Building a Cinematography Reference Library in Lightroom

One of the most important steps in a cinematographers workflow is pre-production. Although there are many components involved in planning the look of a project, referencing relative, already existing media is one of the best ways to begin formulating a visual style you hope to bring to the table. Gathering these reference images not only serves as a great source of inspiration, but also provides a method of sharing and communicating your ideas regarding visual aesthetics and tones with a director, producer, client, or crew. When everyone is prepared and on the same page regarding the look of a project, you position yourself one step closer to ensuring a smooth shoot and a successful final product on par with how it was envisioned.

When I begin planning a new project, I usually start gathering reference images by watching media I think will be relevant to the project. Although this has always been an effective strategy for me, I realized the only time I was abundantly and actively saving stills was during these early pre-production stages. I am constantly watching content online (movies, indie shorts, web series...) and consequently coming across amazing cinematography that I appreciate in the moment, but ultimately I forget about it or am unable to find it again later. This is not because the work wasn't memorable, but because I did nothing to ensure I retained these images long-term.

Realizing there was an opportunity to increase my efficiency and expand my knowledge base as a cinematographer, I began perpetually taking screen shots from everything I watched. By collecting standout stills along the way, I significantly increase the amount of images I am able to gather, retain, and reference later. Although it is still important to take the time to seek out specific reference material for new projects, continuously saving stills gives me a jumpstart on the process by having access to a comprehensive database of visual media I've already absorbed. The next step was figuring out how to organize the library I was building in order to easily access and find the saved material.


LIGHTROOM TO THE RESCUE I needed a way to file and manage the images I was accumulating. I didn't want a massive folder full of screen shots, or even a structured file directory that would be difficult to navigate through. I needed a platform that would allow me to store images, categorize them, and then tag them with labels, information, and descriptions that would all be searchable. Lightroom was the solution. 

Setting up the the structure of my reference library in Lightroom was a bit of a time consuming process, however once in place, adding images became very simple and streamlined. Not only am I able to keep a categorized catalog of amazing cinematography that is easily navigable, I can include significantly more information in Lightroom than I had originally hoped for. Attaching this information requires more research, but the extra effort strengthens the effectiveness of my library and expands my abilities as a cinematographer. I'm discovering that I am better at recognizing certain aspects of cinematography as a result of familiarizing myself with the content and tools it was created with. It's becoming easier to identify common patterns, lighting techniques, camera movements, and aesthetics associated with certain pieces of equipment or filmmakers. After importing images into Lightroom, I tag them with the names of directors and cinematographers, technical details about cameras and optics, and other traits including colors, angles, moods, tones, descriptions, or any other information I feel may be relevant or beneficial to understanding a shot. Including these details in the metadata also improves the searchable content associated with each image.

BUILDING THE CATALOG Regularly taking screen shots and adding images into Lightroom takes effort to make habit, but is worth the time. I'm sure there are better features or strategies in Lightroom I could be taking advantage of, but so far this is the most streamlined process I have developed that has been successful to my needs:

  1. Gather inspiring screen shots: Remember to only gather images that you like! This guarantees that your reference library is full of images that contain qualities and aesthetics that appeal to you, and that you would enjoy referencing with crew members for your projects. Don't include anything that pertains to a style of cinematography you wouldn't want to do.
  2. Import into Lightroom: I have a folder on my computer that I move all of my screen shots into either prior to import, or by using Lightroom's "Move" feature during import in order to gather all of the image files into a central location. Should I ever need to move my library to another computer, an external hard drive, or other destination, transferring all of the images associated with my Lightroom catalog will be an easy task.
  3. Add to Quick Collection: The first thing I do after importing a set of images is add them all into Quick Collection. Since I need to categorize and attach information to the screen shots I've just imported, I need a way to keep track of which images have been organized and detailed. Quick Collection is an easy label that can be applied to images, identifying them as new files needing attention. To ensure I am tagging only newly imported images, I use the "Previous Import" catalog and tag all images inside with the Quick Collection icon. If an image is in my Quick Collection, I know it still needs sorting. 
  4. Sort and categorize: Allocating images into appropriate categories is the most basic organizational step when creating a library that's easy to navigate. I use a directory of collections in Lightroom to create albums of images that meet specific criteria. The further into the directory I go, the more targeted a shot becomes towards thecharacteristics of the collection in which it is located. My directory is comprised of four main tiers. I begin by classifying a shot by time of day as either day or night. I then determine if the scene is an exterior or an interior location, getting even more specific in the next tier by classifying the exact environment in which the shot occurs. Finally I sort the image as either a wide, medium, or close-up shot. This system allows me to easily find relevant images I may have saved for common scenarios found in film. Should I ever need to plan a shoot that requires a wide shot of a character walking on a sidewalk at night, or a close-up of someone sitting in a bar, I will be able quickly reference similar images that I've bookmarked. The idea is not to copy or recreate the shots I've saved, but to provide a context of how I may want to shoot a scene based upon how other DPs have successfully shot similar environments.
  5. Populate the metadata: This is possibly the most time consuming portion of the entire process, but arguably the most important. As I already mentioned, I like to pack the metadata with as much content as possible. I include directors, DPs, cameras, lenses, film stock, colors, moods, emotions, lighting set-ups, ratios -- essentially whatever information I able to get my hands on. I might include a description of why I saved the image or an idea it prompted. The more information I include attach to the file, the more beneficial it will be later on should I utilize it for a project or look book.
  6. Remove completed images from Quick Collection: Once an image is categorized and metadata has been added, I remove the Quick Collection label. I usually have a handful of images floating around in my Quick Collection because I don't always have the time to organize everything right away.

COLLABORATE IN THE CLOUD! One of the coolest features I discovered when first setting up Lightroom was the ability to access the library from multiple computers IF both the catalog and image files are hosted on a cloud service, like Google Drive or Dropbox. Not only does this create a backup of my valuable database resource, but I also have the ability to invite anyone with Lightroom into my library (a very exciting concept!). I frequently work on projects with writer and director, Andrew DiCristina, and have invited him into my library as a collaborator. Andrew and I have been working together for years and have developed a very cooperative process on the projects we produce. One of the many reasons working with Andrew is so enjoyable is because we share a similar visual style and appreciation for certain aspects of cinematography  -- (side note: be sure to check out his awesome color breakdowns). As a collaborator to the library, Andrew has access to all my saved stills and notes, and can also add his own content to the library. Recognizing that Andrew and I share a similar taste in imagery establishes an understanding that only strong images will be included amongst our database. Curating a collection of images with a creative partner not only expands the library at an accelerated rate, it also opens my eyes to new content I may never find on my own -- an incredibly beneficial asset as a cinematographer.  

PLANS FOR EXPANSION A component of the library I have only recently started putting together is a lens catalog. The idea behind the catalog is to create a database of common lenses used on productions that includes characteristics and information about each lens family. Corresponding images in the library that utilize these lenses would then be linked to the lens profiles as viewable examples of the pictures they produce. Essentially I am doing the research ahead of time so that down the road I will be able to easily pick out applicable lenses for projects that require specific looks. If I know I want to create images with a creamy, vintage aesthetic, then I can go through my catalog and pick out the lenses that match those characteristics. If I need fast lenses for a dark shoot, or lenses that produce a clean image, I can easily find them and ideally conduct tests afterwards.

The potential for what information can be included in the database seems infinite. It's important to remember that effectively using Lightroom as a reference library for cinematography directly correlates with the effort that is put into building it. I recognize that it will take years of work to have a large enough collection of images operating at the level I want. Maintaining the library has become a project in itself, but it is one that I enjoy working on and can complete in small sessions at a time. Creating a database like this may not be an effective pre-production strategy for everyone, but it's something that helps me become better at my craft and provides me with a sensation of preparedness for the projects I am a part of.