What is a Contact Sheet and How Do You Make One?

The film set the photographic standard in more ways than one. The contact sheet, for example, once an essential aspect of the filmmaking process, has survived the transition to digital. Although it serves a slightly different purpose these days, the contact sheet can help you see the results of a shot and make it easier to share your best shots.

Here’s a guide to understanding why contact cards are still useful, and how to make a digital version of them.

Contents

What is a contact card?

In film photography, contact sheets allow a photographer to view all of the images on a roll of printed film. Contact sheets get their name from the way they are made: by placing negative strips directly onto a piece of photographic paper and making an impression. This allows easy review of results from a roll of film.

Using a magnifying lens, the photographer can review and evaluate each shot, selecting which images to print, if any. Because it’s really only an 8×10 photo, the contact sheet allows the photographer to cross out bad photos, circle good ones, and mark them for any dodging and burning required.

An example of printing a contact sheet of film negatives with marks. Photo by Ggia and licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The contact sheet also gives an overview of a shoot, a succession of photos from one frame to another. This helps inform photographers (and other viewers) of the creative process and gives perspective on the craft.

In the digital world, a contact sheet looks like a photo gallery, but the photos are laid out in the same standard grid format rather than in a carousel. Think of it as a thumbnail page that presents a selection of photos on screen, no scrolling necessary. Zooming is still possible, as is filing, sorting and deleting. Sharing a digital contact sheet can be as simple as creating one and hitting print or saving as a PDF.

Why make a contact form?

Both professional and amateur photographers will benefit from creating contact sheets. There really is no better tool for comparing and presenting a collection of images. Reasons for creating contact sheets include sorting, quality control, testing printer paper, and providing customers with a gallery of photos to choose from.

film contact sheet
A film contact sheet with selections. Photo: Estate of Chris Brunkhart.

In digital photography, contact sheets also offer other important advantages. Consider how many photos result from a day of digital shooting. A lot. It’s only by weeding out poor and mediocre photos that a photographer can see what he really has. Scrolling through hundreds of images does not allow for easy comparison. But looking at all the good shots together, without throwing distraction in between, allows the photographer to decide which are the best. The classic grid format of a contact sheet presents photos in an easily digestible way.

Another reward of creating contact sheets is the thumbnail view itself. With powerful sensors and computer screens, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. Looking at pixels is too tempting, and many screens are much larger than a 4×6 or even 8×10 print, so detail becomes too visible.

Contact sheets present photos in a tiny format, making it easy to get an overview of each photo. Reducing a photo to a thumbnail lets you consider composition and lines, and judge whether a photo is compelling or not.

How to make a contact sheet

There are different processes for creating a contact sheet depending on whether you are working in a darkroom with analog photos or on a computer with digital photos.

dark room

  1. Cut the developed 35 mm film into strips of 5 or 6 frames. For medium format, use 3 or 4 images.
  2. Turn off the lights in the darkroom and turn on the safelight.
  3. Lay the film strips, emulsion side down, on a piece of photographic paper, usually an 8-in-10. Some photographers use contact print frames to hold the strips of film, and others place a sheet of glass over the negatives to hold them flat to the paper.
  4. Set the enlarger to the aperture you will use for printing. Position it to cover the entire sheet of paper.
  5. Do a test print by covering the whole thing with black cardboard and exposing a frame, then attach and rinse.
  6. When you have found the correct exposure, make an exposure of all the film strips. This will result in a contact sheet that you can file with the negatives.
film contact sheet
A contact sheet created in the darkroom with ILFORD HP5 PLUS film strips. Photo: Estate of Chris Brunkhart.

photoshop

  1. The first step to creating a digital contact sheet is to select the photos you want to include. It helps to put them in a folder first.
  2. In Photoshop, go to the File tab at the top, select Automate, then select Contact Sheet II.
  3. Photoshop contact sheet box

  4. In the Contact Sheet II dialog box, navigate to Source Images > Use, then click the drop-down arrow to choose the files you want. (Note: If you’re choosing files from Bridge, make sure only the files you want are selected from Bridge, otherwise the contact sheet will include all of your files.)
  5. Customize your contact sheet via Document (dimensions and color data) or Thumbnails (order, number of columns and rows). In Thumbnails, you can also deselect Use Auto-Spacing to further customize the layout, and you can deselect Rotate for Better Fit to prevent images from rotating. Deselect Use filename as caption to remove all captions.
  6. Click OK and Photoshop will generate the contact sheet. Photoshop will create multiple pages, if needed.
  7. Print the contact sheet or export it in JPEG format.
digital contact sheet
A digital contact sheet made with Photoshop. Photo: Daniel O’Neil

Lightroom

  1. Again, the first step is to create a collection in Lightroom and then open it.
  2. Choose the print module at the top right. If it’s not visible, toggle the triangle at the top of the Lightroom window.
  3. Lightroom contact sheet box

  4. The layout allows you to choose the orientation (vertical or horizontal) of the contact sheet. In the Printer Settings (Properties in Windows), you can choose the paper source, output type and resolution.
  5. In Layout Style (top right), make sure Single Image/Contact Sheet is selected.
  6. In Page Layout, add rows and columns, then optionally space them horizontally and vertically. In Image Settings, you can rotate images to make them all vertical or horizontal. In Page, you can add file names or information, as well as page numbers. In Print Job, you can adjust sharpness, choose matte or glossy paper, and select color management (profile for printer and media type).
  7. Click Select All and Lightroom will add all images from the chosen collection to the contact sheet. Lightroom will create multiple pages, if needed.
  8. To save as a PDF, click Printer in the lower left, then click the PDF drop-down arrow and select Save as PDF. To print, click Print in the main contact page window.

Other software

Creating contact sheets in other post-processing software is just as easy. Although providing instructions for each brand of software is beyond the scope of this article, a quick internet search will yield instructions. Fortunately, popular software such as Capture One offers online instructions.

Conclusion

Contact sheets make comparing and presenting a gallery or collection of images easy and aesthetically pleasing. Whether the contact sheet is for personal or professional use, multiple advantages await viewers. Whether printed or in PDF format, contact sheets provide the photographer (and clients) with a neat and organized view of selected photos.

Try integrating the contact sheet into your post-production workflow and see how it can best serve you.


Picture credits: Header photo by Benjamin Balázs.

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