Value of a Notebook

Ever felt a bit flat about your photography? Like you are taking the same groundhog day shots every time you go out? Last November, I made a commitment to take another step forward with my pursuit of creative growth. I had slipped into a groove which had rapidly developed into a rut. As photography is not a professional activity, interest comes from constantly improving and trying new things. Doing the same shots every day is something for commercial photographers – weddings, kids etc. – where predictability of the outcome is the objective.

I have a personal viewpoint that creativity is born from discipline. A commitment to invest time on a regular basis in a structured manner needs planning and intent. Most people that give up on a creative endeavour do so because of the lack of a structured approach.

Firstly, you have to realise that something is “learnable” – just pointing a camera without an understanding of composition is unlikely to consistently deliver a good result.

Secondly, you have to commit the time required to learn and practice the skill.

For me, the best way to achieve this is through taking notes.If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen. Writing stuff down in a notebook ensures that it “happened”. Writing things down lock them into memory, aiding the learning process.

What kinds of Notes and Notebooks?

1. Learning and Review Folder

What kinds of things do I note down?

After each shoot, I print out contact sheets of the final “maybe” images on a crappy little laser printer. I go through each image and make some notes on why the image works, and what could have been improved.


When I find another photographer’s work that I love, I try and pull apart their creative technique, and then start working up ways to learn it through execution. A great example of this is the series on Fan Ho.

I keep notes on technical stuff like developing results, new gear notes, etc.

Structuring out future shoots to ensure new techniques will be covered off.

Learnings from books and the internet. I keep summary notes on all kinds of relevant subjects from Gestalt Vision to Composition and beyond. Anything and everything that might help.

My favourite kit for this is Moleskine A4 binders paired with Moleskine lined and unlined hole punched inserts. You can buy them here :

Lined Inserts

Unlined Inserts

Ring Binder

Yah, I know they are a little pricey. Quality stationery is motivating – I love putting pencil to paper, and look for opportunities to take notes. It makes it easy to want to “study”.


2. Field Notes Notebook

Most of the time my camera bag contains

  1. Field Notes Notebook
  2. 4B pencil
  3. Eraser
  4. Sharpener

Field Notes are a small, soft covered notebook that easily fits into most camera bags or even in your pocket. They are perfect for the field being light and compact. The paper could be a bit heavier, but as I use pencils for most things, it is fine for double sided notes.

I also often glue in some ready reckoner notes that I have not yet committed to memory. For example, notebook in the picture is not a Sonic special edition… It is a small diagram illustrating the Golden Ratio to remind me to keep an eye out for natural occurrences of the same.


Before leaving the house and jumping on the train, I try and identify a couple of key things I want to explore regarding either technique or subject. Sometimes it will be a very narrow focus, other times it could be five or six different things. Having a purpose can help kickstart a day where things are a bit “meh”.

I usually sit down for ten minutes or so, once or twice during a shoot to review what I wanted to learn, and if I have been achieving the learning objectives set prior to heading out. The notebook also provides a more satisfying way to keep notes on locations and subjects etc. for follow up on future shoots.

Make sure the sharpener is a self contained unit – you don’t want graphite dust and pencil shavings messing up your bag.

You can buy Field Notebooks here.


3. Moleskine Notebooks – what I used to use.

Moleskine Notebooks are wonderful to write in. They have a hard cover and come in a range of sizes. My first photography journal was a Plain Large notebook.


I regularly used the Moleskine Notebook for everything – plannings shoots, reviewing results, learning, deconstructing photos I liked etc. Using it for everything meant it was perfect for nothing. It was a little small for desktop learning at home. It was too big and the structure rigid which made it difficult to live in a camera bag – the Field Notes have a soft cover and are flexible which helps them comfortably fit in most cramped bags.

It was still a pleasure to write in, and I occasionally refer back to it from time to time.


There is some more information around keeping notes at this post.




5 Responses to “Value of a Notebook”

  1. Brilliant again Ive kept a journal 35 years and endless motekoos. Im sad that i no longer have all the noteboos that taught recorded and i loved so much But i have my journals stored at my cousin’s. Have minimalised everything with my commitment to travel ligjt. But npe im tring to use my tablet for notes. Effective but not as pleasurable as a nice noebook. I like your thoughtfulness with comments about for example keeing the sharpenner separate Speaks of quality thinking if I may say.



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