I have hardly ever bothered with contact sheets. A few months ago I realised that I had made a mistake …

Making contact sheets always seemed a chore which got in the way of making full size prints. But I know now that in trying to cut corners I have missed out on essential information for making better prints.

The thing is, having standardised the process, it hardly takes any time at all.

My first step was to make a proof sheet. This only needs to be done once for a given combination of film/developer/paper. Below I describe my process for 35mm HP5 developed in Ilford ID11 in a dilution of 1:2 and printed on glossy Ilford MGWT fibre paper.

Firstly, I metered a grey wall on a dull overcast day setting my light meter at box speed for HP5 (ASA 400). I shot three pictures like this then used the rest of the film normally.

I then developed the negatives in ID11 (1:2) in the normal way. I set up my enlarger at f5.6 at a set height using a grade 2 filter. I then did some test strips of the negatives taken of the grey wall.

Next I developed the test strips and dried them. I then compared the results to a 18% grey card and chose the exposure that gave me the closest match to 18% grey. The best way to make sure that the colour cast on the test strip doesn’t create an error in judgement is to half close your eyes.

This approach therefore gave me the standard exposure for HP5/Ilford ID11/ MGWT/Enlarger lens at f5.6 with enlarger height at 55cms using a grade 2 filter. For my process the exposure time was 19 seconds

test strip compared to 18% grey card.

To do the contact sheet, I simply placed the negatives on the paper and exposed for 19 seconds. So, any time I need to do a contact sheet using the combination of HP5/Ilford ID11/MGWT Fibre glossy, which is a frequent combo for me, I simply use my standard contact sheet enlarger set up and expose for 19 seconds.

Contact Sheet using exposure given by a proof print.

The standardised proof makes for very fast contact sheets.

I make quite a bit of use from the contact sheet. Here are a few:

  • Using grade 2 to print the contact sheet gives me an indication as to whether I will will need to print harder or softer or whether I will need to split-grade print
  • It’s obviously much easier to see the content of the image than looking at a negative and helps me to see what crop, if any, I will need
  • I can compare the dense areas (sky for example) with the white of the paper edge or the film description text to see if there is some tonality worth recovering in these areas
  • I can see whether my metering is consistent across a roll of film. Here, the exposures are fairly even. If there is a big variation, I can see what kinds of scene are giving me problems.

I know that this is basic textbook stuff, but I’m glad that I had to work it out for myself as I think you learn more by making mistakes.