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Long ago I developed the routine of making notes about what, where, and how I was photographing. I am not really sure why anymore, and I don’t know if it has made me a better photographer, but it is habit now, and somehow I don’t feel that I have completed the process of making a picture if I haven’t written things down.

As someone who appreciates writing, I have an affinity for Moleskine journals and notebooks, and purchased a pocket version in which to write my notes. It is beautiful and utilitarian little thing, 3 ½” x 5 ½” that flips open at the top, and has a hard cover which makes note-writing in the field very handy. At the time I was shooting medium format, and simply made notes of the exposures that I made on each roll of film in a separate page of the notebook.

But when I moved up to a 4x5” camera I decided that I my note-taking routine could also help me cope with some of the added considerations of large format such as bellows extension factors; sort of a guideline for making a picture with the camera. A form that outlined my process and on which I could record pertinent information seemed to be the answer. After a number of revisions and refinements, here is what I have settled on:

(NOTE: When I uploaded the article, the table that I pasted here got messed up. So the actual form can be viewed in either the pdf or doc attachments.)

It is the size of a standard index card (3”x5”). I created it as a Microsoft Word table, which allowed me to customize the size, row and column widths and heights, and other aspects. Many of the fields are self-explanatory, but here is why they are important to me and how I use the information:

File #: I have used a reverse-chronological system for many years, so the exposures that I made a few days ago in Gary, Indiana will be 2011-06-18. This helps me locate the file containing an older negative more quickly, since I often have a pretty good idea what year the exposure was made, and almost always recall the time of year.

Holder: Each holder has its own number, along with side A and B. Recording this data helped me find a leaking holder once, and when combined with the file number provides a unique number for multipe exposures made on the same day.

Film: I almost always use Ilford FP4, but write it down anyway.

I.E.: I happen to expose FP4 at box speed, but I write down my exposure index for two reasons. First, it reminds me to check the film speed wheel on my light meter; sometimes it gets bumped to a different speed. Second, it reminds me to change the film speed setting on the meter on the rare occasion that I use a film with a different I.E.

Subject/Notes: Usually just a one or two word note of the subject in case my numbering system gets messed up. Sometimes I know what I want to title the finished picture and write it down here. It is also helpful when I am on a shooting trip and want to review what I have photographed at the end of each day. After a long day of photographing a number of things it surprises me how often I forget what I shot.

Movements: Mostly I record plane-of-focus movements here. I am still learning large format photography and find this information helpful when reviewing negatives to see if my ideas worked.

Lens: The focal length used to make the exposure.

Highlight EV: The meter reading of the most important highlight as part of the subject brightness range calculation. I also note what element of the scene represented that value for later evaluation of the negative and proof print.

Shadow EV: The meter reading of the most important shadow area, again for SBR calculation and as a basis for setting the exposure.

Bellows: Since this is an important factor that did not apply to medium format, I found myself sometimes forgetting to account for bellows draw. This reminds me that after focusing, I need to measure the bellows extension and consult a chart I keep in my notebook.

Factor: And write the number of stops here.

Filter #: I don’t often use filters, but when I do I note the number here.

Factor: I have written the number of stops that each filter absorbs on the filter envelope, and note it here.

Adjusted EV: After subtracting the bellows and filter factors from the shadow EV reading, the EV on which my exposure will be based goes here.

Exposure: I note the f/stop and shutter speed on this line.

Reciprocity: For exposures longer than 1 second (with FP4), I go to another chart in my notebook to calculate reciprocity, which becomes the final exposure given in seconds.

SBR: Proponents of “Beyond the Zone System” may take umbrage with my use of this term, but it is a simple label for the difference in stops between the highlight and shadow readings.

Development: Either in the field or later before developing the negatives I will decide whether to expand or contract development based on the “SBR” reading, minus any reciprocity correction.

Developer/Time/Temp/Agitation: After completing an exposure, I put the card with the negative holder so that back in the darkroom I can note the developer that I will use, how much time to give it, at what temperature, and my agitation scheme. I don’t change developers often, but it has been interesting when reprinting older negatives to see what developer and developing method I used in comparison with my current routine. The card is filed with the negatives and proof prints and becomes a permanent and complete record of the negative exposure and development.

Having devised the format, my next problem was printing them in a way that would be efficient to use in the field. I wanted to continue using my cool little Moleskine notebook, but I needed a way to incorporate the form into it. I found the solution at the local office supply store in a product manufactured by Avery, a company that makes sticky labels. But instead of labels, their item #5388 are 8 ½”x11”, blank card stock. The sheets are perforated so that 3 index cards can be printed from each sheet on an inkjet or laser printer using a label template in Microsoft Word. I pasted my form table into the template 3 times, so that each space on the template is identical. I print the file onto sheets of the Avery material, then turn them over and flip them end to end, and print them again so that the form is upside down on the reverse side.

After printing, I remove the perforated sides and bottoms, and separate the 3 printed cards on each sheet. Instead of removing the top perforations on each card, I cut all but about ¼” above the perforations, assemble a stack of 10 cards, and staple them through that ¼” top section to a piece of stock. I found that the cardstock that is packed around sheets of Ilford film works perfect for the backer if I cut them horizontally into 2 pieces, then cut about 1/2 “from one side.

After stapling, I end up with a “pad” of cards sort of like those that waitresses use to take orders in a diner. The backer fits into the rear pocket of my Moleskine notebook, and the whole thing stays together as one unit and is protected while in my pocket. I make the notes for the “A” side of a holder on the front of a card, then flip it up to make the notes for the “B” side, which explains why the backs were printed upside down. I glued the bellows extension and reciprocity factor charts to the last page of the notebook so they are visible when I am making notes.

This might sound like a lot of work and extra time that could be devoted to photographing or printing. Actually, it took me more time to describe the notebook than it did to assemble 3 pads of cards this afternoon, and it only takes a few minutes to fill out the form as I am working on a composition in the field. Some people do their best work in a free-flowing way, but if you are like me and prefer to follow a process to account for the technical aspects of photography so that your mind is free to concentrate on the artistic side, you may find this useful. If so, please feel free to use or modify the copy of the form file in that accompanies this article.
Dan Henderson
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