Contact sheets, and how to use them

This article is a lead on from my earlier review of the Magnum Contact Sheets book.

Contact sheets are a tool that date from the days of film: basically, the developed negatives are laid out directly on top of photographic printing paper, exposed for the appropriate duration, and fixed. They aren’t ‘proper’ prints per se, but a provide the photographer and editor a quick way of looking at all of the images in a sequence at once.

A printed (or from negatives) contact sheet would probably look something like this.

The photographer would then mark out his first and second cut images, followed by the verification from the editor; the chosen images would then be printed properly from the original negatives, with any tweaks required (such as dodging and burning, increasing exposure, changing print density etc.) With the analog photography process, that marked the end of the line for the photographer unless they also did their own printing – which was rare.

Interestingly, contact sheets were considered something of a luxury item for photographers because of the cost of producing them – especially when there were a lot of rolls of film to go through – most photographers just used a loupe and light table, or if desperate, held the negatives up to a window.

Contact sheets still remain a useful tool, not just because they allow you to see all images at once and judge their relative merits, but also because they force you to look at the distilled essence of an image: if a shot makes a compelling thumbnail, it’s generally also quite powerful at larger sizes. However, the reverse isn’t true: some shots need to be printed large to work well, landscapes, for instance. With images like this, contact sheets aren’t necessarily the best tool (unless you’re shooting medium format, or have larger thumbnails to work with).

Not shooting film? Don’t worry. We can still do the same thing today in the digital world. Photoshop itself has an automated tool (File>Automate>Contact Sheet) to create contact sheets of images; these are useful to print or send to clients. Alternatively, programs such as Bridge and Lightroom effectively let you create digital contact sheets which you can interact with on the fly:

Today’s contact sheet: screenshot of Adobe Bridge, thumbnail view.

What these programs let you do is a) see everything at once; b) see only the ones you wanted; c) use a magnifying loupe to check sharpness on a particular image or several images to compare; d) here’s the important bit: rate images. With Bridge and LR, Command-[number] lets you tag a star rating from 1-5; later on, you can filter by images rated at a certain level or above. And it works for raw files too, so long as the camera is supported by Adobe Camera Raw.

My current process is to keep all images from a shoot (except the obvious duds or unsuccessful experiments, which I bin in camera) and then conduct a first pass edit using the contact sheet view as soon as they’re in the computer – I’ll rate my images 3, 4 and 5*; 3* are kept because they’re useful for stock or remembering a particular event; 4* are good images and deliverable to clients; 5* are portfolio grade, best-of. The rest aren’t worth keeping and get binned. I’ll work on the 5* images first, and go down the quality ladder from there. That way, my best images are immediately ready to go, and if I don’t get a chance to make a final file (analogous to printing) of the 3*s, I can always come back later.

As photographers, we often fall into the trap of either being overcritical (bin all) or sentimental (bin none) – neither approach is good. For personal work, using contact sheets helps you to edit and see what worked and what didn’t (and by combination, what ideas might work in future if combined). On assignment, it lets you see the relative merits of each image and ensure that you’re only turning in the very best. Contact sheets are a powerful tool to help you achieve this – and the cost of printing is no longer really an excuse. MT

Look out for a future article on Editing: how to select images.