The Joy of the Contact Sheet

Many years ago, when I was having trouble finding my path as a photographer, I asked my friend, the Canadian photographer John Max, for some guidance.

“Show me your contact sheets,” he said.

“You don’t want to see my prints?” I asked.

“Nope, just your contact sheets.”

Questions, Questions

For the next five years, I would meet with John regularly to analyze my contact sheets. He would ask me what I was looking at, what I was thinking of, why I went down one street as opposed to another, why I shot from one angle as opposed to another, what I was feeling at a particular moment.

He wanted to know what I did just before shooting picture X. He wanted to know why I stopped shooting right after making picture Y.

“Why didn’t you move behind him?” he would ask.

“Did you try a lower angle?”

“Why did you stop there? Shouldn’t you have gone in closer?”

“Why don’t you try going back there on another day?”

The questions were endless.

Contact Sheet Nostalgia

I learned a lot from John over the years — but perhaps above all else, he left me with was an enduring love of contact sheets.

It’s almost a fetish for me.

Sometimes when I go to an exhibit, I’ll see a blown-up contact sheet on the wall showing a photographer’s 36 frames, one of them with a red grease pencil circle around it. That frame is always the first thing I look at.

Then I look at all the other images surrounding it. I try to figure out why the photographer chose that particular frame over the rest.

What appeals to me is the same thing that interested John for so many years. A contact sheet is the beginning of the editing process.

It tells me what the best image in a series is. But more importantly, I can look at a particular group or sequence and learn how to execute it better the next time — e.g., keep shooting, change angles, interact with the subject, adjust exposure. These things are not always evident when shooting.

Choosing Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

The contact sheet is almost dead today — replaced by Adobe Lightroom and similar programs. Although these applications clearly have their advantages in storage simplicity, classification of images, finding images, quality of proofs, etc., they also have their shortcomings.

I must substitute a 24″ monitor for a magnifying glass and a grease pencil.

I can no longer hold an 8×10 in my hand and look at the whole sequence together.

And I lose that moment of peering through a glass, having that special frame pop up in front of me — and saying, “Wow.”

Recently, a friend suggested taking my photographs “out of the computer.“ I am presently working on a new way to do this that requires printing small paper proofs and pinning them up on the wall.

This allows me to move them about, take those that no longer interest me down and put new ones up — just like I used to do.

It’s not the same as holding a contact sheet in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other, but I like it. Sometimes taking two steps forward — and then one step back — is not such a bad thing after all.

9 Responses to “The Joy of the Contact Sheet”

  1. Ha ha you know what's coming.. It's Steve Jobs with his iPad saying "we've got an app for that" 😉

  2. It is true that in this digital age when the likes of RAW processing software tend to bypass the contact sheet Lightroom, Aperture, Capture one etc, it is much harder to create an edit of images.

    This is why I still print off a contact sheet when I do a shoot to edit images based on initial composition.

    It's not a good as viewing through a loupe but it helps.

  3. Ohhhhh you are such a romantic!
    I miss contact sheets too. 🙁

  4. So, print a contact sheet of your digital images. Whats the big deal?

  5. I have to say that I too miss having a contact sheet to work from, although I find that through ratings, and other things in lightroom (dual montitors help), that I can achieve nearly the same things, and searching is so much easier using the filters by stars or color rating.

  6. Every contact sheet tells a story..... And contact sheet give a lot of information about the photographer ways of working. Truly interesting. I'm working with digital but for a few works I really like I prefer the old argentic way, the wait between the shooting and the lab. Also, even if it's sounds a little "arrogant" I like the idea that my 35mm negs will not disappear in the next software révolution.

  7. I miss contact sheets as well. I use to print for fine art photographers and in commercial labs. A contact sheet can tell you a lot about the technical skills of a photographer. Minimum exposure for maximum black could tell you how consistent exposures were. Some photographers would have perfect pages while others would need a lot of individual frame help.

    A contact sheet would make me feel like I could see through the photographer's eyes. (the decisions that they made, composition, exposure etc) In digital there are no "Bad" pictures. We can hit the trash can before anyone sees it. But why do we have so many more images now. I use to be happy when I would get two or three frames from a roll of tri-x. Now we can upload 100 images and think nothing of it.

    Sorry I run on. Things felt simpler then. I think I am going to go to the freezer and pull out a roll of 5 year old tri-x and go for a walk. Thanks for listening and thanks for this article.


  8. if you shoot correct in camera, your jpegs should be good enough for a contact sheet. you can do it with picassa easily enough. it looks as good as an old contact printed sheet to me at least for the editing uses you mention, you can't really tell focus, but used with a screen that is easy enough to solve. it sure beats printing all those 4x6's.

  9. And just the other day I was missing the smell of developer and fixer.

    I too miss the contact sheet. Just something physical about it.

    Not the same when you print them from a computer. Not the same.

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