Creating a Sourcebank or Scrapbook of Imagery

I’m quite stunned that having been writing this blog for 8 years, I’ve still not written a single post about the all-important sourcebank.  I know I’ve mentioned it in passing a few times, but it was only the other day as I was putting together a talk for Nikon and the M.O.D. that I realised I’d never actually written a post specifically about it.  Please allow me to remedy this!

The sourcebank is simply another name for a scrapbook or collection of images, and as such, many of you will almost certainly already be working on one.  I was building one before I went to college to study photography and it became formally known as a “sourcebank”.  Without being asked to I was already cutting out pages of magazines of pictures I loved, buying postcards at exhibitions, buying expensive monographs by photographers I admired, and even taking pictures of films straight off the telly having pressed “pause” on the VHS.  The last one obviously lead to lots of images of people doing La Cucaracha* rather than nice sharp film stills, but they had a certain charm.

Some magazine cut outs and the like from more than 20 years ago.

Once I started my degree (very nearly 20 years ago.  Oh crap I feel old) this practice became much more formal and we weren’t just encouraged, but expected to be gathering up work and imagery that interested us.  We were expected to spread our net far and wide to experience as much visual culture, and collect stuff that appealed to and spoke to us most strongly.  By the second year we even had a copy stand set up in a room at the college, with a 35mm camera attached, whereby we could bring books in, and then snap images from them to save us from buying the whole book (or tearing the pages out….)  A couple of times a week the rolls of film would go off to the lab and we’d all pay a few pence per print to get our copies back, scrawl on the back who they were by, and then diligently add them to our sourcebanks, or stick them straight into our logbooks.

Digital Sourcebank
My current digital sourcebank

Dial the time machine forward to the present day, and not only am I still doing it, but rather obviously it’s larger than ever, and it’s mostly digital, though I do still keep a drawer in my filing cabinet for magazine cut-outs.

Filing Cabinet
The old school sourcebank in my filing cabinet

I’m way past the point where someone is looking over my shoulder and expecting me to explain why I like certain things, or criticise my choices, yet I still collect imagery voraciously.  Being interested in other practitioners work is a natural part of working in any artistic or visual field, it’s what inspires us and drives us to go one better, as well as show us where people have gone before.  If, for some strange reason you’re not already collecting imagery into a sourcebank of some sort, here’s why I think you should:

The Why:

  • Going right back to my beginnings as an amateur, I perfectly demonstrated the axiom that if you only have a narrow view of something, you’ll only produce a narrow response, and by comparison the broader the range, the broader and deeper the insight, as well as the more varied the results you’ll produce.  When I first got into photography, one of my main inspirations was, no surprise, Ansel Adams, and pretty much all my early work was an attempt to replicate his.  Badly, I might add.  For me “landscape” photography meant grandeur, monochrome, massive tonal range, and images that were sharp from front to back.  It wasn’t until I got to college and was introduced to a much wider range of visual artists, including painters, that I was able to appreciate that a “landscape” can be interpreted in an almost infinite number of ways.  Apply this same approach across all aspects of my work, and suddenly the range of options open to me when approaching a shoot are much wider, and my work becomes less derivative and more original.
  • Imagine you’ve been given a brief for a shoot, and you’re a bit stuck.  One of the first places you should turn to is your sourcebank, and start to look for how other people have already solved this problem, then ideally (to avoid simple plagiarism) go one step further yourself.  My college tutor always used to call this “Standing on the shoulders of giants”.  Look at their work, and say “this is brilliant, I love this image, and this approach, but what if I took this whole thing and went this way with it” and add your own slant.
  • In a very similar way, doing some research into how other people have approached a similar topic can save you a lot of time and embarrassment from treading exactly the same ground, and producing work that’s very repetitive and derivative.
  • On a practical note, imagery from your sourcebank will be essential in putting together “mood boards” for clients before a shoot.  If you’re not familiar with this term, they’re simply collections of images that help to get across to a 3rd party what you’re aiming for – the lighting, mood, pose, location, styling – any aspect of the shoot you want to create which you can actually illustrate visually rather than trying to use vague, ambiguous language.  In many ways, this is what you’ll be doing in your logbook, which brings me neatly on to my next point
Sourcebank imagery in the logbook
  • Imagery from your sourcebank is an essential starting point when working an idea up in your logbook.  The more diverse the range of imagery you can draw on, the more interesting and original your own work will be.  Don’t be afraid to include images which may seem way off the mark, but are perfect in one aspect.  It’s not uncommon for me to stick in an image of, say, a nude, when shooting a portrait, because the nude image has lighting I want to replicate, or was shot in a location that I want to use.  In the initial stages of a logbook idea you’ll see a collection of imagery, some of which will be grouped into “mood”, or “lighting” or “location”, or “photoshop treatment”.  Imagine how much better your own imagery will be using an approach like this, rather than sticking in one image and essentially saying “copy this”.

Now having described the arty-farty esoteric bits, how do you actually go about it?

The How

  • Anything can go in, throw your net wide.  How you get it in is up to you, but as with anything, the more streamlined your method, the more likely you are to use it,  Nowadays it’s no surprise that I use my camera phone for a lot of stuff, whether it’s snapping something interesting, or actually using it to mimic a flat copy stand.
  • Download a screengrab program.  I use Screenhunter, and it’s great, not least because I can set it up to automatically add the photographer’s name to the file name as it grabs the screen.
  • Always credit and record who created the imagery, wherever possible.  This is basic professional conduct, but just as importantly, you may well want to find more work by that person further down the line.  I’m infuriated by the handful of anonymous shots in my bank – sod’s law says they’re some of the most interesting ones, and I can’t find any more like them.
  • Organise it as best as you can.  This may seem anally retentive, but as soon as your collection grows, you’ll want to be able to find things easily.  I’m just starting to keyword my collection (deep joy) as although up to now I’ve organised things by genre, or photographer, not only does that not work so well in the case of photographers whose work I love, but whose names don’t stick, but having things in discrete genres/photographers negates some of the random nature of searching.  Imagine instead that I’d keyworded everything with things like location, mood, style and so on.  A search for “moody environment portrait” would bring up a wide range of shots, from a wide range of snappers, rather than just stuff from my “portrait” folder.
The beginning of the great “keywording the sourcebank” project

There’s one more “why” regarding creating a sourcebank, and that’s that your choice of imagery can help to illustrate your worldview and general outlook, as well as providing you with general themes to work around.  This stems from what the great Gordon Read always called your own “whammies”, and is worth a blog post in it’s own right.  Expect one shortly.

Gordon Read
Gordon Read on the beach in Bournemouth in February. No real relevance to the post, but any excuse to post it really!

I’m a big evangelist for creating a sourcebank, and in fact if you’re a keen photographer and you don’t have some sort of scrapbook or sourcebank, I’d be very suspicious of how keen you were on actually moving beyond a point of just buying lots of cameras.  The more immersed you are in the visual world around you, the more interesting will be the work you produce.

*This observational gag copyright Eddie Izzard 1993

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