Back in the film days photographers working in the darkroom would make a contact sheet for each roll of film they developed.
What is a contact sheet?
A contact sheet is a set of thumbnail photos printed onto a sheet of paper. The name comes from the way that negatives are placed in contact with the printing paper (under a glass sheet to keep them flat) in the darkroom to make the contact sheet.
Here’s a contact sheet that I made over 20 years ago. The green dots show the photos that I wanted to print.
Contact sheets in Lightroom Classic
Now most photographers use digital cameras (and very few use darkrooms) contact sheets have fallen out of fashion. The closest most photographers get to a contact sheet is looking at Lightroom Classic’s Grid View.
Why make contact sheets in Lightroom Classic?
In the film days photographers made contact sheets so they could see what photos they had and then pick the best ones for printing. There’s no need to do that in digital photography, so why make a contact sheet in Lightroom Classic?
There’s little point in making a traditional style contact sheet which contains every photo you took (but there’s nothing wrong with that if you’re bit of a traditionalist and want to do it that way).
The biggest advantage of digital contact sheets is that you can be selective in which photos to add to them.
Let me give you an example. Below is a Collection of photos I recently made in Lightroom Classic showing some images of urban decay that I made in Chile (this is a brief from my new ebook 100 Creative Photography Assignments). You’re looking at them in Grid View, so it’s like a contact sheet.
You’re not looking at every photo that I made in Chile, because there’s no point. I’ve already been through them and picked the best photos. More importantly, I’ve picked the photos that match a specific theme.
This way of making a contact sheet has three big benefits:
1. Your contact sheets help you keep track of your best photos. You can print them out and keep them in a folder or box, or you can save them as JPEG file and keep them in a folder on your computer or tablet.
When you have years of photos (some photographers have close to 20 years of digital photos in their archives) contact sheets make it easier to remember the best photos that you’ve made.
You could even use the exported JPEG files in a photo book so you have all your contact sheets in one place. This can work nicely with bigger thumbnails (see next benefit).
2. You can choose how big to make the thumbnails. For example, I like to print six photos on a sheet of paper, cut them out and keep them.
You can move them around, see which photos work well together or which images work well in sets. It gives you a different view of your images. It’s helpful from a creative point of view because it helps you see visual connections that you weren’t aware of.
3. You can make contact sheets for your most important themes and projects. This helps you keep track of the best photos you’ve made for your projects, and any assignments you may be following from my books.
For example, here’s the second contact sheet from my Urban Decay, Chile set of photos.
How to make a contact sheet in Lightroom Classic
It’s easy to make a contact sheet using the templates in the Print module.
1. Start by putting the photos you want to add to the contact sheet into a new Collection, if they’re not in one already.
If you’re unsure about why using Lightroom Classic Collections is such a good idea, then read my article How To Organize Your Photos With Lightroom Classic Collections
2. Go to the Print module and open the Template Browser at the top of the left-hand panels. Look for the four contact sheet templates in the Lightroom Templates folder (marked below).
3. Click on the 4×5 Contact Sheet template. Set Use in the Toolbar to All Filmstrip Photos (Press T on the keyboard to show the Toolbar if you can’t see it). You’ll see something like the screenshot below.
There’s room for up to 20 thumbnails on the page (five rows of four). If there’s more than 20 photos in the Collection, Lightroom makes extra pages as needed.
The other three contact sheet templates fit even more photos on the page.
How to customize the contact sheet
There are a few ways you can customize the contact sheet template to suit your needs.
1. You can change the paper size and orientation. Click the Page Setup under the left-hand panels. The default paper size for the contact sheet templates is US letter. If you’re not using US letter sized paper you can change that to whatever you need. You can also change the orientation of the paper from portrait to landscape.
2. You can adjust rows and columns. Go to the Layout panel where you can the number of photos in each row and column (see screenshot below). Use the Cell Spacing sliders to adjust the space between photos.
3. You can change the text under the photos, or remove it. Go to the Page panel and uncheck the Photo Info box to remove the text. Or click the arrows next to Filename to select another piece of metadata, like Title, to display instead. You can also adjust Font Size underneath.
4. You can use other templates or your own layouts to display photos. For example, the screenshot below shows a Collection of photos that I made in Alaska. It’s a curated Collection showing photos loosely following the theme “Things outside houses”. I made the layout using a template I created to display six photos on the same page. Now I can print out the contact sheet, or export it as a JPEG, to help me remember that this set of photos exists.
Hopefully the ideas in this article help you see the role of contact sheets a little differently. With darkroom photography, photographers needed contact sheets so they could see every photo they made and decide which ones were worth developing.
Now, with digital photography, that’s no longer necessary. But you can use contact sheets in new ways, the most helpful of which is to keep track of your best photos.