For a long time the contact sheet (a direct print of a roll or sequence of negatives) was the photographer’s first look at what he or she captured on film. Now with digital cameras we can immediately see our pictures on the screen, adjust exposure, judge the composition and so on. But this is only one picture at the time. By looking at the larger body of work, photoshoot or a sequence of shots we still, in effect, employ digital equivalent of a contact sheet.
Apart from its obvious role as a tool to select the best photographs, contact sheet can be seen as an entity in itself. It allows an intimate glimpse into photographer’s working process. It contains all the steps along the route to arriving at the chosen image. It is a record of how an image was constructed. It will very likely contain all the outtakes, mistakes, changes of composition or poses, maybe a series of very good images or maybe mostly terrible ones. Did photographer notice a scene with potential and diligently worked it through, or was he lucky to be at the right time at the right place to capture the decisive moment? Was it staged or serendipitous encounter? How much was it staged and how much post production was involved?
I think it is fascinating subject, often overlooked. We marvel at great photographs and assume there was some kind of divine intervention at play. A genius photographer just happened on a scene, recorded it and moved on to create another masterpiece. In reality it takes a lot more work. We don’t see all the wasted frames that went into the process of “working the scene” to finally arrive at potentially good photograph.
Of course this process will be unique to each individual photographer. Some will be very economical with the number of shots and take one or two per scene. Some will shoot a lot and than select the best pictures later. There is no right or wrong way as long as there is some conscious way of working the scene, rather than “spray and pray” type approach.
Now, I don’t try to compare myself to the great Magnum photographers. What I’m trying to achieve here is show the way image is transformed through edit (selection) and post-production to arrive at the final outcome. Just as it was done in the days of film photography – dodging, burning, cropping and to some extend physical retouching was used (and usually not by photographer). Digital images also (and maybe even more) need some kind of work after capture to bring them to life and give them specific feel. In the days of film photographer would use particular film for specific look and feel – the amount of sharpness, contrast, grain, colour – it was all pre-selected. In digital age we have the freedom to decide all of this after the fact, but alas there is more work to be done at the end of the process (and usually by photographer). Unless shooting jpeg, the digital raw pictures are flat, not very sharp and lack contrast.
This is my final image for the Transformation project. It is a high resolution screen capture showing Lightroom grid view and within it a sequence of images from a photoshoot. It contains 56 original captures plus 2 .dng derivatives and 2 .tiff versions made in Alien Skin Exposure and re-imported back into Lightroom. (In original sequence there was about 10 more pictures but they were omitted for the clarity of presentation). Pictures are graded for quality with “stars”: 1*- good enough to consider, 2* – better. No stars means that picture didn’t make the edit, and wasn’t selected for further consideration.
The best pictures of the whole sequence were selected from “2 stars” and assigned yellow flags as candidates to post production. Only 2 pictures made it, one vertical and one horizontal.
First they were processed within Lightroom’s Develop module (equivalent to Adobe Camera RAW in Photoshop). I didn’t like the look of the vertical one as it came too harsh, but the horizontal showed some promise.
Then both were exported to Alien Skin Exposure – vertical without, and horizontal with Lightroom adjustments. After some subtle tweaking in Alien Skin and experimenting with textures and light leaks they were saved in TIFF format and imported back into Lightroom. As they showed improvement over originals they were assigned 3 stars for quality. Also at this stage they were finished, which in my workflow is green flag.
So in the end there were only two pictures to consider. I did like the composition in vertical one, but pose wasn’t great and subjects faces weren’t visible. A shame as it could be a good one with nice balance, texture and colours. Horizontal version on the other hand came out better in post production, with subtle colours and nice painterly quality to it. Although I preferred the vertical composition, horizontal one was better overall and got the final pick (white flag in the left upper corner in “contact sheet”). To complete the process the print was made using watercolour artist paper.
I hope this shows the transformation process from the idea to the final product – printed photograph. Arguably it was difficult to show the process of forming an idea, a pre-visualisation or pre-production as it were. I think it is more subconscious and difficult to demonstrate and ultimately a product of lifelong exposure to works of others and visual content that surrounds us.
Kristen Lubben in the book Magnum Contact Sheets suggests that editing programs on computer can create only a simulation of a contact sheet and are are fundamentally different. It’s hard to argue – there is no physical medium and no limit of photographs that can be stored on a hard drive (in comparison to 36 frames of film at least). Therefore it makes it hard to revisit the work, most of the times there is too many digital pictures to be able to look at comfortably on one screen. But in my opinion the process remains almost the same, and we mustn’t lose the sight of that. It is the transition from the idea to the final photograph that is important.
Pulling a good picture out of a contact sheet is like going down to the cellar and bringing back a good bottle to share.
And the idea could be than taken to another level. Cartier-Bresson cut up his negatives preserving only images and sequences that were successful in his opinion and discarded the rest. So did Frank Cappa, occasionally editing and reordering the sequence of images by cutting up his contact sheets and pasting them into notebooks. In a way digital process can afford us an easy way of doing that and creating a new entity. We can take parts of the body of work and create a meta-contact, containing the best parts.
I will try to embrace the contact sheet approach in my work to better my photography. Will have to find a way of grouping the photographs into sets and then analysing the whole sets. Preferably in printed form. Also will try to cut down on unnecessary frames to make the contact sheet neater and more purposeful. Than maybe create a contact sheets of various types of post-production styles and analyse them? Look at the variants of colour and how it affects the mood. In the near future I want to concentrate on professional retouching and colour grading. I think that contact sheet approach could be very useful in analysing outcomes as well.
Assignment criteria: 1,2,3,4,5