The film photography & darkroom work of David Kirby

How To: Create & Read Contact Sheets

After reading a comment on one of my more recent posts regarding contact sheets I was reminded that I had not written a tutorial covering this important step in the printmaking process.  Best that I rectify this right away methinks!

Contact sheets are important, there is no viable argument against this fact.  And yet, when I first started printing a few years ago I never made any, opting instead to jump straight into making the print.  I soon learned, however, that by taking the time to make a good contact sheet I could save myself time, effort and, perhaps most importantly of all, expensive paper in the long run.  A properly printed contact sheet will yield a wealth of valuable information upon which you can base your printing decisions.  Later in the article I will discuss what these are, but first let's look at how to go about making a contact sheet.


If you already do your own black and white printing in a darkroom then you have pretty much everything you need already.  Various manufacturers have made contact sheet frames which you can purchase if you like (see the cover image to this article), but personally I don't like them as they can be very fiddly to use.  Instead I use a piece of glass about 9" x 11" in size.  The glass was cut to size for me by a picture framing company for the grand sum of £1, but you can use a piece of glass out of an unused picture frame if need be.

Printing For Maximum Edge Blackness

This is something which I briefly mentioned in my zone system tutorial and is absolutely critical when creating a contact sheet.  Imagine for a moment your paper being exposed under your enlarger.  At some point during the exposure you will reach a point when enough light has hit your paper to create maximum black, i.e. no matter how much more light you add to that part of the paper your print will not go any blacker once developed.  If you were to continue adding light to that part of the paper then mid-tones and highlights would continue getting denser (darker) but the blacks would stay as black as they can get.  Hopefully you understand how I have written that, if not then feel free to email me or comment in the area below this article with any queries.

What we need to identify, then, is how long we need to expose our paper for at a certain enlarger height and using a certain f-stop on our enlarger lens to reach the point at which we are adding no further density to the shadows of our print.  Make sense?

To do this we are first going to set our enlarger height.  Now, I like to make my contact sheets 8" x 10" in size so I set my enlarger height to give a roughly 9" x 11" size field of light on my enlarger baseboard.  This means that if I accidentally place my paper slightly off from where it should be then I (hopefully) will be ok and won't have to reprint.  Once you have selected a good height for your enlarger head then write it down because you will need this for future reference (most enlargers normally have a scale on their stands to identify what height you're at - if not then it's time to have a search through the odds and ends drawer for a tape measure).  Lock your enlarger head (if you can) so that it doesn't move and stop your lens down to your normal printing aperture (I most normally use f11 but use an f-stop that is somewhere in the middle of your lens' range).  Pick any negative you like, load it into your enlarger and focus it as usual.  You may be wondering why we need to focus on a negative when we will be contacting printing - well, we have to account for something called bellows extension.  As you rotate the focus knob of your enlarger you will see your lens moving up and down on a bellows.  The more extended the bellows is (i.e. the closer the lens is to the paper) the less time is required to expose the paper to a certain level.  This effect is easily demonstrated when changing paper size.  Say you have a print made on a sheet of 8" x 10" paper and you know that 16 seconds is required to properly expose the paper.  Now imagine you want to make the same print in 16" x 20" size.  That's four times as large and so requires four times the light as the enlarger head will be twice as high as it was.  So, by focusing on a negative in the carrier we are ensuring that our bellows will be at the same extension every time we make a contact sheet in the future.

Next set your enlarger grade to grade 2 - be this through the use of multigrade filters or the dials on your colour head.  A well exposed and well developed negative will give full tonailty at grade 2 and so is the best grade for us to make our initial contact sheet at.

Once you've focused remove your negative and find a negative with a good bit of blank space on it.  Yep, dig out those negatives where you have messed up and shot a blank frame or have a big chunk of the film leader/tail left blank.  Your film should have been well processed so that it is representative of how a film base should be, if it has been under-fixed then it will be very dense and will skew the results of the test.  If you're a perfect photographer and don't have a blank frame or enough of a blank section of film then i'm afraid you'll have to go out and shoot one!

For now put your negative to one side, turn off your enlarger light and cut up a sheet of paper (you can use a whole sheet for this step if you want but it's a bit of a waste, a small square will do) and place it beneath your enlarger ready for exposure.  Now take your section of film and place it emulsion side down on your paper (the emulsion side of your film is the duller side or, alternatively, as you look at your negative the lettering on it should be the right way around).  You should have something that looks like the image to the right.

Once that's done set your enlarger timer running and make a test strip through the negative.  You'll want to use a slightly longer starting time than usual as you will likely have your light source at a greater distance from your paper than you are used to.  Once you have finished your test strip process your paper as normal and leave to dry (I recommend RC paper as it is cheaper than FB and dries much faster).  Upon inspection you should see a series of strips starting at some point in the grey scale and ended in black.  Below is a digital (gasp!) version of this which I have created for the purpose of this tutorial.

A digital version of the step wedge you should have just created.

What you should be able to see in the digital step wedge (or test strip) above is pure white on the left, maximum black on the right and shades of grey in between.  You should be able to discern that the last few steps all appear to be at maximum black (a lot of this will depend upon how your monitor is calibrated).  What you want to look for is the time at which the tones on the test strip/step wedge do not get any darker, i.e. no further density is being added to the paper as exposure increases.  Using our digital step wedge this would be the block with the grey spot in (below - bear in mind though that your monitor may display contrast differently).

Look at your paper test strip and try to locate this point.  If you can't see it try doing a test strip with longer exposures to ensure that you are definitely getting maximum black.  Find out what time this strip represents and write it down as you will need it shortly. 

One very important thing I should mention at this point is that the exposure time you have just determined will only be for the specific paper and film you are using.  For example if you are using Ilford Multigrade IV RC paper and printing through Ilford FP4+ for maximum edge blackness then your exposure time will be different to printing on the same paper using Kodak Tri-X.  The same is also true if changing papers.  If you change papers or films at any time you will need to re-test for maximum edge blackness.

So, you've figured out your exposure time for maximum edge blackness.  You're now ready to make your contact sheet.

Making Your Contact Sheet

So, you've got your enlarger height and exposure time sorted.  Now it's time to get printing your contact sheet.  Again, I recommend RC paper because, well, why use expensive FB paper?!  Do one final check to make sure you're f-stop is correct, your timer has the right exposure time set on it, your printing grade is set to grade 2 and that your enlarger is at the right height.  Now, turn off your main light so only your safe light is on and pull out a sheet of your 8" x 10" paper.  Place it at its designated position beneath your enlarger and gently remove each strip of film from your negative sleeve and lie them in rows across your paper.  Try your best to keep them straight and lined up as it makes for a neater contact sheet, and make sure that none of the frames are hanging off the sides of your paper.  Place your glass sheet over the paper and negatives, making sure that you don't nudge the negatives to one side as you lay it down.  Now all you need to do is set your enlarger running and, once the exposure has finished, process your paper as normal.

Upon inspection of your newly made contact sheet you should not be able to clearly make out where the edges of your film end and the base exposure of the paper meet.  In other words - where all your text at the top and bottom of your film is should be as black as the surrounding areas (except for the lettering of course).  Now treat yourself to a sit down and a pack of crisps for you have made a contact print!

Now What?

So you've made your contact sheet and are celebrating with a glass of juice and a slice of cake, now what?  Well, now you need to be able to discern what your contact sheet is telling you about each frame of your negative.  Let's take a peek at a few frames from my negative collection and we'll see what we can learn.

Here is a scan from one of my older contact sheets.  I have chosen this one because it has a good range of exposures and, hopefully, will serve us well in this tutorial.  For reference the frames are numbered 1 to 12 from top right to bottom left.  Remember that contrast etc may be different depending what screen you are viewing this on - alas, 'tis the curse of digital imagery.  Note how I have foolishly printed the third section of negatives the wrong way around.


First and foremost a contact sheet will tell you a great deal about exposure.  If your film has been properly exposed (and developed) then you should see shadow detail and highlight detail in the right places when printed at grade 2.  If the frame on your contact sheet is too light or too dark then you will know that you have over/underexposed (or over/under-developed).  You may be wondering what good this will do you since your film has already been exposed and developed.  Well, now you know that next time you are exposing in a similar situation you may need to cut your exposure a little.  Plus, if you're a little on the OCD side of things (like me) it's good for your exposure records!  But mainly this will help you to initially decide which frames you want to print.  It may well be the case that you just don't have the shadow or highlight detail you want to print in this particular frame.  Knowing this prior to exposing a few sheets of paper will save time (and paper) and let you focus your attention on printing the frames which you know have the detail you want.

Take frame nine from our example contact sheet.  There is good shadow detail and good highlights - the frame has been well exposed (and developed).  This is subjective of course - what looks good to me may not look so good to you.  Now check out frame six.  There is shadow detail where I want it but the highlights are clearly blown out.  Perhaps I should have sacrificed some shadow detail via less exposure to preserve some of the highlights.  Or, alternatively reduced development to protect the highlights.


I know I just said that a contact sheet will first and foremost tell you about exposure but maybe I should have mentioned composition first.  When you are having a look over your contact sheet you will most likely automatically be picking out which frames you initially want to print.  As photographer's this is something which we kind of automatically do.  When we are exposing our film (or, heaven forbid, our digital sensors) we are in the moment and exposing our frames; then, as we have all no doubt experienced, we get our film developed or upload our digital images and we realise that about 90% of them are rubbish.  Our eyes are automatically picking out the images which we favour the most.  It's like if you look through a photostream on Flickr or Instagram - straight away you will pick out what appeals to you.  A contact sheet is a great way of bringing all your exposures on a roll of film together so you can compare your various compositions and see what jumps out to you and yells "print me".

From our example sheet what frames immediately jump out to you? For me it is frames 2, 5, 6 & 12.  Without the contact sheet I would be spending a lot more time trying to decide which frames to print.  It's a relatively minor thing but anything that streamlines the printing process is always handy.

Printing Grade

The contact sheet will also give you a good idea of what grade to start printing at.  What grade you choose to print at is, of course, a personal choice; however, the contact sheet will give you an indication of what grade will yield the "technically perfect" print; i.e. a print which has a full range of tones.  For a properly exposed and developed negative this will be grade 2 (hence why we print the contact sheet at grade 2).  Knowing how a negative prints at grade 2 gives us a great basis upon which we can make our decisions regarding initial printing grade.

Dodging & Burning

The contact sheet will also let you make some preliminary decisions regarding dodging and burning.  Take for example frames 5 & 6 from our contact sheet.  When printed at grade 2 the highlights are overexposed.  As such I know that I will need to do some burning in, maybe at a softer grade to preserve shadow tones in the building structure.

Now look at frame 11.  The bottom left of the frame (the top left when rotated to its correct orientation) is clearly darker than the rest of the sky due to the angle of the sun at the time of exposure.  The balance the image out this area may require some dodging.  It is better to know this now, before I start printing, than later when trying to determine my base exposure.

And Finally...

There is just one more thing I would like to mention before wrapping up this tutorial and that is varying the grade of your contact sheet.  Let's say, for example, that you have made your grade 2 contact sheet for a certain roll of film and you have found that you have overexposed areas in a frame that you want to print.  Before wasting time and paper before realising that there is no detail there to actually print you can make another contact sheet but this time at a softer grade such as grade 00.  This will show you what, if any, highlight detail there is recorded on your negative and help you to decide whether you still wish to print the frame.  The same is also true of printing underexposed areas at a harder grade to see what, if any, shadow detail can be brought back.  Often it pays to make three contact sheets for each roll of film - one at grade 00, one at grade 2 and one at grade 5; to see what detail can be added in the highlight and shadow areas through dodging and burning.

And that's about it.  Thanks for bearing with me whilst I try to explain myself, hopefully you have found this article helpful.  If you think that there is anything that I have missed out just let me know and i'll add it in so that other people can benefit from your knowledge.

Until next time, happy printing!