No matter whether you’re a paid professional or a hobbyist, it’s not uncommon to need to show your work to someone else so that they can select the images they’d like to receive. A wedding photographer, for instance may produce a printed book of proofs for their bride and groom to browse through in order to select the images for their album, while someone who photographs their friend’s new baby may simply send a selection of low-resolution image files to consider. But for generations, during the film era, the de facto standard for viewing was the contact sheet, or proof sheet. It’s still a valuable tool today, whether printed on paper or published digitally. Here are some common approaches to creating proof sheets in a variety of photo editing programs.
Lightroom – Lightroom is my personal preferred image management tool, which means it’s the one I turn to most often for making contact sheets. With the Print module active, simply select the range of image files you want to include in your contact sheet (by Shift-clicking a range of thumbnails, or CTRL-A to select all of the images in the active folder) and then selecting one of the readymade contact sheet templates in the Template Browser on the left side of the screen. You can then customize the layout of the contact sheet, including how many frames per page, their spacing, and information such as file names and watermarks. When you’re happy with the layout of your contact sheet, simply click Printer at the bottom of the Layout panel. On a Mac, you’ll next choose the Save as PDF option to output your contact sheet not as a physical printed page, but as an easily emailable PDF. To print to a PDF on a Windows machine, you’ll need to download a PDF printer driver such as Adobe Acrobat. To avoid downloading additional software, choose “Print to: JPEG File” under the Print Job heading of the panel on the right of the screen, and then when you click Print to complete the job, Lightroom will generate a JPEG file. I prefer PDFs to JPEGs simply because I’ve never had a client get confused by them. I can’t say that for any other file type—even JPEGs.
Photoshop – Photoshop also makes printing contact sheets fairly straightforward. From the Automate heading of the File menu, choose Contact Sheet II. In the Contact Sheet II window that then opens up, select source images (either an entire folder of images, or individual files) then set up the document. I find a standard 8×10 a good place to start, though I don’t typically need it to be full print resolution at 300dpi. If I’m physically printing my proof sheet, 300dpi is perfect. But for a contact sheet that I can deliver digitally, I’ll change the resolution to 100dpi—creating a file that is 1000 pixels on the long side. RGB and 8-bit color are fine, even for black and white. And checking Flatten All Layers will ensure you’ve got a file that can easily be saved in a universal format, like JPEG or PDF. Before saving, though, you’ll adjust the layout of the thumbnails by dialing in the number of columns and rows, as well as their spacing. The “Rotate For Best Fit” option will make the best use of space, though leaving that box unchecked will allow every image on your contact sheet to be viewed without rotating. I find that my preference changes from session to session, depending on the nature of the image files and their proportions. Most times I also want to use the file name as a caption, so I check this last box in the window, and then adjust the font size small enough to fit completely, but large enough to remain legible. Click okay and then watch Photoshop render your contact sheet. Once it’s ready, simply print or save the file as you would any other single image file, as mentioned above.
Bridge – The Creative Cloud version of Adobe Bridge eliminated the Output Module that was the de facto method for creating contact sheets from within Bridge. So if you’re not interested in using either of the above Adobe products to create contact sheets, your best Bridge option is the previous version, CS6. From the Output module, contact sheets are created by again selecting the appropriate image files from the thumbnails in the Content pane, and then choosing whether you’d prefer to generate a PDF or a Web Gallery from the top of the Output panel. While web galleries can be a terrific alternative to a proof sheet, to generate the same sort of reference file as we’ve been discussing, be sure the PDF icon is selected. Then choose an appropriate template based on how many image files you’d like to appear on each page, and customize the sheet in the Document panel below. You can again adjust image quality, page size, thumbnail size and layout here, as well as including the Filename overlay and print size at the bottom of this window. When you’re ready to create your contact sheet, simply click Save.
Mac Finder – Macintosh users have another option for creating contact sheets which works particularly well (and quickly) on folders that don’t contain hundreds of files. (For large batches, another approach would work more efficiently.) Simply navigate to the appropriate folder of image files, then double-click to open it in a Finder window. Then chose the Icon view to see small thumbnails of all the image files within the folder. (Another approach is to choose the Quick Look display option, then type CMD-Option-Y to create a full screen slideshow index of files, but this approach doesn’t include filenames—which makes the contact sheet slightly less useful.) To create a file of this makeshift contact sheet view, simply take a custom screenshot with the CMD-Shift-4 key combination that allows you to draw a box around the area you would like to make a contact sheet. That will generate a PNG file that’s fairly universally readable—at least in the Mac world—although opening that file in Preview and re-saving it as a JPEG or PDF will make it more usable. It’s about the quickest approach to a contact sheet there is.
Windows Standalone Software – For photographers who somehow managed to dodge all of the aforementioned Adobe applications, there are actually standalone programs exclusively for creating contact sheets. The aptly named “Contact Sheets” software from Echo Images, for instance, is a free download for Windows users that works in much the same way as Photoshop’s Contact Sheet II text-based application. Simply dial in the particulars of image size and spacing, and off you go. It does include some unique features, such as the ability to create a background image for the contact sheet if you want to deliver something a little more artful than the typical contact sheet.