Ninja Notebook Skills

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So we’re in the grip of the usual summer doldrums, the time of year when we we all pray for the onset of Autumn, the time of year when everyone hopes the soft early morning mists and sensible sunrise times will help erase the self doubt and lack of motivation many of us suffer from throughout the green, green, greeeeen months of May to September.

Whenever I hit this spot, I always find myself clinging to my notebook.  I use Moleskines because I love the feel of them, but any old notebook will do, it’s writing in it that counts. I’ve kept a notebook for a few years now, and it’s become an invaluable and inseparable part of my photographic workflow.

As a result I thought I’d share some of the ways in which I use my notebook and how I find it helpful, particularly when the glums come to visit, and I’ve also never done one of those Top 10 blogs that seem oh so popular over on the big photographic community websites.  So strap in, adopt your finest Bruno Brookes Sunday evening pop pickers Radio 1 deejay voiceover (other DJ’s are available, insert the one that dates you to your childhood) and we’re off…

In at 10. Have a dialogue with myself over time to discuss an image or idea

We all know how fickle we can be about our work sometimes, liking it one day, hating it the next, then being unsure about it before coming back to it a few weeks later and loving it or dismissing it totally.  Simply printing it out and sticking it in the notebook, then writing down how you feel about it over the period of a few weeks or months, responding to your earlier comments, can really help give you an objective view of it, and sometimes remind you that ‘You’ from six months ago really had no idea what they were on about and probably shouldn’t be allowed near a camera…it’s called personal growth apparently.

9. Break down an image and critique it

Print it off, stick it in the book, draw all over it, tear it apart, analyse the structure of the composition, look for the shapes and forms in the image, examine the tones, the colours, the textures.  Draw a big fat circle in red crayon around that annoying highlight near the edge of the frame or the branch that sticks in at the side and ruins your otherwise perfect composition that you simply didn’t see when you took it. Make multiple layers of critique by overlaying your image with several pieces of acetate or tracing paper covered in your own ruthless scrawl. Cathartic and therapeutic, just be brutal and honest, it’s your notebook, no one will see it except you…it’s a safe environment! Most importantly make a note to take the secateurs with you when you go back to re-take the image with the annoying branch in it…

8. Capture quotes

Hear something inspirational? Workshop leader say something zen like to you while you were up to your knees in cold atlantic seawater? Inspired by a piece of prose or line from a poem that sparked an idea in your frontal cortex? Or did a knowledge nugget drop unexpectedly with a clang from the mouth of one of your photography mates and you simply don’t want to acknowledge their sagely wisdom for fear of never hearing the end of it?  Write it down….have a page at the back of your notebook for the gold, and maybe a different page for the brief moments your mates transmogrify into a photographic guru…alright, maybe half a page, ok, possibly a crumpled corner…

7. Journalling when questioning self or work

We all go through chunks of time where we doubt ourselves and/or our work.  Journalling during these times is a great thing to do. Writing down exactly what you’re thinking helps your brain work through those thoughts. Any means of writing is fine, no bells and whistles required, stream of consciousness stuff is fine, bullets are OK, mind maps work for some too, the important thing is externalising those thoughts of self doubt, or self questioning, and the third person perspective gained by doing so doesn’t change the doubts but gives you a different relationship to them and can help you work through those questions.

6. Location or trip research

If you’re on location and spot something with potential, make a note of it.  Yes you can drop a pin onto a google map on your phone, do that too, it’ll help if you’re a millennial who can’t read an actual paper map ‘like what your dad used to use’, but you can’t easily note down how the scene made you feel, what it smelt like, what exactly caught your eye, what potential the scene holds under different lighting conditions…oh alright record an audio annotation….that you’ll never listen to again…ever…pah!

A notebook is just as useful for planning trips and locations from the comfort of your tabletop with an OS map and a mug of tea…and remember an OS map also doesn’t need batteries, works in deep woodland and deep valleys where the lack of data signal is why people choose to go there in the first place. Your map & notebook will never send you into a panic sweat with a flashing red 10% warning.

5. Collating ideas

A notebook is a really obvious place to harvest and store those ideas we all regularly have for images, locations, projects etc. They’re in one place and we can revisit them and build on them whenever we feel like it. One tip I’d have is to have a system for marking them up or writing them down….so you can find them again easily when you want to…nothing worse than having a great idea and burying it in the margins of a completely different note never to be found again.  Ideas are great….making them a reality is even better.

4. Contact sheets

Had a good day out shooting in the field? Working on a project? Gathering candidate images to enter into the next [insert random letter]POTY competition? Refining a set of images down for a blog post? Then print out a contact sheet, stick it in the notebook and get your crayons out all over it, go old skool and get your Magnum picture editor hat on.  Contact sheets for me are one of the things that have been lost in the modern era of digital, you can learn so much from them. How you eventually got to that composition that worked, how subtle tiny differences between two images make one work better than the other, how your shooting companions bright orange winter jacket really does stand out in those shots where they wandered straight through your composition. Yes you can use grid or survey view in Lightroom to view images in a similar fashion, but you still can’t write easily on the screen and make notes in the margins of a digital image file.

3. When you’re on location…and struggling – externalising a scene 

This is an interesting one I’ve deployed quite successfully a few times in the past when I’ve been struggling with a particular view. When you’re standing looking at a potential image or vista and wondering where to start or what you’re looking at, simply put the camera down grab your notebook and simply describe the scene, write down what you see, what you’re looking at…don’t overthink it, just let it flow, and you’ll automatically start to identify what the image is about, and what elements are the cornerstones of the composition.  For example, when I stood in this infamous little patch of woodland in Wester Ross, I wrote down what I saw…

Up the slope a large plantation of ghost white mature beech trees, a few ugly stumps and an old stone wall partly covered in green moss. At the foot of the slope in the other direction fifteen or so white to French limestone grey, trunks of maturing beech, softly textured not smooth, set against a very dark conifer plantation, the darkest patches almost black and featureless, but contrasting strongly with the white trunks. Trunks run not only vertically, but horizontally and at 45 degrees. Foliage on the trees is quivering slightly due to a gentle breeze.

Writing this down might seem like an exercise in pointing out the bleeding obvious, but by doing so, by externalising my own thoughts…and the key is externalising them…I not only noted the obvious white beech against black background, but also the relationship between the angles of trunks and boughs, and the fact that the movement of the leaves had caught my eye.  I then had the most important aspects of the image in my head and could make the image I wanted to make, with the elements I wanted to include. Most of us do this to some degree automatically without thinking, but for those moments when you’re struggling and find yourself stood in front of a complicated scene or at that moment when you know there’s a composition in there, right in front of you, right there, but you’re not quite sure where, and you can’t see it for looking..try it…it might help you focus and distil.

2. On location sketching…for fun…

Unlock your inner artist…even if you don’t think you can draw…grab your pencils, pens or paints and exploit the fact that even if the weather is crap or unhelpfully blue or relentlessly mid-grey, you can still sketch it how you wanted it to be, and without that annoying telegraph pole in there too, and while you’re at it, move that fence line a few metres to the left and into the right place in the composition so it works better….artistic licence is hugely freeing and a welcome break from staring through the viewfinder now and again.  More importantly it’s another exercise in ‘seeing’ in a different way.  it’ll make you look hard at the landscape in front of you, look closely at the forms and the relationship between them as you build the image and decide what to include instead of what to exclude as we normally do.

And for two years running and still topping the charts it’s:

1.  Looking back…so you can move forward…

This is the most important part of the whole notebook thing for me, and whilst some of these techniques require you to refer back to a specific image or idea, the ability to simply pick up your notebook and flick back through the last few months or years of your work, thoughts, projects and self doubt is incredibly valuable.  The rich picture it paints, the connections and associations you suddenly make by looking back through the pages are usually unexpected, refreshing and full of clarity.

Looking back really can help you move forward…




  1. Jeff  —  August 12, 2017 at 5:35 pm

    Insightful blog Karl. I too have a moleskin notebook. Took it to Nepal. Looked through it again as entries generally related to scenes and images. As it went on it became more about food and how much would a divorce cost…?

    I’ve also used it to bullet point amusing or critical points in my 30 year previous career. Started a short story which may become more than that and about to commence a separate tale about Gertie the opera singing parrot. My first detection….?

    • admin  —  August 12, 2017 at 5:41 pm

      If there was anyone I know who takes pleasure from writing in a pad with a pencil it would have to be you Jeff 😉 Looking forward to hearing all about Gerties adventures over a pint sometime soon

  2. Nigel Cooke  —  August 12, 2017 at 5:42 pm

    Interedting read, thanks. Really should give it a go (have thought that before!) but I fear it’ll be something else to keep on top of and worry about whether ‘I’m doint it right’ ? On the other hand, if writing this comment helps, just think what a journal could do…

    • admin  —  August 12, 2017 at 5:56 pm

      it’s definitely something to dip in and out of….feeling the need to religiously keep it up to date can be suffocating, so don’t feel the pressure to keep it bang up to date all the time if you do give it a go…

  3. Dominique  —  August 13, 2017 at 5:42 am

    Pretty inspiring! Thank you…I might just give that a go…?

  4. Kaare  —  August 17, 2017 at 5:23 am

    Great article! It’s always interesting too have a peek inside anothers notebook!

  5. Alastair Ross  —  August 27, 2017 at 10:19 am

    Great read – makes me feel guilty about my half hearted attempts at note booking and capturing my thoughts as I go (also very jealous of your drawing skills 😉 )

    • admin  —  August 27, 2017 at 10:24 am

      Cheers chap, half hearted is fine by me…diarising continually can be soul sapping. As for the drawing, I picked a passable one for the blog 😉

  6. Colin Smith  —  April 8, 2018 at 2:14 pm

    Rob Knight signposted us all to your blog on Notebook/Scrapbook/Journaling skills at #connected2018 yesterday, so glad he did. Excellent article, thanks for sharing, lots of food for thought on upping my game, reflecting and learning. I have always keep notes, just needed a way of organising them better.


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