The Paradox of cluttered contact sheets

I’ve previously discussed the role contact sheets play in my photography as a tool to better understand my process both in the moment when working a scene and helping to recognise patterns emerging in my style over time. Contact sheets are a fantastic resource for film photographers, and can also be used by digital artists – although applying these ideas to a digital workflow can often distort the result (but I’ll come back to this later).

Until recently my views on contact sheets have been as a means to an end – the same way I see a photo album as a collection of individual images rather than its own unique thing. It occurred to me recently that there is another way to understand a contact sheet, which perhaps is how other people have always seen them, but it was a new perspective for me – that the sheet itself could have value as a standalone artefact, rather than being something that represented the “real” pieces of interest contained within itself.


I think the way that contact sheets are presented in Magnum Contact Sheets, or Moriyama’s Labyrinth indicate this status, that the contact sheet can be enjoyed as its own thing, or studied to learn something a little deeper about the way a photographer works.

In my mind, there are two “kinds” of contact sheet: a clean one and a cluttered one.

A clean contact sheet is the better solitary artefact and comprises of the majority of a roll spent on one shot. These are common from photographers who would bracket their exposures or focus – especially on meter-less cameras – in order to guarantee that they got a shot that came out as intended. A cluttered contact sheet belongs to a photographer who either heavily trusts their camera, or makes an effort to nail things on the first try, which means that they have a variety of images to show for a single roll.

I know photographers who work today, who will shoot an entire roll of a scene, bracketing every option between focus, shutter, and aperture, and then selecting the one with the right balance. I don’t see this working for me; I understand my meter, my gear, what I’m exposing for, and what I want the result to look like. I make an effort to nail my moments using timing and anticipation for faster-paced scenes, patience for slower ones.

Don’t get me wrong, both are absolutely equally valid ways of shooting, and I don’t want this to turn into a debate about being frugal with the shutter – whatever it takes for a photographer to achieve the shot, and that’s different for everyone (although I do encourage people to try each method at some point to see if that has any effect on their mentality).

I think cleaner contact sheets are more prevalent with current digital photographers, where there is no expense in a trial and error shooting style, making multiple exposures and then selecting their shot during post. Again, this isn’t a criticism of that style, but personally I wouldn’t consider the bulk of what is produced during these exposures to be “real” in the same way film photographs often end up.


When I look ay my own digital contact sheets there are very few frames from the selection that would work as their own independent shot. With my film photographs, I could have at least a couple of contenders from working the scene in far fewer frames.

I find that after curating my digital images I’ll have a singlular result – whatever the specific moment I was working on was, but I wouldn’t consider that sequence to really exist as individual images, with no merit aside from the fact that they were almost what I wanted – but assuming I actually get the image I have no use for anything not good enough.

The way I work with my film photography means that I have far fewer of these sequences and that when I do they have far more diversity than the “sequence” of moments that go towards a digital burst. In my current workflow, both film and digital, I try to distinguish the merit of a final image before bringing the camera to my eye, let alone actuating the shutter – but there will always be that safety net on digital where I feel free to “be sure” by way of duplicate exposures.

That’s not to say a cluttered sheet can’t still have a flow, and merit as it’s own thing. I have a sheet of Delta 100 from a day photographing a Sikh event which still stands out as a significant milestone in my film work, despite being the opposite of tidy.

I think this comes down to the quality/quantity divide, as well as that film is limited by nature whereas in theory a library of tens of thousands of digital images could be viewed as one sheet with no real way to discern what counts as what – not divided by roll, or date, or theme, or project.

Therefore, when I present a digital contact sheet it is with a purpose to discuss a specific image and the process that went towards working that scene or situation towards that image.

I think that there is something of a paradox in this discussion, which lies in the “worth” each kind of sheet possess. A cluttered contact is less aesthetic on its own but represents (potentially) any number of wonderful individual images, which have merit as photographs. A clean contact sheet has the aesthetic merit but represents far fewer images – perhaps only one great one.

There are so many different ways to exploit the physical nature of film and no one way is the most valid or aesthetically ideal. All film photographers should have the ability to make these peripheral aspects work for them.


Ultimately, when it comes to my own work I will always be working towards individual images that matter, and not an aesthetic sheet. I’d rather make each frame count for something rather than producing steady moment to moment rough drafts.


Thanks for taking the time to read this! If you want to see more of my work please consider following me on Instagram! I buy all of my film from Analogue Wonderland.

~ Simon

Simon Kinghttps://www.instagram.com/simonking_v
Simon is a London based photographer and photojournalist. He is currently working on long term personal projects, and has been shooting on 35mm film since late 2016. You can follow his work on Instagram, or read his personal blog, both linked below.

Related reading

1 COMMENT

  1. Fascinating. As someone who started out parsing the cost of every frame of Tri-X, and now shoots much more freely in the frictionless digital way, I’ve often thought about how that changes my work. This points to a different and probably more useful way to approach that, with contact sheets providing a wide-angle view of ongoing visual processes of discriminating, experimenting, honing in.

Join the discussion