Contact Sheets in physical form are far less common than they were during the film era of photography, however, the same principals apply whether you shoot film or digital. A photographer renders the images that were captured (on photographic paper or by uploading their files to editing software) and then begins the process of culling, selecting, editing, and printing the final image.
It all sounds very boilerplate when it’s described, but I think a contact sheet is a remarkable historical record. What I find most fascinating about them, whether digital or analog, is the glimpse we see into the artist’s mind. It’s a deep dive into the creative inner workings of a photographer, and a fascinating behind-the-scenes look into how a photograph was crafted. The way I see it; if you really want to understand a photographer’s work, have a look at everything that came before and after “the shot.”
I would love the chance to see contact sheets from every artist I admire, but it’s a rare occurrence to get such a glimpse. Magnum has published several volumes of contact sheets in the form of photo books. They are phenomenal archives of some of the worlds best-known photographs taken by Magnum photographers. I highly recommend them.
We share a great deal about our process and techniques here on the Viewfinders blog, but I as far as I can tell, I don’t think we have ever shared our contact sheets. I hope today will be the first of many. Remember the refrain from your math teacher in grade school, show your work. Well folks, here’s a look at mine.
But first, a brief preamble. As many of you may know, most of my work is captured in the water. The last few years, I have been traveling throughout the US and internationally capturing beach culture from the vantage point of the water. I swim with my camera looking for spontaneous moments, with everyday people, experiencing the joys of water. I spend hours swimming, trying to create opportunities, while also staying open for unique moments to enter my frame. I will share a few sequences here to demonstrate how I approach the work, and how I decide which frame is “the one.”
This first sequence was captured on a beach in Split, Croatia last month. The beach attracted a lovely hybrid of tourists and locals — ideal conditions for my work. The time was early evening, with picture-perfect clouds in the sky. I had spent a good amount of time photographing kids jumping from a pier into the water at one end of the beach. When I was finished, I swam towards shore looking for my next opportunity. I noticed a striking older woman coming my way. My instinct told me to move to her right so that when we passed each other, I would be able to capture her with no land or city in the background. When I started firing, she was still too far to make an interesting shot, but I kept a steady pace in her direction and soon enough she was right where I wanted her.
There are several photographs in this sequence that I love, but I can only select one for my portfolio. Below is the final photograph I selected. The edit was a simple one. I shifted the luminance in the sky slightly and added a bit of clarity to the reflection on the water. Why this photo? I love the union of sky, water, and the human form. It’s as if she is floating in a cloud. Her eyes slightly closed, give a peaceful quality to the portrait. One goal of my work is to make photographs of everyday people that express their innate beauty and humanity, but with a twist. To elevate the mundane and demonstrate a mystical or poetic quality. I think this photo does just that.
This next sequence is from the same beach on a different night. The dock in the background is a popular spot for local children to gather and jump. I knew I wanted to capture the scene, but it’s a bit tricky at the end of the day as the sun gets low. I knew I didn’t want to point my camera directly into the setting sun, so I needed to position myself carefully to get the dock in the frame and hopefully something interesting in the foreground to anchor the action. I positioned my camera to point north, with the setting run off to my right. It was there that I waited for something happen. As luck would have it, a local girl who was playing with her friends, swam nearby on her way to climb back up on the dock. She was curious about my equipment and looked my way as she passed by. I fired several shots, hoping for something magical to align.
My final selection is below. Her direct gaze at the camera, her hair falling around her face, the movement of the water’s surface, the leading line of the dock, and the perfect kick of the young girl to the right of the frame. These elements combined told the strongest story. My edit was simple. I balanced the blacks and whites in the histogram, opened the shadows slightly and gave a subtle boost to the blue saturation in the sky.
I call this next series, Windy Day at Baška Voda. It was a gusty day at a crowded beach on the Makarska Riviera in Croatia. I was walking down the strand with my camera ready, but I missed several humorous shots of beach umbrellas and inflatable toys taking flight. These things happen very quickly, but I held out hope that I would eventually be in a good position to capture something interesting. For a while I tried getting shots of people losing their hats while going down this rather large slide in the middle of the water. There was a well known inflatable water slide hire in the area and people loved it! However, I was not satisfied with the pictures it was producing and gave up on that whole setting. As luck would have it, I felt the wind begin to pick up and looked to see what was nearby. I was in the right place at the right time to capture an older gentleman wrangling his beach umbrella during a gust of wind. What’s interesting about this sequence, is that I got the shot in the first four frames, but I kept shooting because I wanted to be ready in case things got even more interesting. They didn’t, and I eventually moved on.
Here is the final image I selected. It was (and still is) a difficult choice between this shot and the one that came right after it. They are neck and neck, but I love the position of his body, valiantly holding the umbrella as is gives way in the strong wind. The edit was again very simple. I opened the shadows slightly.
Describing this process may seem somewhat technical, however for me, it is mostly gut instincts. Typically I scroll through my digital contact sheets very, very quickly, and have a strong reaction to only one or two images. The rest are digital dust.