How to Make a Contact Sheet in Photography

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Prior to the advent of digital photo editing software, film photographers compared their images by printing them on a sheet of paper. Because of their convenience and versatility, many photographers still use contact sheets to this day. Learn more about contact sheets and how to create your own.


What Exactly Is a Contact Sheet?

A contact sheet is a piece of photographic paper with a series of thumbnail images on it. These images are taken from a roll of film that has been cut into multiple strips by the photographer. They then expose these negatives against the sheet to better compare each image to the others. Photographers may use multiple sheets at once, particularly if they have a large number of films to develop.


Why Are Contact Sheets Necessary?

Contact sheets assist photographers in deciding which images to develop further and which to discard. Here are a few examples of how these sheets can be useful:

1. Contrast: For decades, contact sheets were the primary mode of comparison in film photography. Photographers could sort photos into columns and rows to determine which ones were worth developing. This was especially helpful when many of the images were similar.

2. Convenience: Photographers can compare multiple film strips on a single large, format-size page of printing paper. Although multiple page numbers are sometimes required, using contact sheets can be more convenient than checking each individual image and developing your images one at a time.

3. Creativity: Film photographers can use contact sheets to speed up their creative processes. They can assess changes they might want to make in the future after looking through one of these print modules without having to further develop images. They may, for example, decide to change the ISO or other image settings for their next roll of film.


Steps to Making a Contact Sheet

Creating a traditional contact sheet is a simple process. Keep the following step-by-step tutorial in mind as you do so:

1. Tear the film into strips. Remove your film from your camera after entering the darkroom and begin cutting it up into manageable strips. As you begin to slice up your film, consider your ultimate page setup. Cut film negative strips that are nearly the entire width of the paper. You can also mix and match these strips however you like.

2. Place the strips on a piece of photographic paper. Lay out each of your filmstrips on darkroom printing paper. Place the emulsion side down. To accommodate as many strips as possible, use a large or medium-format paper size. When you're satisfied with the alignment, open the darkroom enlarger's aperture to include the entire piece of photographic paper.

3. Create a contact print. Consider creating a proof sheet first to ensure that your final product meets your expectations. You can do this by covering most of the sheet with black paper except for one frame (possibly in the top right or left corner). If everything appears to be in order, expose the entire sheet to light and apply the appropriate chemicals to develop it.

4. Examine the photographs. After you've completed your contact printing, you can study your contact sheet in the light. To get a better look at each photo, use a magnifying glass or loupe. Make notes on your print job so you know which photos to develop further and which to discard. At this point, you can also add an identity plate or watermark to the sheet.


Can Digital Photos Be Used to Create a Contact Sheet?

Individual photographers wanted to recreate the magic and convenience of a film contact sheet after digital photography became more widely available and popular. After all, even though digital photography allows you to compare and contrast images down to the pixel level, you may still want to look at a long series of images in thumbnail format to get a wider-angle view of all your photos.

The most popular photo editing programs include digital contact sheet templates that you can use to further automate this already simple process. After selecting a sheet type from a template browser, you can customize cell spacing and image sliders using your program's toolbar.

On a digital contact sheet, you'll also have more presets to experiment with than with film. You can also save a JPEG of the sheet with a file name you'll remember to avoid the risk of losing a physical copy.

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