What’s a contact sheet and how do you make one?

Film established the standard for photographic excellence in many ways. For example, the contact sheet was once an integral part of filmmaking. It has survived digitalization. The contact sheet serves an entirely different purpose, but it can still be used to help you view the shoot’s results and share your favorite photos.

Here’s a guide to understanding why contact sheets remain useful, and how to make a digital version.

Table of Contents

What is a Contact Sheet?

In film photography, contact sheets allow a photographer to view all the frames from a roll of film in print. The way contact sheets are made is how they get their names. They’re created by placing negative strips on a piece photographic paper, and then printing. This allows for a simple review of the results from a roll of film.

The photographer can use a magnifying lens to examine each frame and decide which ones to print. Because it’s really just an 8-by-10 photo, the contact sheet allows the photographer to cross out the bad shots, circle the good and mark them up for any required dodging and burning.

An example of a contact sheet print of film negatives with markings. Photo by Ggia and licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The contact sheet also provides an overview of a shoot, a succession of photos from frame to frame. It provides insight and perspective to the art, as well as helps photographers and other viewers understand the process.

A contact sheet in digital space is similar to a gallery of photos, except that the images are presented using the same grid layout as a carousel. It’s a page with thumbnails, which presents several shots at once on the screen. No scrolling is required. Zooming is still possible, as is ranking, sorting and deleting. It is easy to share a digital contact list by simply creating it and printing or saving it as a PDF.

Why Make a Contact Sheet?

Both professional and amateur photographers will benefit from making contact sheets. There really is no better tool for comparing and presenting a collection of images. Reasons for making contact sheets include sorting, quality control, testing printer paper, and providing clients with a gallery of shots from which to choose.

film contact sheet
A film contact sheet with selections. Photo: Chris Brunkhart Estate.

In digital photography, contact sheets also offer other important benefits. Consider how many photos result from a day of digital shooting. Lots. Photographers can only see the best of their images by removing bad and unworthy shots. It’s difficult to compare hundreds of photos by scrolling. The photographer can decide which photos are the best by comparing all the images together without having to look at any distracting elements. Contact sheets are presented in a grid-like format that makes it easy to understand the images.

Another benefit of creating contact sheets are the thumbnail views. With high-powered sensors and computer screens, it’s easy not to see the forest for the trees. Pixel peeping is all too tempting, and many screens are far larger than a 4-by-6 or even an 8-by-10 print, so the details become all too visible.

Contact sheets present photos in a tiny format, and this facilitates a view of the bigger picture in each photo. Reducing a photo to a thumbnail permits you to consider the composition and lines, and to judge whether a photo is compelling or not.

How to Make a Contact Sheet

There are different processes for creating a contact sheet depending on if you’re working in a darkroom with analog photos or on a computer with digital photos.


  1. Cut developed 35mm film into strips of 5 or 6 frames. For medium format, use 3 or 4 frames.
  2. Turn off the lights in the darkroom and turn on the safelight.
  3. Lay the film strips, emulsion side down, onto a piece of photographic paper, typically an 8-by-10. Some photographers hold film strips in contact printing frames, while others place a sheet or glass on top to protect them.
  4. Set the enlarger to the aperture you’ll use for printing. Position it to cover the entire sheet of paper.
  5. Make a test print by covering the whole with a black card and exposing one frame, then fix and rinse.
  6. When you’ve found the right exposure, do an exposure of the entire set of film strips. This will result in a contact sheet you can file with the negatives.
film contact sheet
A contact sheet created in a darkroom with strips of ILFORD HP5 PLUS film. Chris Brunkhart Estate.


  1. The first step to making a digital contact sheet is to select the photos you want to include. You can organize them into a folder before you start creating a digital contact sheet.
  2. In Photoshop, go to the File tab up top, select Automate, then select Contact Sheet II.
  3. Photoshop contact sheet box

  4. In the Contact Sheet II dialog box, go to Source Images > Use, then click the drop-down arrow to choose the desired files. (Note: If choosing files from Bridge, make sure only the desired files are selected in Bridge, or the contact sheet will include all of your files. )
  5. Customize your contact sheet via Document (dimensions and color data) or Thumbnails (order, number of columns and rows). You can use Thumbnails to further customize your layout. To remove captions, deselect Filename as Caption.
  6. Click OK and Photoshop will generate the contact sheet. Photoshop can create multiple pages if needed.
  7. Print the contact sheet, or export it as a JPEG.
digital contact sheet
A digital contact sheet made with Photoshop. Photo: Daniel O’Neil


  1. Again, the first step is to create a Collection in Lightroom, then open it.
  2. Choose the Print module at the top-right. Toggling the triangle in the Lightroom window’s top will make the print module visible if it is not.
  3. Lightroom contact sheet box

  4. Page Setup allows you to choose the orientation (vertical or horizontal) of the contact sheet. You can select the paper source and output type in the Printer Settings (Properties under Windows).
  5. In Layout Style (top right), make sure Single Image/Contact Sheet is selected.
  6. In Layout, add rows and columns, then, if desired, space them horizontally and vertically. In Image Settings, you can rotate the images to make them all vertical or horizontal. You can also add page numbers and filenames to Page. You can set the Sharpening and choose between matte and glossy papers. In Print Job you also have the option to select your color management profile (profile for the printer) and the media type.
  7. Click Select All, and Lightroom will add all of the images from the chosen Collection to the contact sheet. If necessary, Lightroom can create multiple pages.
  8. To save as a PDF, click Printer in the bottom left, then click the PDF drop-down arrow and select Save as PDF. Click Print to print the contact page.

Other Software

Creating contact sheets in other post-processing software is just as simple. Although this article does not cover every brand of software, you can search the internet for instructions. Fortunately, popular software such as Capture One offers instructions online.


Contact sheets make comparison and presentation of a gallery or collection of images easy and aesthetic. Viewers will reap multiple benefits, whether the contact sheet is personal or professional. Contact sheets can be printed as well as downloaded in PDF format. They provide clients and photographers with an organized way to view selected photos.

Try incorporating the contact sheet in your post-production workflow and see how it can best serve you.

Image credits: Header photo by Benjamin Balazs.