the Contact Sheet

On of the areas that I have missed about digital photography from my film days is the contact sheet. For those of you who never shot film, a contact sheet was created by taking your negatives and placing them directly on a piece of darkroom paper and making a contact print of the negatives. The result of the process was a print that had little images from all your negatives.

The contact sheet allowed you to start the process to judge both the exposure and content of the images. It was also an amazingly valuable tool for learning to see which of your images was stronger or weaker in relationship to the other images on the roll or in the series. Often times, we have this idea that the one great photograph we see in books and museums is just that. A single moment captured in time a la the Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment. However, what is really more  likely with those images is that they are selected from a number of similar frames. It is the combinations of the shooting AND image selection that really allowed for the photographer to have the best image to work with.

When you pour over your contact sheets you could see habits, trends and your style start to emerge. You could spot both technical and non-technical issues in your work. You were forced to look at all the images good and bad. Those lessons from the contact sheet days are why I don’t delete hardly any of my digital images no matter how bad. Learn to see how you see when you photograph comes from the bad images as much as it does from the good.

There are a couple of amazing books that deal with the contact sheet. Magnum Photo’s Contact Sheets and Steve Crist’s The Contact Sheet are both great looks at not just the great images in photography but also the roll of film they came off. You get the chance to play photographer and editor pouring over all the images and deciding if you would have selected that same image. In my reading, I often times have thought the strongest image on the roll isn’t the one selected. Then again for editorial and advertising it is sometimes about the right image for the story not the strongest photographic image.

In this day and age, I encourage people to create contact sheets of their images. Luckily, it is really easy to do with our digital tools. I have created a little video that shows you how to create your own contact sheets in Adobe Bridge/Photoshop, Lightroom and Photo Mechanic. Give it a shot with some of your work, I think you might find it really changes how you shoot, edit and print your work.


April 4, 2014

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