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I bought a new DSLR and I'm trying to become proficient in using the camera. In other words learning what the settings do and understanding when to use certain settings and how the settings effect the photo. I'm starting to take a lot of pictures.

I was wondering if anyone takes notes while they take pictures and what kind of information they record? A lot of the technical information (ISO, f/number, etc) is stored in the image itself with digital images so that wouldn't need to be recorded. But what else has anyone recorded to use to become a better photographer?

  • A lot depends in what kind of camera you are using and what application you are using to view the images later. Not all applications display all of the EXIF information included in each image you take, particularly the info in the "maker notes" section. Adobe products are notorious for not showing much, if any, maker notes info and even stripping it out when you export using Adobe products. – Michael C Apr 16 '17 at 20:11

11 Answers 11

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In the good old days of film photography, when there was no exif, taking extensive notes was the only way of learning from your mistakes - considerable time passed between taking the picture, having your film developed and finally seeing your print. By that time your memory was not a reliable source of information.

You can google up "Ansel Adams Exposure Record" to get an idea how that looked like.

Now the good old days are not coming back, and good riddance to them, but something in the idea has merit.

First of all in the film photography days film did not come free (unlike space on a SD card does nowadays). This quickly taught you to think, and think twice, before pressing the shutter. To turn such thinking into learning it was necessary to write it down and reflect on it.

Second is that your machine generated exif is very good in recording machine stuff - the how of the picture.

Exif has no idea of the emotional, personal stuff - the why of the picture. If you want to come back to it again you have to record it separately.

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    "The good old days are not coming back" is a little narrow. There's a small but enthusiastic group of us who shoot with emulsion film and still take notes. Some of us even do that on paper. – steel Apr 18 '17 at 19:22
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    @steel My main camera is Bronica ETRSi and I develop and print (B&W only) at home. I keep a little red notebook with my field notes and big red notebook with my darkroom notes. I am very passionate about my film and my notes. But it is highly unlikely that film will be mainstream again - and not that I complain, for I would not be able afford the kit I shoot now at the time it was state of the art pro equipment :) – Jindra Lacko Apr 18 '17 at 19:33
  • I'm marking this one as the answer but there are a lot of good ones. Many saying the same thing in different ways, the "why" of the picture as opposed to the "how" is a good summary. Thanks everyone. – Terry Diederich Apr 19 '17 at 19:22
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As far as I understand photography, your main concern is to record or remember what exactly you wanted to achieve before pressing shutter release. That is, have something that helps you to compare what you wanted with what image you get at the end.

In practical terms, for example, it might mean recording what you wanted to be exposed properly (more highlights or shadows). Or remember what part of the image you used to meter.

Something that is not in metadata might include weather and amount and quality of light outdoors (was it cloudy? was it harsh high noon sun?) Flash position (when attached to camera via cable) is also not in the file information.

Finally, I keep in mind tally of "keepers" and "good" images, aiming to have about 10% images that are not embarrassing and good technically, and around 1% of images that I would personally like ("good").

My subjects are usually in the middle of the frame, so I don't need to remember what I was photographing. But sometimes I get dull images when I don't get close enough to the subject, even cropping can't help there.

I don't take notes when photographing, but I try to get mental picture of what result I want to have in the end, that helps to make progress. For example, when shooting events/protests I set goal to stick camera into face (30-40cm away :) of at least 5 subjects, shoot backstage etc.

5

One of my photographic passions is landscapes and nature photos. A lot of what I choose to shoot involves using ND and ND grad filters, sometimes in combination. Because shooting with filters is already a lengthy process (as compared to run-and-gun street or sports photography), the overhead it takes to jot down which filters were used is minimal. Alternately, I have also at times used the voice recording app on my phone to take an audio note of the filter choices.

I find it greatly helps when I'm sorting through a whole stack of mostly the same scene. I tend to combine by filter usage with HDR or exposure fusion stacks. Having note of which stack used ND 0.6 vs 0.9 helps me understand what works in the future, so I will hopefully develop a better eye for the lighting.

This also helps when I need to buy new filters, to understand which ones I actually need (i.e., use the most), as opposed to which ones I only think I need (i.e., just want to complete the set).

3

I'm going to take a swing at this from an 'I'm just happy if I get one photo that works' perspective.

I do a lot of still-life & macro - with subjects that don't run away & lighting I control.

I don't have time to take notes, I'm busy trying to 'get that shot'.

Neither do I have a perfect memory for exactly what I was trying to achieve nor how I thought I may achieve it.

My excuse is "I'm an artist, not a scientist".
It's poor justification, but it's all I have & it's the way my brain works.

Instead, I take multiple shots while I'm trying to figure out what it is I need to make that one shot that actually works.

Reviewing the stream of discards that made up that learning curve it took to get the final shot is what teaches me how not to have to take 250 discards next time, to get the one.

It's not a perfect method. I won't be 'an expert' at 10,000 shots, it might take me a million, or I may never get there...
...but I can see my learning curve; it's there on my hard drive to review at any time.

Looking back on a day's shooting some time later is how you get the perspective that you may actually be getting better. It's also easier to see what you were doing wrong at that time [as a perfectionist, everything is always 'wrong' to some degree]

  • do you have a link to portfolio? – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Apr 16 '17 at 20:14
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    I don't really have a 'portfolio' as such - I'm still in my infancy as a photographer - I have some examples on viewbug but it's hardly comprehensive, sorry. – Tetsujin Apr 16 '17 at 20:27
  • I do a lot of birds and every session I come back with like 600 photos and only end up keeping 11 or 12. – Raystafarian Apr 17 '17 at 16:51
  • I've done many a walk round the park or local streets with similar [or lower] hit-rate. I think that was what pushed me towards macro & a more controlled environment. After getting a dozen clean clear shots of seagulls & pigeons perfectly frozen in flight, to have to discard them all because of the ugly supermarket that was dominating the frame... – Tetsujin Apr 17 '17 at 17:13
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What seems to be working for me is that I try to perform post production on the RAW files the same day I shoot. It creates a fast feedback loop in which the memory of how each shot was taken is still fresh. This makes it more likely I will have learned something the next time I go out shooting.

Part of what I may have learned will be about the relationship between field technique and 'darkroom' technique. For example, the practice of cropping photos in the 'digital darkroom' may help me better visualize compositions in the field. Conversely, a better understanding of noise reduction and exposure adjustment may make me willing to use more aggressive settings on my camera in adverse conditions.

Finally, taking lots of shots means I get a lot of practice and a lot of feedback. So the caveat is that I am not an "each and every shot is carefully and deliberately planned" sort of person.

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Some of the technical things that won't be recorded by your camera (or, even if recorded by your camera, won't be displayed by the application you use to view the images later) that may affect how the shot turns out, especially if you try several different ways of doing certain things during a session:

  • How you held the camera for a particular shot. What grip did you use? Did you lean against a solid object? Did you regulate your breathing?
  • Was the camera on a tripod? Did you use a wired cable release, infrared remote, or the camera's shutter button? Mirror lockup? (some cameras report this, some don't - but most apps don't show it in the EXIF info even if the camera included the info)
  • Image stabilization. Was it on or off? If on, which mode? Were you panning the camera with the subject or trying to hold the camera perfectly still?
  • Any flash information beyond a single shoe mounted (or built-in) flash. Location of the flash(es), modifier(s) used, power levels for each flash, etc. Your EXIF info will probably tell you if the flash was on/off and what flash mode was used. If only using one flash it should also report flash exposure compensation if using TTL mode or power level in manual flash mode. But if you are using multiple flashes set to different settings it won't tell you all of the detailed info about each flash.

Beyond things like that, there are other things that will help later. If it is not obvious by viewing the image itself:

  • What were the lighting conditions? Sunny? Cloudy? Overcast? Shaded while the sky was clear? Shaded while the sky was cloudy/overcast?
  • What was the angle of the sun/light source with relation to the camera?

Then there is the more artistic/philosophical information:

  • What was your purpose for taking the image? What made you want to take a photo of that?
  • What was your intended usage of the photo? How did you intend to show it to yourself or others in the future? Print? Small screen on an electronic device? Large screen on a computer? Web?
  • What kind of emotional response were you hoping to create in the viewer of the image? Were you trying to duplicate an emotional response you had when you viewed the scene?
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    I baffled as to the downvote on your answer was for. It pretty much covered the range of things people might take note of. – scottbb Apr 18 '17 at 0:15
  • Downvotes sometimes have little to with the actual answer. Because I usually include a comment when I do downvote other users seem to sometimes downvote an answer shortly after they received my downvote. Sometimes I probably get blamed for downvotes I didn't even cast. – Michael C Apr 18 '17 at 0:46
  • Have a +1. I was going to add my own answer about writing lighting information, but it's here. – Crazy Dino Apr 18 '17 at 12:38
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My first digital camera had a feature to record audio notes, which would be attached to or numbered with the previous photo taken. I thought that was great and was disappointed that camera stopped having this feature.

I've always carried a tiny spiral notepad and pencil in the pocket of my camera bag. Now, it’s easy to take notes the same as for any other time, not related to photos: use my phone. Evernote or voice recorder.

What kind of info:
Important — who is in the picture, if a stranger? Model release cards need paper forms. Note to send picture (specific number) to someone.

Attaching venue information is done when I copy the raw files to the computer. If the camera doesn’t have GPS or you leave it off, you may note the location if you won’t remember (e.g. on vacation).

  • One thing I find useful is to use a cellphone to take a picture of the setup. When doing macro work I will use up to 2 LED panels. One on either side of the camera. But sometimes it is just one on top or none. It also helps when using any multi-device set up i.e. multiple flashes, studio lights, or just to record different supports. Record things that are not automatically recorded in camera. Even if your camera records all the numbers it will not tell you later how far the lights were from the subject or what modifiers you had on. Then use the cellphone audio to record the above great ideas. – Raymond Apr 17 '17 at 19:20
  • Oh yes; same for product shots that I want to reproduce later. But I used another camera, not the phone; or used the same camera hand-held (documented the position of the tripod). Make sure the docs pictures are stored with the set! Shooting with the same stuff and importing with the rest is a good way to ensure that. – JDługosz Apr 17 '17 at 19:54
  • Why not shoot video for the note? At minimum, it is a way of recording audio. – user50888 Apr 18 '17 at 18:14
  • @benrudgers good point! Especially if there’s a dedicated video button rather than mode settings. – JDługosz Apr 18 '17 at 18:17
  • I stole it from @chrish comment on itai's answer. It had not occurred to me either...probably because my K1000 didn't do video in 1990. – user50888 Apr 18 '17 at 18:41
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This is such a common thing to do, that many cameras have a feature for it. You press a button and record yourself for a few seconds and press it again to stop. Some cameras may be configured to record after every shot. In either case, an audio file gets recorded with the same filename (different extension obviously) as the photo that was previously shot.

The point of taking notes is to complete the exposure information with the why and how of the shot. The type of things I like to record (but many times don't out of being lazy or busy setting up a next shot):

  • What is this that cannot be seem in the photo? Why was the photo taken?
  • Why is it cropped like this? There was a pole to the left, my shadow appeared over this part, etc.
  • How did I get here? Crawled though a rabbit hole in the third tree from...
  • Must come back here... when the sun is more to the left and higher.
  • What I wanted but couldn't do... can't get the whole building because there's a bus parked.

Basically anything that helps put that image in context or learn from.

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    Some cameras don't do this but do shoot video. Then you can set your video to the lowest quality and use a video file for spoken notes (and pan to show the offending pole/bus). Then of course the filenames will be seuqnetial rather than identical. – Chris H Apr 18 '17 at 9:48
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The one thing I record beyond the normal EXIF data that the camera already saves is the geographic location. I do this by keeping a GPS unit pretty much permanently attached to the camera. On my camera anyway, this also keeps the clock set properly.

In the film days, I used to write the time of every shot in a small notebook I carried for that purpose. In the latter days, if I was near a GPS unit, I'd record the lat/lon too. Otherwise I'd dig thru maps later and figure out where each picture was taken as best I could.

With reliable and accurate lat/lon automatically recorded into the EXIF data of each picture, you don't need to record political location. This is easy to find later from the lat/lon coordinates using OpenStreetMap, Google Earth, GMaps, or about a 100 other web sites or software. By political loction, I mean something like "United States > Texas > East Redneck > corner of Jackalope Lane and Chupacabra Blvd".

I still carry a small notebook with me, but most of the time I don't bother writing anything in it. With the camera recording when, where, and what it looked like, I usually have no problem filling in any remaining details I might care about from memory when post-processing the pictures.

  • Now on the rare occasions when I add a written note, I photograph the note so I don't lose it. Without GPS in my camera a photo of the phone GPS can help, or in many cases a photo of a sign. Alternatively a time-stamped note on a phone works well. – Chris H Apr 18 '17 at 9:47
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Do you remember you last best shot? I do. I think about them all the time. I know my settings. But different disciplines require different settings. You could write it down. But you can snap a pic of the pic and metadata with your phone and throw it in your favorites. You can do it for each type of shot you perform whether it be in the studio, on location, at dusk, motorsports, or air show.

Then comes the application of them or varying them to get the desired result.

Next, I would say the understanding of light and the mastery of magic hour, flash, diffusers, anything where light can affect your photo.

Then when you got all that down, buy new gear and learn the new gear. That is where you see where you want to go. And gear can be easy to acquire once you know what your want to focus on.

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More a longer-than-comment add on to other replies:

When useful I write a note by hand and photograph it. This may be photo context or email address / contact details of a subject or whatever.

Usually this relates to an adjacent shot. If not I add the frame number. As I tell people - if I can find the photos a year from now I can find your contact details. If I can't find the photos then it doesn't matter.

I sometimes expose a fully black or fully white frame as a visual marker when viewing as thumbnails, that lets me rapidly locate chosen images - whether notes or the image proper.

In cameras with still + video capability you can leave a spoken 'note'.

When using multiple cameras (often) at the beginning or end of a session or day,with each camera I photograph my watch at a minute boundary immediately after the minute has 'rolled over' (eg 11:23:00). The EXIF then contains the camera time and the image shows the watch time. This allows me to then synchronise the image streams so that they time interleave correctly.

If absolute time if important I photograph my internet synchronised time on screen at a computer minute boundary. This gives camera time to absolute time relationship and allows all camera images to be properly time synchronised.

Getting OTW :-) - If photographing sequences- maybe panoramas or related shots or ... , I may photograph an outstretched hand at the start and my foot at the end. Maybe I should make a collection of these :-).

If adding contact details after a sequence of photos I may add one extra shot of the person concerned so it is time-adjacent to the details. If there are several people in a group photo and I wish to be able to relate names to the photo I may write down the name and a brief description of each - often based on clothing colour or style.

_________________________________________

Sometimes other means are required:

enter image description here

  • I don't get the part about taking a picture of your watch. Why not just set the camera clock as you do the watch? Neither is inherently more accurate than the other, and both accurate enough for most purposes. Do you have a case where having the time wrong by a minute or even a few minutes actually matters? I keep a GPS on my camera that automatically sets its internal clock. I actually use the time display on the back of the camera to set my watch and car clock and the like. Photographing my watch would only tell me how far off the watch was. – Olin Lathrop Apr 21 '17 at 12:23
  • @OlinLathrop I often use 3 cameras at an "event" and sometimes more. If I swap between cameras during a sequence of actions then having the frames correctly time interleaved helps immensely. In such cases accuracy of within under +/- one second is desirable and less is better. If the "spread" in time of all clocks across the period that photos are taken in (usually 2-4 hours, or <= 8 hours or 24 hours depending on context) is under about a second then that does not need to be allowed for. Usually knowing the absolute time is not too crucial - but if all can be corrected to absolute time ... – Russell McMahon Apr 24 '17 at 4:28
  • ... then so much the better. One of my cameras is GPS time synced AND can include GPS location data per image. Using the watch as the "master clock" and photographing it as it rolls over a minute boundary usefully simplifies time comparisons. Cameras CAN be time synced to master using the normal date setting methods - you need to be aware how they behave when the set button is pressed (usually at a minute boundary of the master clock). ... – Russell McMahon Apr 24 '17 at 4:33
  • ... Taking a picture of the master clock (watch or PC screen) is useful as it allows post priori checking and allows frames from each camera to be placed somewhere in sequence so the desired corrections can be compared. One camera tends to advance something like a minute a week. The others are somewhat more stable. ... – Russell McMahon Apr 24 '17 at 4:37
  • ... || FWIW I MAY use (about never all at once) Sony A6300 (bought 2 days ago), Sony NEX 5T and 5N, Sony A77V, Sony A300 (backup A mount), Nikon D700 (same sensor as your D300), Old Canon Rebel (seldom), Gaggle of Sanyo XACTIs - mainly for video - scatter them around a venue wedding etc for continuous run birds eye videos). – Russell McMahon Apr 24 '17 at 4:37

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