Contact Sheets

I was struck by this iconic photo by Bruce Gilden. It pulled me in and made me look, then look again.

In his Theory & Practice article, Gilden talks about using contact sheets to select his photos and how this particular picture jumped off the page.

When I look at a contact sheet, I go in order from No. 1 to No. 36. I mark the ones I like and, unless something really jumps off the page at me, I go over them again to see which is the best one. With my personal work, I only print what I think is good. When something jumps off the page, it’s easy. That photograph jumped off the page. It worked, form-wise and emotionally. To me, the photograph says a lot about the hierarchy in Japanese society, with the underling lighting the cigarette of the person above him, and I like the wary eye that the ‘boss’ gives the photographer.”

– Bruce Gilden, “Making the Image: Yakuza”

I had to think about the No. 1 to No. 36 reference. Much like my introduction to contact sheets, I had to remember that Gilden was a photographer using film. Rolls of film came in sets of thirty six exposures. Contact sheets were the printed strips of negatives in a roll of film. I only do digital (never prints), so the concept of numbers and contact sheets don’t apply. Or does it?

When my husband and I go on photo shoots, we have a running joke. How many pictures will we take today? For a full day of walking and shooting, I typically max out at 200 shots. With casual walks, I’ll do about 50. Hubby? He’ll take more, much much more.

I am motivated by laziness. I don’t take the time to compose, take, adjust and re-take photos. I prefer to spot, shoot and move on. At the end of day, I load everything into Lightroom, scanning and flagging the ones that interest me. It’s a task that gets tedious with more than 200 pictures. I suppose though, that scanning and flagging in LR, is the digital equivalent to reviewing and marking physical contact sheets.

But no matter how much I scan, I will never find a shot as good as Bruce Gilden’s. His photos fill the frame and have a complexity of human emotion and interplay. I don’t have anything approaching Gilden’s image, but his focus on hands and cigarettes reminded me of one.

I was on a street photography workshop in Singapore’s Chinatown. We had an assignment to take as many street portraits as we could, review and select the best and share with the group.

Chinatown on a weekend is a busy place but beyond the crowds, there is a covered alcove where old men gather to play and watch Chinese chess. This gentleman and his friends were camped out in one corner. He’d caught my eye because of his natty hat, rings and distinctive gravitas. We didn’t speak the same language but we knew enough for me to ask “Photo?” and him to say “OK.”

I took a quick set of shots. In this contact sheet you can see my ideas, along with the cuddabins. i.e. those photos that cudda’ bin good if only I’d gone a little slower, paid attention and not chopped off his fingers.

In any event, this is the picture that I selected. I liked the capture of his hands and his expression as he looks at the camera.

Feedback from my workshop peers was kind. When asked what word comes to mind, someone shouted out “Secrets.”

What about you? What word comes to mind with this photo? I’d love to hear your comments.

Photos taken in Singapore, 2016


  1. A very interesting reflection on contact sheets. Yes, I would say the digital equivalent is what most of us do when we scan through the shots taken each day to pull out those worthy of a bit of work and then keeping 🙂 Interestingly when I looked at your ‘contact sheet’ of photos of Sam (I saw your explanation above but it was too late – he was already Sam to me by then!) I decided I would choose SAM_0499, then scrolled down to find that you’d made exactly the same decision 🙂 I think the word I would use is ‘guarded’. He seems to be holding back, don’t you think?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly! If you had allowed us more than one word I would have said that he looks like he has lived an interesting life and would have some stories to tell, but perhaps would prefer not to share them.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The beauty of film is it encouraged one to find good images to take and then to go through the contact sheets to find the best to print. No waste, no unnecessary expense. Probably made one a better photographer.
    I typically take a lot of photos when I go out. I go through them quickly in Preview (on a Mac) and ditch those that are out of focus, poor compositions, and the like. That way I can easily get rid of a third to a half of my shots. If I have a lot of photos, I might sort them into subject matter to make it easier to evaluate one photo against another. Then I’ll go through again in Preview, taking a closer look, and selecting those to spend time on with processing in Photoshop Elements. It can be a little tedious, but I can process a lot of photos fairly quickly this way, which is a version of using contact sheets I guess.
    As for your subject how about ‘suspicion’ or is that just me!


    1. I’ve heard the same sentiment about film – that it forces you to be a better photographer. They also say something about delayed gratification in seeing the final image. Not for me. I’m too impatient. I’d lose interest if I had to wait that long to see the photos.

      ‘Suspicion’ is good word. I see it and it’s close to what I would say.


  3. I haven’t thought about contact sheets in a very long time. As a Lightroom user, I haven’t considered using the previews like a contact sheet, instead I slog through each image one at a time flagging those needing future work, ignoring the many others. I will have to look at the folder as a whole and see if I can put that “contact sheet” technique into use.
    I love your photo choice for Sam. I think “confident.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know how it feels to slog through pictures. It’s one of the reasons that I don’t take too many shots at a time 🙂
      I was going to ask why you’d named my subject Sam but then I saw why. SAM is actually a default name … indicating it was taken on my Samsung camera 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I looked at the selection of his images and saw they all began with SAM. I assumed you named them after him. Now that I look again, I suspect that’s the default naming structure of your camera’s imaging system.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. After I wrote my reply above, I discovered that my notifier didn’t show me the entire comment you made. Once I replied, your entire comment was displayed and I see you already knew where I got the name. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I commend you for taking only 200 photos in one full day of walking. 😀 I see your logic behind it though. I merely click and not think and never edit every photo after. Actually I don’t edit them at all unless they have been chosen to be posted. I often think about what another photographer might do with my photos and which they would select.

    You did well when you made your selection, and you always do. I also like the word and concept of cuddabins. 😀

    As for one word… “Steady” comes to mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. … and right here, you’ve demonstrated how much longer you lived in Beijing than I did.

      “My child, I will always follow you here” sounds like a very benevolent thing to say a young grasshopper 🙂


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