Photos as notes

by Eszter Hargittai on February 3, 2008

While I realize not everyone is as obsessed with photography as I am, many phones now have cameras and I wonder if people remember to use them for the logistics of everyday life. So this post is just a reminder that all those things you often forget (I certainly forget all sorts of details that would be helpful to remember later) can be captured easily with your pocket-sized camera.

Cheese A recurring theme when I go shopping is trying to remember the name of that wonderful cheese I purchased earlier. Good cheese can be expensive so it’s a pity to buy the type that doesn’t work out. Last week after buying some cheese that turned out to be very tasty, I decided to take a picture of its label. Yesterday when I returned to the store I started looking for it. I couldn’t find it, but then I showed the image to the person behind the counter and immediately she had an answer. Although they were out of that particular item, she pointed me to another one that, upon sampling it, reminded me sufficiently of the earlier one that I was happy to find it. The woman mentioned that she wished more people would think to take photos as it’s usually difficult to guess what they want from their descriptions.

Princeton-Stanford intersectionThis method can work with all sorts of details that are easy to forget: book titles and authors, wines, where you parked your car, what you ordered off of a restaurant menu, bus & train schedules, maps (yup, I’ll just take a quick snapshot of a map instead of printing it out), and lots more. For some of these (like maps) a higher resolution photo where you can zoom in is helpful, but for others a simple camera phone should work just as well.



tom s. 02.03.08 at 5:08 pm

I love this – it rings about a dozen bells. I’ll try your photo suggestion immediately.

I understand there is image processing software that can read photos of barcodes and produce the actual barcode, from which you could presumably get the real name of a product (and so could search on it etc). Do you know of such software?


Jim 02.03.08 at 5:11 pm

I have been using my camera phone to do book-photowalking. I frequently go to bookstores just to browse. I used to write the titles and authors down. Now,I just snap photos and refer back to them to develop reading lists and gift lists for family and friends.

I also use my camera phone for many of the other uses you suggest. I thought I was just OCD or crazy. :)


derek 02.03.08 at 5:36 pm

At Charles de Gaulle Airport the parking position is painted on the ground. I don’t suppose it was designed to be photographed, but you can if you want.


Matt 02.03.08 at 5:48 pm

It seems like a great idea. The only thing I’d worry about (besides the fact that I don’t have a digital camera) is that I might not remember which of the five wine or cheese labels I’ve taken a photo of is the one I want now.


notsneaky 02.03.08 at 5:53 pm

“This method can work with all sorts of details that are easy to forget”

Yes, apparently drug dealers who want to avoid a Wire tap can take photos of notes and send them to each other via phone to arrange meetings. Will they avoid a Wire tap?


Trevor 02.03.08 at 5:54 pm

I did this while traveling in China this summer, taking a picture of the street sign where I was staying that I could show to cab drivers if I got lost.


Rickm 02.03.08 at 5:54 pm

My research demanded that I photocopy hundreds of articles from American magazines in the 1950s. I purchased a digital camera, and probably saved myself a week worth of work by taking pictures in lieu of photocopying the articles. Its a wonderful thing.


Katherine 02.03.08 at 6:18 pm

Brilliant idea. I’m always forgetting which wine it was that I thought was really nice, and I’m not educated enough about wine to ever be able to describe to someone such that they can tell what it was.


Eszter 02.03.08 at 7:41 pm

Tom S., Microsoft Research used to have a project called AURA that supported such barcode scans, but the group has discontinued that project.

Matt, good point about forgetting which you liked. What you can do is only take (or keep) photos of the ones you like.

Alternatively, taking this to a next level, you can start uploading the photos to a site like Flickr and add notes and tags. That’s obviously more work, but may still be worth it. That’s what I do, but I didn’t want to scare people off by making it sound like all that extra work was necessary.


taj 02.03.08 at 8:27 pm

It’s a good idea, but as a bearded brown man I think I will keep it to a minimum.


jeet 02.03.08 at 8:52 pm

I’ve been doing this for ages. With recipes for use as shopping lists before I go to the supermarket. Or with books.


sharon 02.03.08 at 8:55 pm

An absent-minded friend of mine has been known to forget to take the shopping list out to the supermarket with her; she phones home, gets the boyfriend to photograph it on his mobile and send the picture to her on hers. Problem solved.


Brett 02.03.08 at 9:09 pm

Same idea, slightly different execution: when I was in Rome for a couple of days of intense sightseeing last year, I took a photo of my planned itinerary for each day on my digital camera, and looked at it with the review function whenever I was working out where to go next. Helped make sure I didn’t miss anything (well, except for the things that were closed when I arrived!) A phone would have been much handier but mine’s a technological relic. (Still, it’s not so very long since doing this with either would have been a nonsensical concept.)


robd 02.03.08 at 10:05 pm

I used photos of the train- and bus tables I needed;
if I carry the camera anyway, why use extra papers?


improbable 02.03.08 at 10:07 pm

We discovered this is a good way not to get lost rock climbing: it’s hard to take the guidebook up, but easy to take a picture of the page before you start.

Also for bookshops, I haven’t done cheese yet…


dilbert dogbert 02.04.08 at 12:37 am

Been doing this since 1986 when I was part of a reconstruction project. Our project was to tear down and rebuild the 12 foot Pressurized Wind Tunnel at Ames Research Center (NASA). Started with film and ended up with digital. It was very helpful recording stuff that later got buried underground.
It also helped when things broke in operation and I had to figure out what was inside a pipe or piece of equipment. It is amazing how powerful 150 psig air turbulence is downstream of butterfly valves.


SG 02.04.08 at 3:24 am

do Americans and Europeans have those kuta-code things? Here in Japan every product, every flier for a band or event, every nightclub and shop have a little bar-code-like image on the flier. You take a photo of the code with your phone and you can use it like a url to access the information about the object. They don’t yet have them for car-parks and the like, as far as I know, but there are kookier things in Tokyo, I’m sure.


anthony 02.04.08 at 7:48 am

Another help with wine is the wine tear tab, where the winemakers have a little perforated tag that can be torn off the label with all the details about the wine. With the sad decline of matchbooks, it looks like an excellent way of recreating a lost evening.


Alex 02.04.08 at 12:10 pm

17 – you mean QR codes. I haven’t seen them in use here, at least not in the wild. However I’m off to 3GSM next week where there will be plenty of suitable gadgets. I think it’s an installed-base thing.


Pete 02.04.08 at 12:15 pm

Wait until the copyright police come after you.


Jim Kiley 02.04.08 at 2:15 pm

I did the same thing with the license plates of both my cars. I know I wouldn’t remember them, and I’m too lazy to write them down on an index card and put that in my wallet, but I’m not likely to lose my phone.


Michael 02.04.08 at 4:17 pm

It took, it seems, hours of trial and error for me to hook up my TV/TiVo/DVD player/cable box/stereo system initially. When I moved, I found that a few phone pix were much quicker than drawing schematics.


eszter 02.04.08 at 11:36 pm

Michael, that reminds me, I took a photo of my toilet tank when I needed to replace the flapper to know in the hardware store which of the several flappers would fit.


Ketzl Brame 02.04.08 at 11:50 pm

I used this idea when doing some remodeling. Heck if I knew the names of the parts I needed, but I’d hold a ruler up to the door-hinge I was replacing, or the thingy that went at the bottom of the wall, and I was good to go.


bitchphd 02.05.08 at 2:00 am

This is an awesome idea. Thanks!


Slocum 02.05.08 at 2:17 am

When hiking, we take a photo of the map on the signboard if we don’t happen to have a paper copy. Also, take photos to be able to reassemble what you’re taking apart. And sometimes a camera is great for being able to see what can’t otherwise (you can get your camera into places where your head won’t fit).

Digital cameras are great for copying articles. If you are careful enough, you can get OCR to work quite well — at least for the ‘text behind the image’ option that will make the PDF indexable and searchable.

And the macro mode works well for a low-power microscope — take a macro shot and then use the review function and zoom in as far as possible. You can definitely see things you can’t with a naked eye.

And if you get stopped by police or arrested, recording could come in very handy. But use it at your own risk, since authorities don’t much like being photographed and recorded (this is one of those crankish causes — like paramilitary SWAT raids — that libertarians tend to worry about).


Jonathan Dresner 02.05.08 at 5:51 am

In addition to taking pictures of flyers and posters with information I want to remember, and the ocassional page of text, I use the camera to document home improvement and repair projects, so I can look at the parts when I have to go back to the hardware store and make sure I’m not doing something stupid.


Andrew Brown 02.05.08 at 7:55 am

There is a piece of note-taking software for Windows called Evernote which is designed to work with photos (amongst other things) like that: It will automatically import photos uploaded form your phone to a designated folder, and they can then be tagged, annotated, etc. It also attempts OCR on the texct in photos, not very well in my experience. But possibly more useful for this sort of thing than Flickr is.


Peter 02.05.08 at 2:35 pm

I’ll have to try that with wine labels. It’s so hard to remember whether Thunderbird or Night Train Express is better.


Martin Audley 02.05.08 at 9:26 pm

Brilliant idea Eszter. I’ve taken a picture of this web page, so I can show it to friends to demonstrate how a professor in a Department of Communication Studies celebrates being either too lazy or stupid to use a pencil and paper. Lucky that those leaving the similar comments above don’t have the same excuse.

22. Just in case you *do* lose your phone, Jim, make sure you take a picture of it now, in a mirror, to remind yourself what it looks like.

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