I just returned from a week-long photo trip to Vancouver Island where I spent time photographing black bears fishing for salmon as I work on collecting photos for my first ever book project. A couple of days after I got back from the trip I spent a few hours doing something that for me, has become almost ritualistic after an expedition. Let me explain…

I keep a small Field Notes notebook and a pen in my camera bag, and I write it in every time something goes wrong. The act of writing it down helps me to remember the situation more clearly, and the ritual of going through the list after a trip means that I learn from it and do something about it for next time. Sometimes I will note that a particular camera autofocus setting doesn’t seem to have worked too well for a specific situation, sometimes I’ll note that a piece of gear is underperforming and sometimes I’ll make notes about my own screw-ups, such as selecting the wrong exposure metering more for the subject, or trying to work with a shutter speed that’s too slow to get a sharp image.

Everyone makes mistakes, even professionals. When you make a mistake you have two options: Get frustrated about it and brush it under the carpet to forget about it quickly, or decide to learn from that mistake so that it doesn’t happen again. I choose the second option, and the notebook in my bag keeps me honest.

Just for some examples, here’s just a few things I wrote in my notebook from this particular trip:

  • During heavy rain, the 5D Mark IV’s AF system was front-focussing on the rain drops too often. Possibly better to manually focus in torrential rain?
  • Adjust exposure compensation expectations in heavy backlit fog. Bright fog cancels out the exposure confusion from dark black fur on the bear.
  • Rain cover on the XXXXXXXXXXX backpack needs some tweaks to prevent water ingress when the bag is lying face up in heavy rain. (sorry, can’t tell you what pack I’m testing at the moment)
  • Sigma 500mm f/4 image stabilization: lower expectations compared to Canon super telephotos
  • Bring the Think Tank rain cover next time when working with lenses over 400mm
  • Add second tripod hex wrench to roller bag. Repeatedly loose tripod leg? Brass washer?

Now, many of these things won’t make sense to you, and they aren’t meant to. But they make sense to me and when I go through the list I spend time on each of them. If it’s broken equipment I fix it then and there, or order a replacement so that I’m not caught out by it again if an unexpected trip or photo opportunity comes up. If something has underperformed to the point that I want to use a different product next time, I order it right away from B&H Photo or send an email to one of the companies that supports me. If there’s feedback about a pre-production product I’m testing, I send that off to the design teams right away so the experience is still fresh in my memory. If I have discovered something new, relating to technique or camera settings, I run through those things several times to determine whether it’ll be second nature to me next time, or whether I want to create a more detailed note about it on my computer to read before a similar trip in the future.

I’ll be honest, sometimes there is frustration when I screw things up, and sometimes the language I use in my notebook is not something I’d ever share publicly, but the key thing is that I’m willing to acknowledge the mistakes and make a promise to myself that I’ll learn from them. Photography is a VAST world to explore, and there’s an endless array of mistakes that you can make. Making an effort to only make those mistakes once, has been really beneficial to me.

Oh, and before you ask “why not write it in your phone”, the answer is: Consistency. For something to become second nature, it needs to be repeatable. Sometimes my phone battery is dead, sometimes it’s too wet to use my phone (my notebook is waterproof), sometimes it’s too cold to tap the keys on the phone wearing gloves…. the notebook is always there, and it always work. Simple as that. Like I said, some things might get transferred to more detailed notes when I get home, but in the field it’s always the notebook.

 

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