Whenever I shoot film, I number every roll of film that I shoot as part of my archiving system. Keeping detailed roll notes is the second piece of the puzzle that makes my photo archive useful, searchable, and professional.

What are roll notes?

If you follow me on social media, you may have noticed that on photowalks, I take notes in a small blue notebook.

I started this practice a few years ago when I got back into shooting film and have kept up for every roll since. That’s roughly 600 rolls of film and associated notes.

The idea of keeping notes for each roll might sound overwhelming, but it’s generally just sixty seconds of extra work per roll that saves me hours of work later on.

How to keep good roll notes

Roll notes can be as simple or extensive as you’d like. During studio shoots, there may be less time or less information to note down, so in that case, I usually keep it simple.

The two pages above are mostly from a studio shoot that took up one full day on January 21st, 2020. Everything moved quite fast, and I only noted down which film stock each roll was, plus my ISO settings and who the subject of that roll was.

After a shoot wraps, I add checkmarks next to each roll to make sure all of them are accounted for before we leave the studio. If you shoot this many rolls in one day it’s far too easy to lose one underneath a couch somewhere and there is nothing more painful than to realize you’re missing a roll. (Side note: Yes my penmanship is gorgeous. I know.)

Below are two images from roll #228. If you look at my notes you can see they were shot on Kodak GPX Pro Gold 160 film, set to 80 ISO, on my Pentax 67ii.

(Models: Dave and Tino, hair and make-up by Charlotte, Banshee, and Blanca.)

This film stock was expired by roughly 30 years. Noting down what my ISO setting was helped me determine that for the next roll I should over-expose a bit more, perhaps shooting it at 64 ISO instead to clean up the grain and color shift. Roll notes are a key factor in learning how your settings affect your final results. The best way to learn.
When there is more time or more information, I will go into more detail in my roll notes. A great example of a day like that is when I go on photo walks and take portraits of strangers. I move more slowly during these days and always note down people’s information so I can send them their portraits afterward.

Here you see the date, the film stock, my ISO setting, which lens I used, the names of the people I photographed, and some (redacted) email addresses. After I get home from a day of shooting I clean up these hand-written notes and transfer them into Apple Notes so I can easily access them on my laptop and my phone at any time.

When I need to find a photo, I can search my notes by name, location, and even a rough time period if that is all I remember. Within seconds I’ll know which roll the photo is on and which folder to find it in. It makes my OCD brain happy, and my clients too.

Below are my street portraits of Robert and Richie, or “kneeling basketball court” guy, per my notes, from roll 082.


Keeping detailed roll notes helps me:

  • Find images fast and easy, saving much time and frustration.
  • Study how my settings affect my photos for each film stock I use.
  • Build an archive for the long term that others can maneuver effectively, whether it’s assistants, curators, or my great grandchildren.

That’s it for this week! Get out those notebooks and give it a try if you haven’t yet.
Blessings and peace for this upcoming week.

~ Wesley

This article was originally written for Process, Wesley’s free weekly newsletter about photography and finding your voice. For more like this, visit readprocess.co.

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About the author

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Wesley Verhoeve

I'm a photographer and curator based in Amsterdam and New York City. I work with a wide range of editorial and commercial clients interested in telling timeless stories that move people. My first photo book, NOTICE, was successfully crowdfunded in 2021...

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