Musings on Photography

Contact Sheets

Posted in process, Solo Photo Book Month by Paul Butzi on April 6, 2008

Way back when I first started up with photography after a long hiatus, I worked with a 35mm camera and I returned to the habits from when I was young, carefully contact printing each roll of film onto a 8×10 sheet, and then going over each contact sheet to pick the ‘winners’. When I switched to large format, at first I contact printed all of the 4×5 negatives, 4 to an 8×10 sheet, and looked at the contacts. It didn’t take long for me to realize that with a smidgen more work and four times the paper, I could have rough work prints of every negative instead, and so for most of my 4×5 negatives, I never made contact sheets.

And then I got the Leicas, and it was back to 35mm for a while. Again, I contact printed every negative in every roll, even though truth be told, a contact print from a 35mm negative is pretty useless. But it was part of my negative filing system, so I did it anyway, even though by that time I was no longer convinced of the utility.

And then it was back to large format, and then a switch to digital, where I did look at contact sheets but curiously only on the screen, never in print. I’d just browse using Adobe Bridge, doing my edits there, and opening a file in Photoshop if I wanted to take a closer look. That worked great.

And I didn’t think of contact sheets again until I read this post on Colin’s blog, about his recent catastastroke. The up front story there is that Colin, poor fellow, had a roll of film ruined by mysterious evil black vertical stripes, the genesis of which is unclear. And so of course I dutifully did my part, emailing Colin with my observations and theories as to the cause.

What caught my attention, though, was there I was, gazing at Colin’s image of the ruined roll, and all of a sudden my brain did a little flip and I was ignoring the defects and instead the ‘looking at negatives’ part of my brain engaged, and all of a sudden I was seeing the images. Now, I’m a sucker for looking at other people’s contact sheets or sleeved film, because it gives you an insight into their process. You get to see not just their keepers but also their photos of the inside of their camera bag, or of their feet. You see not just the winners but also the ‘also rans’ and the losers, and you get to see them in order. I remember a book where you got to see not just the finished photo essays of some photographer (I can’t remember who) but the contact sheets, or at least some of them. And the cool thing was you’d look at the contacts and see the first exposure, which you might call a ‘Here’s an idea’ exposure. And then you’d see more exposures of the same idea, sometimes getting better and sometimes getting worse, and then there’d be another “here’s an idea” exposure. I remember being fascinated, not just by seeing the out-takes but also the process.

Anyway, I saw Colin’s post, and it jogged all this stuff loose in my mind, and I thought it might be interesting (and also probably highly embarassing) if I just posted all of the exposures I made for SoFoBoMo as little contact sheets. No editing. No adjustments. Just the raw files, smooshed into contact sheet form using the ‘contact sheet II’ feature of Photoshop, in order of exposure. All the ideas are there, and so far they span the range from mediocre to bad. Look at them and weep, look at them and laugh, look at them and think rude thoughts. Maybe there’s an interesting insight, maybe I’m crazy.

Here we go.

6 Responses

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  1. Niels said, on April 6, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    No weeping on my part.

    I really enjoyed watching the progression you made in capturing various images as you went on your journey. I am not sure whether the dog was following you or the other away around. (grin).

    The contact sheet is a great way to see what excites you. Thanks for sharing.

    Niels Henriksen

  2. Anita Jesse said, on April 6, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    What a generous offering. I had been quite taken with the shot of Kodak standing on the road gazing off into the distance, and it was fascinating to see how you “got there”. It’s wonderfully instructive being able to follow along and watch your mind work.

    I keep wondering why you don’t write a book! Granted writing books is a fairly thankless endeavor–no big money in it unless you write a smash hit best seller and get a movie deal. However, you have an impressive amount of invaluable information to share and you present it so clearly and creatively. For example, the lesson you wrote on using the quick mask put to shame any other tutorial I have read on the topic. Now this outstanding device for teaching. Any chance you could be talked into putting your information in book form?

  3. Gordon McGregor said, on April 6, 2008 at 9:17 pm

    I remember learning a lot from seeing the contact sheets of some of Arnold Newman’s more famous portraits. How he narrowed things down and then in one frame it all worked, then was maybe gone again.

    I occasionally post my contact sheets on my blog, though I seem to shoot a lot more.

    This was one 4 day period – I took so many frames I ended up making a video instead of showing a contact sheet. I might do that with all my SoFoBoMo shots in the end.

  4. Amy Sakurai said, on April 6, 2008 at 9:24 pm

    Wow. You’re brave! Thank you for sharing! I’d be mortified if my losers got out into the world — but of course even your so-so shots are much better than the bulk of my cutlist.

    Looking at the thought process of a good artist is fascinating. Looking at the thought process of someone less purposeful could be annoying or tedious, so I don’t think anyone needs to view my Lightroom grids. Thank Adobe for filters! ^_~


  5. wesjo said, on April 7, 2008 at 7:39 am


    I have been lurking and reading for the longest time. It’s a really wonderful thing you’re doing, sharing with us your inner thought process through the contact sheets.


  6. Jon Fitch said, on April 7, 2008 at 6:19 pm

    Great suggestion. Trying it out right now.

    BTW, from your contact sheets, I notice that you only have about 6 or 7 vertical frames out of 130?

    Perhaps you may want to rotate that camera a bit to see what you get vertically if you’re in a rut.

    2nd set, #2 is great to me.

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