Recording notes in the field

Shy Albatross

When reviewing my photographs I find it incredibly useful to have the camera’s EXIF data easily accessible whenever I need it. But there many things it doesn’t record.

The EXIF data on a photo can help me analyse and improve my photography, including finding other images from the same shoot that used the same settings, etc. The camera records many details (starting with shutter speed, aperture, ISO, focal length, camera and lens models/serials, and even details such as focus distance) but unfortunately doesn’t record everything. Things it can’t record but can be useful for the photographer to know:

  • Notes about the subject of the photo.
  • Filters (e.g. polariser or graduated ND).
  • Positioning and power levels of flashes and reflectors.
  • Use of a teleconverter (if it’s not natively recognised by the camera).
  • Probably more technical issues, depending on the photographer’s workflow.

Back in the days of film (OK film is still around, but I’m thinking of the time before DSLRs) it was routine to have a notebook in your camera bag and write down some of these details so that days or weeks later when reviewing your photographs you had some chance of remembering what your settings were. If you are shooting film there are phone apps such as the very neat PhotoEXIF for iOS which are designed to streamline this note-taking.

But this doesn’t really suit scenarios such as shooting sports, dance or wildlife, where many photos are taken in bursts. Not only do you have the issue of needing to be able to quickly record a note (ideally without putting the camera aside) but when you record the note you’ll also need to record where in the sequence that note should be.

Annotating photos

Professional DSLRs such as Canon’s 1D-series have for a long time allowed you to attach a voice recording to a photo (for example the last taken). Examples of use might be a photojournalist annotating a photo with the names of the people in it, to make their job easier when captioning photos later before uploading to a news service (or passing notes on directly to the news service). These audio notes are usually stored as a WAV file with the same name as the matching JPEG/RAW file (in DCF terms it’s part of the same “object”). A microphone at the rear of the camera and a dedicated voice memo button (sometimes it does double duty as a “protect” button) makes recording this straightforward.

Tools such as Lightroom will recognise this file and let you play it from within the Library module (simply press the arrow button to the right of the audio filename in the Metadata panel):


However not everyone has a camera with this function, so it’s of limited value.

How I record my notes in the field

Most cameras today allow you to record video clips as well as still images. I use this to simply record a video where I’m speaking into the camera (I don’t care about the video part of the recording: just the sound). These video files are automatically timestamped by the camera, and within Lightroom will be shown in the appropriate point in the sequence of other images. Once I’ve listened to the note I often don’t need to keep it, and it gets marked as a reject and cleaned up with the next purge (see the “Keepers or crud” article). I’ll use keywords and other text metadata fields to record things like filter use on all the relevant images, after which I won’t need the video file.


The video file was an out-of-focus recording of the deck at my feet, but mentions the change I’d just made to the AF tracking settings.


On a camera like the Canon EOS 5D MkII it took two buttons (enable Live View and then press SET) to start recording (and the reverse to revert to normal operation). On newer cameras such as the 5D MkIII, 7D, or 7D MkII it’s still just a two-step operation to record a note. It’s not quite the same as the one-button operation on some of the pro bodies, but it’s still quick and some form of this available on pretty-much all new camera bodies.

It’s also easy within Lightroom to filter by File Type and quickly find your notes (then turn the filter off to see the “surrounding” images) whereas searching for images with audio attachments is a bit more work.

Recording other notes without a DSLR

For years I’ve tried to keep some way of recording notes and ideas while I’m out and about. At times this has been in the form of a pen and pad, sometimes it was an audio recorder. Written notes are good in quiet situations (such as sitting in a quiet concert hall and being struck by inspiration) but over time I’m sure I’ve left quite a few ideas languishing in stacks of old notebooks.

I’ve used the iPhone’s Voice Memos app to record voice notes (which are much quicker and easier than tapping away on the phone typing a message). However even after I’ve found and started the right app, recorded the note, assigned a name (usually something like “New Recording 3” as I don’t have time to type in a descriptive title) and saved the note, these audio notes end up in my iTunes library on my computer. That can be better than having them stuck on my phone, but I now have a system I like better.

I use the phone’s Camera app (which is accessible even without unlocking the phone) to record a video. When I import the images into Lightroom (which manages the photos/videos from all my cameras) the video notes are just like all the others. Because the phone’s clock and my DSLR’s clocks are in sync, the video recording will appear at the right point in the timeline.


Even if you scoff at the video functions of today’s “still” cameras, they enable many useful things apart from actual video recording!
For written notes I still use either pen and paper or the Evernote app on my phone.

One Comment:

  1. Thanks David. Lots of really good ideas! Thanks !

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