Organizing a Project: The Notebook

I thought this might be helpful to some folks, including those who are attending my upcoming workshops. As many of you know, I’m a serial bookmaker, but I’m also a serial journal maker, have been for many, many years. I believe how you organize and record your projects is essential to the overall piece and can make or break an entire project by allowing you to pull back small bits of information that might have been lost had you not cemented them, literally, in your book of choice. As you will see, I keep a variety of these books and use them on a daily basis. The kicker….these are a total blast to create, and for those of you who don’t print your work, well, welcome to the promised land.

And just in case you wanted one more way of seeing this book:

54 responses to “Organizing a Project: The Notebook”

  1. Jürgen says:

    Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for sharing insights into your process. There is value to doing things on paper and working with real physical prints. I recently, shot my first roll of film in 5 years and loved every moment of it. My good old Canon T90 is loaded with yet another spool of film and I am getting used to working analog again.
    I do appreciate again the process of pre-visualizing the image, before I take the image. It is a good exercise.

    I started the preparations for a new personal project and I decided to shoot this project on film and not digitally. The story to be told with the project is better told on film. It is the right fit.

    Now I have to look for the right camera. The T90 is worn out and has some unpredictable behavior.

    Keep up the good work.

    • Smogranch says:


      Nice to hear it. Glad you are rediscovering those roots. I’ve used digital for many years, but I never grew fond of it like I did with film. I’ll keep trying however.

  2. Paul Gero says:

    great video..thanks for posting

  3. AK FOTO says:

    There is nothing better then a day, a week, a month or years later looking back into your journals and remembering those times. In the end all you have are memories so you better make them count….

  4. Brian Miller says:

    Wow, thank you Daniel for being so generous with your time and “inside info” into your process and how you work through a project. I’m especially loving that you’re doing one on my home state! I can’t wait to see what comes of it.

    I just got a bunch of prints back on my work in progress- a cowboy polo tournament I shot in SW NM. Great fun! Thanks for inspiring me to try knew ways to work a project. Now I’m off to find a gigantic hardcover notebook….

    • Smogranch says:


      Thanks for listening. I love these things… can find these books at more art stores, and now and then you can find really inexpensive ones at office supply spots.

  5. Larry says:

    Very cool of you to share this type of knowledge and the way you work. It’s very beneficial to me and, I’m sure, others like me who have never really been able to do a project. Thanks,

  6. Very interesting insight, and a really great idea. But… it looks like you’re using sticky tape … Have you considered what these albums will look like in 10 years time, never mind 50?

    Sticky tape is great for wrapping gifts and for disposable projects, but if you’ve got even half an eye on posterity (and you should, Daniel, you should) it could be a disaster.

    Unfortunately, there’s no real compromise between spontaneity, ease of use, and archival qualities. Products like Scotch Gold are better than the standard product, but an alternative might be to use photo-corners, or double-sided tape.

    The trouble is, once you start to think “archival”, the fun starts to go out of the project…


    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Mike,

      Really good point. I’ve used everything under the sun. I have books from 18 years ago with tape that are still fine. I’ve got books with archival adhesive that are falling apart. I do try to use “good” tape, and I have used the corners as well. The only catch, some of the corner adhesive doesn’t last. And, I’ve found that depending on how you store them, if the books are twisted in anyway, the prints under the corners can slip out. Not sure what the solution is. If you put adhesive material on a print…what does that do the archive aspects of the print? I don’t really have any answers.

    • Erin Wilson says:

      I think the only archival adhesive with real staying power is old-fashioned wheat paste. I’ve handled scrapbooks in the archives that were more than a hundred years old, and were in far better shape than materials 10 years old. But… it’s messy and not very convenient.

      From an archival point of view, regardless of the adhesives/paper stock you use, you’re doing the single most important thing to preserve images: you’re making prints and using them. Negs/digital files that are never printed or used are far more likely to get tossed and never ever see the light of day.

      Kudos to you for taking the time to honour both your work and your process.

    • Smogranch says:


      Thanks for writing. I never throw anything away. Not even digital files. I save every single one. I can’t tell you how many times I went back to old shoots, while making a book, and pulled and used an image I thought I would never touch. As for archival…you are right on. Not sure what to do about it.

    • I’ve been given a recommendation for archival “photo splits”, which I intend to try. They’re little squares off a roll, sticky on both sides, and said to be both archival and reliably adhesive — no idea what these would be called in the USA.


    • Smogranch says:


      I’ve used them before, They are nice and seem to work well. Should look into those again actually. Thank you.

    • Kathleen says:

      Moral of the LONG POST is NEVER use TAPE!!! OR MAGNET PAGES!!!!! If you are digital and shooting 1000 shots a second then PLEASE delete 999 before you DIE! Can I hear an A-M-E-N ???? LOL!

      Funny in a way because I am the “keeper” of the family archives and have a home library filled with 6 foot tall shelves in which I keep the albums. The ones from the “olden days B&W” with photo corners and no protection have served way better than the color prints from the 70’s with those magnet pages. No negatives for anything other than my Dad’s Slides which have been stored in the processors box or slide carrousel which have icky green stuff growing on them! He’s been to Korea and Vietnam, His Dad to WWII where he died, Father in law also WWII – still living and darn near 100, our twins to Iraq and Afghanistan. I HATE war but I have an archive of photos, uniforms, medals etc … of it! I need a war room and a peace room! LOL!

      My twins are the first digital photo archives I’ve had to deal with and I insisted when they came home on leave that they bring me their hard drives! I got them each a rugged and iBook before they left. I bought archival pages and am doing my best just to preserve our own history as well as document the now.

      It’s a full time job and people don’t really appreciate the LOVE, time and EFFORT that goes into this type of “work”. I do not get paid so it’s even hard for me to justify as “work”!

      Obsessed perhaps may be a better way of explaining to the family but even that; to them; sound mentally ill!!! LOL! :O)

      You Live In The Past Kathleen! Go buy something digital and live in the NOW! LOL! We can dis-agree and still love each other; right?

      Anyway, PLEASE take heed of Erin, the original poster. Our family learned the hard way and now I have about 100 years of a mess plus my own life to deal with. No wonder people just dump this stuff at goodwill or estate sales. It IS overwhelming for NORMAL people! :O) Digital makes it worse for me (personally) 20,000 shots a second – forget about it! I will QUIT!

    • Smogranch says:

      I think you just have to pace yourself and realize you might not ever catch up. But, baby steps work just fine. Babies still seem to get around okay. I guess all of this boils down to time…..we all seem to need more of it.

  7. Dan, it’s really a privilege to get an inside look into any photographers way of working, and particularly enjoy yours! I’ll post in the Latitude34South website so people going or considering the workshop in Argentina and Uruguay can start to connect with these ideas. Thanks! Really appreciate it!

  8. Sean says:

    This is brilliant, extremely useful but so simple. I’ve been carrying a notebook or two for a while now, even a small one for projects, but it never occurred to me to get a big solid one that I can add prints to and play with layouts etc. It makes perfect sense.

    At the moment I’ve got all my picks for my current project hung up on the wall and kind of sequenced but I like your method better. Less clutter.

  9. Don Denton says:

    Lots of good advice and a nice reminder at the end about the importance of having, in essence, historical documents to leave behind.

    • Smogranch says:


      Not sure why but I always had this built in idea of recording things for history. Was never sure for who exactly, but the idea of archiving is very high on my list. What is truly astonishing to me, is the number of photographers I know and run into who don’t archive anything. And, to take it even further, you now have a demographic of photographer who almost seems to take offense if you even mention archiving, as if you are trying to say something about the relevance of your work being so important it must be saved. I’m odd, I go back through older work all the time, especially when I’m considering a book, and the idea of not having it makes zero sense to me, but hey, add this to the list.

    • Don Denton says:

      Photogs generally, unlike writers, seem unaware of the value of archiving all your working materials. Not just negs/prints. Most writers I know have been archiving every scribble they’ve made and scrap of paper they’ve touched and many, later on, manage to have archives buy and/or give you a big tax credit for those files.

    • Smogranch says:


      A few years ago I did some research on how to archive digital files. The results were not good. Nobody had ANY idea how to do this over the long term. NOBODY. I spoke to archiving directors. I spoke to heads of museums, etc. and there were actually very upfront about the idea of losing much of what they were currently trying to save. I also asked a lot of photographers about how they were archiving. You can’t imagine how many photographers said, “I’m not really concerned about the future.” I think so many were in a desperate struggle to survive that the idea of saving what they were creating was falling down that list of priorities. I also think that many photographers were simply producing generic, digital content on assignment for a range of clients who really had little appreciation for good imagery. The idea of saving work that might not matter ten minutes after it was made…makes it hard to spend the time and money required to give yourself a chance of saving imagery over a multi-decade time frame.

      Last year I was listening to a archive director giving a presentation at a photo conference. He got up and the first thing he said was, “If you think you are archiving your digital files, you are sadly mistaken.” “We have all the money in the world and haven’t figured out a way to do this.” Kinda scary.

    • Kathleen says:

      It IS scary and I do share your philosophy and concerns. Even a 4×6 picture mate print properly placed in a book as you demonstrate in the video will be better than an external hard drive. Cell Phone Snaps are even scarier! What if the only photos I have of future grandkids reside on a cell phone? Sad … :O(

      Relatives have questioned my sanity when I bring a camera absolutely convinced that I can get just as good an image from my iPhone. Perhaps … but how long will it live????

      Prints live without negatives and negatives will live without prints. Digital images (without proof prints) cause me much anxiety.

    • Smogranch says:

      There are MANY folks out there with cellphone “archives.” I know because they told me. I’m not sure what will ultimately come of this…Lots of lost snaps I fear.

  10. Mark Griffin says:

    Hi Dan, great post, I too often carry small Moleskin notebooks with me and use a Polaroid Pogo for small on the spot prints but as I embark on a new more complex personal project I think I am going to follow your idea of a nice big book and put some good sized prints in as I progress.

    Do you show this large notebook to subjects when you approach them with the idea of making a photo? Just need to track down a quality book that sort of size…

    Thanks again. Mark

    • Smogranch says:


      Actually, no, I use Blurb books for my use in the field. These journal books are too large, too heavy. They might be in the car, but I don’t show them. The small, Blurb books fit in my bag, and are with me all the time. I make project specific portfolios, and I have an 80-page, 6×9, black and white trade book for this New Mexico project.
      As for finding the large books, just go to an art supply store, they will have plenty.

    • Mark Griffin says:

      Thanks for that. I have just done my first Blurb book and hope it’s the first of many. Being here in Western Australia even finding descent notebooks can be a struggle sometimes although there are a couple of good art suppliers in town I may hit up tomorrow.

      Cheers again for the info.


    • Smogranch says:

      Man, the more I hear about Western Oz the more I want to go!

    • Mark Griffin says:

      You should checkout WA for sure. Just ask Flemming, he can’t stay away for too long… Mark

  11. Great insight, thanks for sharing this. I always carry a notebook when I travel but I think the idea of doing a specific notebook also per project is great and I will try that on the next project.

    PS. Would be great if you added a little plugin to your WordPress blog, so we could subscribe to comments via email – means one don’t have to check back for new comments and replies to a post like this for instance.

  12. Eric Jeschke says:

    Wow. Very impressed with your level of planning and attention to detail. This is going to sound like the very antithesis of the idea (maybe), but what about something like an ipad journal, where you could drag the photos in with your fingers and rearrange them on pages, hand-jot notes with a stylus, etc. ? I love the idea, and I make quite a few small prints, but I don’t think I could get used to carrying around several notebooks with me all the time.

    • Eric Jeschke says:

      Plus I find that I make sound recordings and video clips a lot these days so it would allow me to put those in the journal as well…

    • Smogranch says:


      I make these as well, but again, I find them a little distracting, and they are not nearly as important as the actual images, at least for me. So, I want to live in silence with those images until I get a better understanding of whether or not they might work.

    • Smogranch says:


      For me, I don’t want this in the electronic world. Again, for me, I don’t regard things in the same way that I do printed materials. When I make prints it forces me to really put some thought into what I’m printing and why. I don’t do this with digital. I’ve tried, but I don’t relate to the work in the same way. I only carry one notebook in the field, small one, and a single Blurb book of the project I’m working on. The big books are either in the car or at home.

    • Kathleen says:

      I am dating myself (wrong side of 50). I still carry mead composition books. :O) They seem to hold up well, they’re small, bound, lighter than a laptop, erase easily if you’re prone to mistakes like me. I am a chronic note taker and these can be had for $1 at the dollar tree u.s. of course they are wide lined. i write BIG so maybe that is why i love them? Pick up a HUGE BIG MISTAKE ERASER while your’e there! LOL! Light, Pink & BIG for BIG Mistakes! Perhaps not archival but terrific for field work!

    • Smogranch says:

      Lots of historical work done in Mead books.

  13. Chris Pickard says:

    Mark Griffin, I go to Oxford Street Books in Leederville, WA, they sell the Leuchtturm journals which are ideal for this type of archiving.

  14. james rush says:

    you’ve just changed my whole outlook on my working practice. thanks so much.

    • Smogranch says:


      Wow, glad you found something useful in there.

    • james rush says:

      i’ve always kept notes and being a graphic designer, i sketch a bit (though probably not enough!) in notebooks but i think you made me realise that i should be much more detailed with it, rather than relying on my brain to soak some things in, having visual prompts and details for almost every aspect of a project serves two key purposes, that of helping with the project at hand and also the archiving of our work for future generations, and ourselves, as you’ve shown in your video. thanks again

    • Smogranch says:


      If I could sketch I’m not sure I would even do photography. I have ZERO ability in that regard. I think you can put as much or as little into these books as you wish. I wish I could put even more than I do into them.

  15. Kathleen says:

    très cool! … reminds me of jim morrison’s book and one of my favorites! here’s to: “break on through” … :O) with photos! :O)

  16. Kathleen says:

    a book with pockets for photos like the “old” report card books would be cool! you could spread the 4×6 out on a big table while reading the script. it would be like a big light room in the dining room! :O) food and wine required. :O) i am talking to my dad about collaborating on a book. hope he bites. he’s interesting, old and wise. chianti & food may just be the bait! LOL!

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