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Better Pictures Through Words: The Lost Art of Photo Field Notes


Modern cameras keep a lot of information about your pictures. Digital cameras record EXIF (Exchangeable Image File Format ) data about the characteristics of images, time and date, and even GPS location information. With the data and tools available today it is possible to file and search your images in many different ways, from camera or lens type to geographic location.

Although all that data is important, photographers can, and should, go further. To be truly engaged in taking your pictures, it pays to record the who and the why of photographs as well as the what and when. All the things that happen outside the frame have a big impact on why an image matters, and who it matters to.

In The Days Before EXIF

Photographers in the film days would take many more notes that modern day photographers, simply because they had no digital helpers like EXIF. Usually they would carry a pen and a notepad to record important information about each photo. Data like shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and film type for photos were all recorded that way. One can just imagine the slow process of note taking and how unsuited it would be to the modern style of photography, where photographers take dozens of pictures in rapid succession and save hundreds of pictures on a single memory card.

One benefit, however, from note taking being such a slow process was that photographers had more time to think their photographs. Furthermore, as they were not able to see the pictures taken before the roll was developed and printed (or simply developed in the case of transparencies), taking notes would help, later, to relate each picture to the notes taken, for better understanding the reasons why a photo failed or was successful.

Exposure log books were common tools for photographers using film No EXIF existed back then
Exposure log books were common tools for photographers using film. No EXIF existed back then!

Taking notes was, in fact, essential to the learning process, as there was no immediate feedback after taking a picture. Photography schools would suggest their students to keep records of everything, those mentioned above and also time of the day, lighting conditions, type of film, ISO used and any deviation from it (for push processing afterwards), filters used, if the image was from a bracketed series, a tripod was used or not, and any other information that might be important to understand the result.

Because taking notes was such an important part of photography for serious amateurs, students and professionals, everybody would create their notebooks, each adapted to their own needs. For those not wanting to make their own notebooks, it was possible to buy some standard photographer’s log pages, with spaces for essential data. Magazines also offered log books like the one shown here, from the British monthly Practical Photography.

Exposure log books allow to write notes about each specific photo taken and can be a logic way to slow down your photography
Exposure log books allow to write notes about each specific photo taken and can be a logic way to slow down your photography

Taking Notes For a More Complete Picture

Although exposure log books are still in use by some photographers shooting film, the truth is that note taking associated with photography is very much a thing of the past for most of us. But it should not be so! In fact, note taking is still a very important part of photography in modern days, especially if you think of the multiple new ways your photography can be presented. With the advent of digital slideshows, online galleries, multimedia productions having more than just your photographs makes for much better story telling. The transition to digital, and it's nature as a cheap multi-image medium, means that notes are more important than ever. If you care about telling a story you should probably do more than trust your EXIF and GPS data. If you want to get good start to take notes, real notes, about your photography.

Digital Photography is a Multimedia Medium

Although a lot of ground is covered nowadays, as modern cameras take care of a lot of information that had to be penned before, there’s still a lot you can do to guarantee your photographs can tell brilliant stories. Taking notes is one of them. 

The more information you have about your photographs, and not just technical aspects, the richer your presentations can be. The slideshow presented below, DIIS MANIBUS - Rituals of Death During the Roman Age  is an example of how having field notes helped to create a better document. The slideshow only reaches it's full potential with text and images are combined.

The Five Ws and You

This all takes us into another realm you may not think is related to your photography: journalism. Even if you aren't a journalist, the camera is a documentary device at it's core: it records an image of the world in front of it. Adopting the critical stance of the journalist can help you take better pictures. Don't stop at merely taking pictures: investigate your subjects, and answer to the five essential questions when it comes to document a story:

  1. Who is it about?
  2. What happened?
  3. When did it take place?
  4. Where did it take place?
  5. Why did it happen?  

Getting answers to those questions will help you to give context to your photography. You may not need to ask someone, each time, for the answers to the Five Ws (as it is called), but exploring books, online information and any other available sources may help you to get a better picture of what you just photographed. That’s what journalists do, and also what many photojournalists do, especially if working alone. It is not just taking pictures, it is understanding them and the reasons why we take them.

The Lost Art of Taking Photo Notes

The Microcassette recorder from 1969 changed the way journalists recorded interviews
The Microcassette recorder, from 1969, changed the way journalists recorded interviews. Many photographers also used them to record notes in the field.

For taking this kind of notes in the field, it is often better to use a voice recorder. In the old days journalists would use real tape recorders to register sound and the answers from the people interviewed. The first tape recorders where monstrous reel to reel tape deck equipment cumbersome  to take around, but with the cassette deck with a compact cassette, circa 1963, they became smaller and more portable. The introduction of the microcassette by Olympus in 1969, along with their line of small recorders, changed the way journalists took many notes in the field and recorded interviews.

Modern smartphones include tools like this Pocket Recorder a digital recorder  that photographers can use to record their thoughts while in the field
Modern smartphones include tools like this Pocket Recorder, a digital recorder that photographers can use to record their thoughts while in the field

Tape recorders, even those with microcassettes, are a thing from the past, but the idea of recording your own notes in the field is still important, and there are excellent tools available to do it. Although there are specific voice recorders available, your own smartphone may be used, with excellent results. There are multiple apps in the market, free and paid, that can be used to record voice. For Windows Phone 8 users one viable suggestion is the Pocket Recorder, but there are multiple programs to choose from. Owners of Android and iPhone users also have a wide choice of voice recorders available.

A voice recorder like Pocket Recorder, which is in version 10, allows to save files directly to any folder in the phone’s SD Card, and also share the voice file with Office and OneNote or attach it to an email. The recordings can be geocoded, a feature that can be interesting if you’re travelling and keep lots of notes. The app also allows to record in the background, while you perform other tasks in the phone (like checking at what time the moon rises in a specific spot), to convert files to compressed mp3 format, or to create ringtones from your recordings.

A voice recorder may be your best friend if you do not like to take notes. But do remember that taking notes on paper still allows for a freedom that you hardly get other ways... unless you use some kind of – digital – notepad. Sketching your location may be a good extension of your note taking. Drawing, even if you’re not much good at more than sketching matchstick men, may be helpful to create a complete diary of your adventures. We tend to think that we can keep in memory everything, but time and age fade the memory and some detail gets lost. Having taken notes will help.

Notebooks an application for Windows Phone 8 allow to create notebooks for each subject mixing audio photography drawings and text
Notebooks, an application for Windows Phone 8, allow to create notebooks for each subject, mixing audio, photography, drawings and text

If you’re not into carrying a paper notebook with you, then again your smartphone may come handy. Applications like Notebooks allow you to create multiple paperless notebooks for every subject and avoid messing up your notes. Available for free, Notebooks allows to mix text, photos and even drawings in documents that can be uploaded to OneDrive so you do not lose your notes. As a note gathering tool Notebooks is an interesting program to have for photographers and other authors needing to write notes and associate them with photos and sketches. It even lets you dictate notes to it, although how fast this works depends on how the system understands you.


By now you have an idea of how taking notes can give your photography a real boost. Taking notes isn't just so you can remember afterwards; it's about slowing yourself down and being deliberate about your pictures. The purposefulness that note-taking creates is something that leads to getting better at photography.

If we consider that our photography is, in many occasions, a reflection of how we interact with spaces, written notes with your thoughts and descriptions of places - maybe a capture of the audio of birds chirping, water flowing, or the breeze on the trees - can enhance the experience, not only for you, but for the people you share your photographic adventures with later. Take note of this. It is a sound advice!

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