bring their recent images to the workshops for our image review sessions. I would often see a few good new photographs, but not often would I 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 I was involved in, like editing for a new book or exhibit, moved me towards 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 ebooks with the power of Collections in Adobe Lightroom. What worked for me could work for my students too.

Being able to organize 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 eight 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.

Last Light, Cottonwoods, Yosemite National Park, California 2022

 Photo ©William Neill

Make A Stronger Artistic Statement Using Lightroom Collections

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 for years, and some based on ideas I have for future bodies of work. Some of those seedling ideas go nowhere, and some take root to form important bodies of my work. Adobe Bridge has a similar Collections function. I also use Smart Collections to organize my images by rating, keyword, or chronology 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 Collections. Each new photo session often results in a few images that build depth to that theme or even multiple themes. The process can take a short time, like my Antarctica portfolio, which was created in five days of intensive shooting. Or it can take decades, like my Yosemite portfolio that was created over 45 years of living in or near the park. I see my photography in three parts: creating the photographs with my camera: processing those images in the digital darkroom, and the third part, 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.

Redbud and Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California 2021

 Photo ©William Neill

Yosemite Book Editing Process

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, 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 criteria about how many total photos to include, intimate landscapes vs. wide scenics, older work vs. new photographs for a given project.

As an example of my curating process for the book, this screenshot 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 Mode 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, three images featuring ice or frost. Although I like the overall balance of scale that emphasizes my preferred small scenes, I question whether I have too many “snow of 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 the Survey Module, you can apply your own criteria when you need to evaluate any set of images.

 Photo ©William Neill

In another example below, I have grouped together recent photographs in LR’s Survey Mode. I want to assess their quality and balance for possible inclusion in the book. I’ll continue to work in small sets like the above examples to slowly fill out the final image selection.

 Photo ©William Neill

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

Dogwood and Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California 2021

 Photo ©William Neill

Let Your Photographic Passions Guide Your Editing

Take your passion for a place or subject and build a portfolio around that passion. Make your statement about more than just 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 say. What is your passion?

William Neill at Yosemite Valley

William Neill is one of Out of Chicago’s diverse team of world-class photographers. To learn more about William and our photography conferences he’s teaching at, click here.

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