One of the major shortcomings of sharing work online, especially on social media, is that it is often a highlight reel of incredible work. That’s not a bad thing if your only goal is to enjoy work, but for people looking to learn, it can offer some unrealistic expectations.
One of the reasons I think so many photographers have been able to inspire their audience on platforms like YouTube is because it allows them to share more than just their images; it allows keepers, outtakes, and their process/techniques/advice/anecdotes to flow in a way that their portfolio or Instagram may not allow.
This kind of content is valuable and in short supply, as many photographers may feel nervous about showing work they aren’t necessarily happy with. However, I think that every image a photographer makes represents a step in their progress, and sharing that progress can be just as rewarding as sharing a solitary exemplary image.
I shoot only stills and would not be as comfortable in front of the camera as someone who can record themselves both shooting and discussing their work afterward. The solution for me has been to share my contact sheets — on my blog where I discuss all aspects of my work, on my Instagram stories when I want to draw attention to a specific image, and occasionally alongside a specific image when sharing it to show just a few frames of context around it.
In film, a contact sheet can be used to view a roll of negatives as positive for better curating and selecting for final enlargement prints. As I have been shooting the majority of my images on film since towards the end of 2018, I have been able to show “real” sheets for these images. For my digital images, I was able to do something a little different, recording a short “BTS” clip on my phone, showing both the scene conditions and the result on the back of my camera.
When I know I spent some time and multiple shots/angles to produce a single image, I will take a screenshot of these slides when I export them to Lightroom. Once I’ve culled the “work in progress” shots and finessed down to the keeper I’ll indicate this on that digital contact sheet. I’ve used these to document my process and progress, and have really enjoyed discussing the decisions behind each image when it’s clear the result is a result of trial and error.
It can also help the editing and curating process itself, seeing all of the images in one spread and easily marking off any with defects without needing to go through each individually.
When I’m looking at other peoples work, for enjoyment or inspiration, it is always fantastic when I discover a new source of other photographers contact sheets. I especially enjoy the contact sheets of famous images, even iconic ones, and learn that even when on film these images took trial and error to produce. I think some people have the idea that film should be shot frugally, one and done, but sheets like this show the work that went into that single iconic frame.
Two of my favourite books for inspiration through contact sheets are Contact High, which contains work from the world of hip-hop, and Magnum Contact Sheets, which I really recommend to anyone interested in photography and “the greats.” Some of these read like a sketchbook of efforts to achieve something specific, others demonstrate a one-and-done spontaneous moment; all of which provide insight into the mind of the artist. Seeing the outtakes, even failures of the greats can be a fantastic learning tool.
When it comes to sharing my own contact sheets I do so both for myself and for my audience. For myself to keep track of my work, to look back and understand the decisions I made, and for my audience to understand my approach to work, the way I shoot, and to inspire those members of the film community who are interested in doing anything similar to the way I work. I can also easily track progress in the way I shoot, the efficiency by which I use film, and the kind of film that has rewarded me the most.
It can also be useful to see a physical representation of the amount of work that goes into images, as digital quantities can be a bit abstract. For example, this is the folder containing all 35mm sheets from every roll of film I have shot since 2016. It is moderately thick but is nothing in comparison to the tens of thousands of digital frames I’ve shot. Also to note is that this folder only contains fifty or so “true” keepers — nothing close to a lifetimes work… yet.
As I mentioned earlier, I also don’t think that enough photographers share this kind of insight into their work, but I would love to see more of it. Part of sharing anything that I share is an effort to lead by example; hopefully more photographers will feel more comfortable sharing their own contact sheets and methodology if they see others doing so first.
About the author: Simon King is a London based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram and you can read more of his thoughts on photography day-to-day over on his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here.