Contact sheets are an incredibly useful tool when it comes to reviewing and learning from your own approach to photography, and when curating a series of shots down to one final “keeper.” I am an advocate of constant review and culling of a body of work, and am always seeking out new ways to finesse my collection of images down to the fewest possible whist maintaining a powerful story throughout – whether that’s across a series, collection, or my entire portfolio.
Curating is an incredibly significant aspect to sharing photography. If you have two similar images and choose to share both it can reduce the impact of either – the power of a single image can be greater than the sum of the work that went into producing it.
When I share my images and provide a contact sheet which features that image, it will be for context and discussion rather than its own definitive article. They are enough to give a gist of the kind of approach I was taking to a scene without detracting from the eventual message of that decisive image.
In this article I will use content featured previously on my personal blog to express some of the ways I take an applied approach to curating my work, both while shooting and reviewing, and the role that the contact sheet plays in this process.
As I became more comfortable with a film workflow I have also adopted the benefits of using a contact sheet as a physical useful artefact, as opposed to a tool simply for deciding which images to follow through and print/scan. Unlike my digital contact sheets, which can stretch into the dozens of frames every roll offers me access to my own mindset over the course of 36ish frames. This is a far more intimate and comfortable number, and allows me to give each shot it’s own consideration.
“My film work consists of far fewer intricate compositions and more ‘moments’ based around temporary interaction and activity.”
If I am using a fisherman’s approach, “working a scene”, and intending to shoot it on film I will go through the trial and error of different options with my eye first, as opposed to digital photography where I will take my test shots to actively see what could work. When I find the shot I think will work I will wait until something interesting occurs, and then do my best to capture it.
A recent contact sheet from a day shooting around London’s King’s Cross Station demonstrates this approach quite well. The film was a 24 exposure roll of ILFORD Delta 100 Professional, one of my favourite black and white options.
From the 11th frame of the roll until the 19th I was trying to capture the image I’ll be talking about. I’d wondered up to the mezzanine and then walked through the ticket barriers, ending up on a walkway overlooking the trains. This is a fantastic vantage point, which I’d never visited before, so I wanted to make the most of it. I really enjoy shooting from a high or low angle, as you get really great separation of your subject against a clean background, as well as an interesting perspective on anything that might be happening.
“Sometimes when shooting digitally I’ll experience a kind of fatigue or resignation”
The 11th frame is of a man waiting by the door of the train, alone. I then noticed a train guard by the door but it was a lower angle which I decided I wouldn’t like, so I only shot one frame of this.
After this people began to board and I was able to capture more of them. The 13th frame is a bit cluttered but as people moved out further along the platform I noticed a semi-circle begin to form and quickly shot the 14th.
This ended up being my favourite frame, but without being able to review my image I wouldn’t know this until later – which forced me to continue to work the scene. I’ve found that often I’ll shoot “the one” and then continue to make images in hopes of something better.
Film photography means never settling – even if you think you nailed it. You can constantly one-up your attempts, which keeps you searching for that better image. Sometimes when shooting digitally I’ll experience a kind of fatigue or resignation. If I know I’ve shot a particularly good image early on in the day I can become lazy, and allow myself to work less hard on the rest of the images.
This doesn’t happen with film, which makes me a more active participant in every moment of the day.
I decided to carry on and hope to capture someone isolated but wasn’t satisfied until another Guard came by and started to close the train doors:
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Despite being only a few images in an already abridged roll of film, I feel like this sequence can illustrate a lot about the way I work. Although I was telling myself that an isolated figure would make for the best image it was actually the image with the most spontaneity, the one which could be anticipated and planned for the least, that turned out to be the best in my eyes.
This image is the result of the style that I most closely associate with my digital work; shooting a few frames of a scene in order to nail something that stands out. My digital contact sheets will often look like a mosaic of essentially the same image, as each frame is usually a simple iteration on a composition I have already decided on. My film work consists of far fewer intricate compositions and more “moments” based around temporary interaction and activity.
“I cannot see and learn from one without understanding the other.”
A recent roll of film which I feel especially proud of in this regard was shot recently, and within the space of only a few hours. I am usually very frugal with my film, so pressuring myself to spend an entire roll of film on one event was quite a task.
I told myself that I would make an effort to have every frame stand out, and to not feature a sequence similar to the above, of multiple efforts to capture the “same” shot.
This is also a roll of ILFORD Delta 100 Professional, and you can immediately see the diversity between each frame, as compared to the iterative shots on the previous sheet. Only frames 10, 11, and 12 are of the same scene, and are the weakest overall! I think that after shooting the first here, I had “invested” in that image, and spent the other two frames chasing something I wasn’t even certain about in the moment.
You can see the first three shots I took as I walked my first circuit, getting a feel for the environment. The fifth frame is an “establishing” shot which sets the scene for the whole series.
Then you can see as I continue to walk that I am searching for characters and moments. I find a boy sat on the wall, and make this candid portrait.
Shots 10, 11, 12, 14, and 16 show me trying to use the shape of characters against their environment, but they aren’t as effective as the image I feel I’d shot so far, which are purely character and moment-based. The remainder of my images aside from 32 retain their focus around subjects and interactions – not light and shape.
Frames 5 and 13 are annoyingly unusable due to writing in the frame. In frame 17 and 19 my subject blinked.
Although I tried to make every shot count I ended up with only around half of the images on the frame being useable in the publishing sense. However as an experience, and a collection of successes and failures this is a contact sheet I have been studying for some time. Kicking myself over the blinking subjects – teaching me not to rush portrait work as I often do. Berating myself over the compositions including writing – learning to be much closer and searching more intently for potentially invasive lettering which in my opinion spoils an image.
In my digital workflow these images would simply be tidied away and I wouldn’t think about them twice, but when it comes to failing on film those failures lie directly adjacent to my successes at all times. I cannot see and learn from one without understanding the other.
Of course, there is nothing I can do to change the way I took these, and they do not exist to be corrected, but rather to correct my future efforts. When shooting in a similar environment in the future I will have all of this at the front of my mind, with my regrets motivating me towards constantly creating images I am proud of.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look into the way I use my past work to shape my current and future efforts. If you’ve enjoyed my images here please consider following my Instagram, where I maintain a collection of my best/favourite images.
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Very nice article.
It can be hard to articulate how contact sheets are used – excellent article!
I only do passive curation.