Bursting the bubble writing: Sketchbook advice for GCSE photographers


I’ve been thinking about the best ways to support our Year 10 photography students with their sketchbook work. It’s something that has become more of a concern: timetable adjustments mean that, sadly, we will be losing 1/6 of our teaching time in Year 11.  I’m not sure that the usual approach – allowing plenty of time for valuable mistakes in Year 10 and blitzing all the coursework in Year 11 – is going to cut it; the path to grade success might need to be more direct.

It’s a shame, Year 10 is such an important time for creative development. In sketchbook terms it’s often the bridge between those hard to shake, childhood elaborations (I’m talking patterned borders, bubble writing, and dare I mention, glitter) to the emergence of a more mature and subtle style of working.

The examples above and below, from Lizzie’s 6th form sketchbooks, show that keeping things simple and letting the photos do the work can be most effective. Her page layouts allow her high quality prints to breathe. As her understanding developed she revisited these pages and added further notes.


Perhaps by asking the following questions it might help our GCSE students to progress further:

1: Is a sketchbook really for you?

Sketchbooks are not for everyone. Students have the choice of how they would like to collate and present their photography work – folders, display boards, installations…whatever appeals. Most opt for sketchbooks or blogs, which truth be told, we actively encourage. Both methods have proven successful and, from a teacher’s perspective, blogs or books are easier to manage (and not least, store). Choosing between them comes down to personal preference, once some of the pros and cons have been carefully considered :

Good reasons to use a sketchbook for GCSE Photography  Good reasons to use a blog for GCSE Photography
  •  You like to work in a more tactile way – arranging, sticking work in, writing by hand etc.
  • You have access to a decent quality printer
  • You look after your books – you are not likely to lose them, have your lunch leak on them, let the dog eat them etc.
  • You enjoy thinking about design / layout and can make these decisions fairly quickly
  • You do not have easy access to the internet or a computer
  • You are likely to be doing homework in different places, not always with computer access
  • Your writing is difficult to read or your spelling is very weak
  • You are interested in experimenting with moving image – film, animation etc.
  • You have easy access to a computer and the internet
  • You do not have access to a good printer / printing is not easily affordable
  • You do not want to spend too much time thinking about page layouts and designs
  • You think bubble writing in a sketchbook is cool
  • You have glitter in your pencil case

2: What is a photography sketchbook for?

For Photography lessons, ‘sketchbook’ might be a misleading term. You don’t have to sketch in it (although you can, if you wish – when relevant). It’s also important to know there’s not just one way to do things: Some students might be very ordered in their sketchbooks, others more experimental. The challenge is to find your own way – the one that presents your work and ideas most effectively.


Rosie’s book is busy to the eye, yet still maintains a strong sense of order. Importantly the emphasis remains on the work in progress – a series of ideas rather than one dominant image. This is achieved through images and blocks of text being similar in scale, and by limiting the additional colours to black and white (the occasional flash of a red tab, provides additional insights). The photos are good quality prints, cut and mounted cleanly. The titles are not overbearing and her handwriting is neat and ordered.

To keep all my classwork and homework in…?
Not necessarily. If you want to make a photobook, film, animation, sculpture, installation…then brilliant. No need to wait to be asked either, initiate those conversations to get things going. Think beyond ‘classwork’ and ‘homework’; the boundaries should blur as your independence grows. Your book is just one potential tool to document your ideas and experiments. But it is important. It needs to be looked after and will be submitted as coursework.


 These pages from Hannah’s sketchbook show the lead up work to an installation. The right hand page shows her exploring a potential 3D response. There was no need to mount these up or have over-elaborate titles or explanations. It was more important for Hannah to keep making and experimenting.

To experiment within and make mistakes…?
Yes, definitely. However, mistakes – like feedback – should be valued and acted upon. It is not sufficient to say a photo that you took didn’t work. Why didn’t it work? Try to unpick your errors and highlight learning. What were your intentions? How could it be improved? And then, importantly, IMPROVE!! Show progress in a new way, or ask for further help if unsure.


Francis worked predominantly in film for this project. He used his sketchbook, with accompanying DVDs, to explain his development work. By taking screenshots of the the editing processes he could emphasize some of the subtleties that he was addressing, which might have otherwise been overlooked when assessed.

To present my photography in a creative and imaginative way…?
Not necessarily. And certainly not with bells and whistles attached. Your sketchbook can be a straightforward, ordered presentation of your work, research and insights: Let your images do the impressing. Overly designed pages can often take too long and be a distraction to the viewer. Either way, you’ll need to carefully consider the flow of your book: How do the pages – and images upon them – connect and contrast?  How might you engage and ‘play’ with the viewer to provoke thinking? How can you lead the viewer’s eye to the strongest work or ideas, yet still include the important developmental stages? There are lots of challenges here, and plenty of creative fun to be had; no glitter required.


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