Contact sheets are a throwback to film days. Especially with negatives, it was a quick way to preview all of the images on a film converted to normal positive images. Sure, you could use a lightbox, but a lightbox couldn’t convert a negative to a positive.
Making a contact sheet was one of the first things I did after developing a roll, and I’d file those contact sheets alongside the negatives. They provided a quick and reliable method of finding the specific negative (or slide, in the case of positive film) I was looking for. And they could be used for culling and selecting which images to print (usually with a magnifying loupe).
Contact sheets are also often known as contact proofs, contact prints, proof sheets, or just proofs.
The “contact” part is because the negatives (or positive transparencies) sit directly on the photo paper rather than being mounted into the enlarger as would normally be the case. So there’s no magnification or enlargement taking place—the light shines directly onto the film which is lying directly on the paper. There’s usually a layer of clear glass on top of the film to keep it pressed firmly against the paper and not curling (to keep the image sharp).
Contact sheets still have their uses in the age of digital photography. The grid view of Lightroom’s library module is modeled on contact sheets, of course, but there are times when hard-copy printed contact sheets can be useful.
They’re handy for showing clients or editors a selection of multiple images. They’re also useful for cataloging backup media—you can easily add the name of the DVDR or external hard drive and treat the contact sheet as a visual index card.
So here’s how to make a contact sheet in Lightroom.
As with so many things in Lightroom, there are multiple ways to tackle this problem. I’m focusing here on the most straightforward and useful in most situations. It uses Lightroom’s print module and can be used to create a hard copy print or a JPG contact sheet.
How to Create a Contact Sheet in Lightroom
The first step is to choose the photos that you’d like to include in the contact sheet.
In the library module, navigate to the photos you want to use. In this example, I’m using a collection, but you can also use a folder, a smart collection, or even search criteria.
Now, switch from the library module to the print module by selecting the module from the menu at the top right or pressing
ALT-CMD-6 (Mac) or
In the print module, you’ll see a Template Browser panel at the far left. If it’s not expanded, click on the small triangle next to the panel title.
You’ll see the top section is Lightroom Templates. These are the ones that come with the program. If you’ve created any templates yourself, you’ll find those below, most likely in the User Template section.
About halfway down the Lightroom Templates section, you’ll see some contact sheet templates.
There are options like 4×5 Contact Sheet, 5×8 Contact Sheet, 5×9 Landscape Contact Sheet, and 5×11 Landscape Contact Sheet.
Something to note is that the numbers in these don’t refer to paper size or aspect ratio–they’re referring to the number of columns by rows. So 4×5 refers to 4 columns across and 5 rows down. But these are simply starting points–you have the option to modify this later, so don’t be concerned if there’s no existing template for, say 3 columns by 6 rows, if that’s what you’re wanting to use.
For simplicity’s sake, I will use the basic 4×5 Contact Sheet template. It’s well suited to photos in both landscape (horizontal) and portrait (vertical) orientations because it fits the photos inside square spaces.
If you use one so the templates with “landscape” in the title, those use a rectangular space and are better suited to landscape photos (they also save vertical space, so you can fit more photos on the page).
There are a few things worth noting here. One is that in the preview panel at top left you can see a grid of squares. That’s showing you the preview of the template, not the preview of the finished contact sheet.
Another is that you can now further control which images appear in the contact sheet by choosing an option from the dropdown menu on the toolbar, just above the bottom filmstrip. (If the toolbar isn’t visible, press T.)
In this example, I’m using Selected Photos and have selected the photos from the filmstrip. It gives you precise manual control in choosing which photos are used in the contact sheet. You can choose the other options if you want if they better suit your purposes.
And in this example, I’ve selected more photos than can fit on a single contact sheet with this particular 4×5 grid. The extras automatically roll over into a new page. You can see how many pages it creates and move between them by using the toolbar just above the filmstrip. At the right, you’ll see Page x of x, and the arrows at left allow you to go forward and back between the pages.
Finally, you can change the paper size of the print while retaining the number of columns and rows.
Click on the Page Setup button and select the paper size as you normally would for the print module. I’m using Letter Size here, but whatever you choose, the columns and rows setting will be preserved. If the spacing between the thumbnails disappears, you can fix that later.
Contact Sheet Settings
The next step is to adjust the contact sheet’s settings as necessary. These are all done with the panels at the right of the page.
In the Layout Style panel, you want it to be Single Image/Contact Sheet.
In the Image Settings panel, you have several options related to how the thumbnails appear.
Zoom to Fill will zoom in enough to fill the entire space allotted. In this case, the grid boxes are square, so it will make all of the thumbnails square and crop off the edges of the longer dimension.
Rotate to Fit isn’t going to have any effect in this particular contact sheet because all the grid boxes are square. But if you were using one of the landscape templates it would rotate any portrait (vertical) images 90 degrees.
Repeat One Photo per Page isn’t especially useful for a contact sheet. It might be if you were creating something like a book of stamps, maybe.
Stroke Border ads a line around the edges of each thumbnail. You can choose the color and width of the line. It’s worth noting that the stroke is added to the edges of each image, not the edges of each grid box.
The Layout panel lets you adjust the structure of the contact sheet.
Margins refers to the margin around the whole page, not each thumbnail.
Page Grid is where you can modify the number of rows and columns.
Cell Spacing controls the horizontal and vertical spaces between each thumbnail.
Cell Size is going to be directly linked to cell spacing. If you have the Keep Square option checked, both height and width will move when you changed the cell spacing. If you have the Keep Square unchecked, only the corresponding value will be linked (eg. vertical with height).
The Guides panel lets you toggle display guides to help with layout. You’ll get rulers, grid guides, and measurements. These only appear within Lightroom–they’re not printed when you print the page.
You can toggle them all on or off or select them individually.
This is the last panel where you can control how the contact sheet looks.
Page Color. The default is white, but you can select any color you like. If you have text displaying below each thumbnail, it’ll automatically adjust to be readable (so you don’t end up with black text on a black background, for instance).
Something to bear in mind is that it only applies to the active part of the canvas and assumes you’re printing on white media. To work around this, you’ll need to zero out the margins in the Layout panel and probably create a custom page size without any margins using the Page Setup button.
Identity Plate. With this option, you can add your logo or any other branding or informational graphic you’ve set up as a Lightroom identity plate. Customizing this is beyond the scope of this particular guide; I’ll go into more detail separately.
You can modify the way the identity plate displays by overriding the color, changing the opacity and scale, whether it renders on top of everything else or behind the images, or whether it shows on each image individually. This last one can be used as an alternative way to apply a watermark, although there’s a separate option for that immediately below.
Watermarking. This applies a watermark to each thumbnail image. Again, creating and managing watermarks is beyond the scope here, and I’ll aim to cover that separately.
Page Options. With these, you can add a page number to the bottom right of each contact sheet. The Page Info and Crop Marks aren’t going to be very useful for contact sheets in most cases.
Page Info. This is one of the most important settings. It’s where you control the text that appears below each image. If you’re giving the contact sheet to a client, that can be very useful for identifying each image.
There’s quite a lot of control over what appears. By default, it’s the filename, but you can select from any of the presets like caption, date, or sequence. To simply number each image, use the Sequence option, for example. Or to not show any text, just uncheck the box next to Photo Info.
You can also roll your own recipe of information. Here’s a simple recipe for displaying the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO for each image.
You can set the font size just below that.
Something to consider before jamming a bunch of text under each image is that the thumbnail will automatically scale to accommodate the text. So if you’re inserting long captions, you might end up with very small image thumbnails.
Once you’ve set those options to however you want them, you’re now ready to print the contact sheet/s or save them as JPG files.
How to Print a Contact Sheet in Lightroom
The output from the print module is the same for the contact sheet template as it is for every other output from the print module. So there’s nothing unique about contact sheets that requires any special process that you wouldn’t otherwise use for a regular single-image print or print package.
So load up your printer with the size of paper that matches the canvas size you’ve been using (letter size, if you’ve been following the example above), set the Print To option to Printer, and hit print.
How to Save a Contact Sheet as a JPG in Lightroom
To save the contact sheet as a JPG, you do everything the same way except you change the output format at the bottom.
At the top of the Print Job panel, change Print to option to JPEG File.
You’ll then get a slightly different set of options to control the JPG quality and file resolution. If in doubt, use 300ppi as the resolution, JPG quality around 80, and Profile as sRGB.
Then hit the Print to File button at the bottom right.
How to Save a Contact Sheet as a PDF Using Lightroom
Lightroom doesn’t have the built-in ability to save a PDF from the print module. But there are two ways to work around this.
One is to first save it as a JPG and then convert that JPG to a PDF. There are many apps that can do that. Some are paid apps and some are free utilities. If you’re using Lightroom as part of Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscription, the most obvious ways to convert them are using either Photoshop or Adobe Acrobat.
The second is to use the Printer option and then select PDF output as your printer. It’s an option offered by most new operating systems, but not necessarily all. This is what you’d use on a Mac, for example:
Photography is loaded with technical jargon. Here are quick explanations of some of the technical terms I’ve used in this post.
A contact sheet is a photographic print that contains a series of small, thumbnail images that represent all the frames or negatives from a particular roll or set of film. Essentially, it’s a way to get a quick overview of all the shots you took in a particular session.
The contact sheet is created by laying the negatives or film strips onto a sheet of photographic paper and then exposing the paper to light. The result is a single print that shows all of the images in miniature form, usually arranged in rows or columns.
Photographers use contact sheets as a way to review their images and select the best ones to print or use for further editing. By looking at the small images on the contact sheet, photographers can quickly get a sense of which images are worth pursuing and which ones they can discard.
In addition to helping photographers select their best images, contact sheets can also be used as a historical record of a particular photo shoot or event. By preserving the contact sheet, photographers can look back over time and see how their style and technique have evolved, or how a particular subject or location has changed over time.
Overall, contact sheets are a useful tool for any photographer who wants to quickly and efficiently review their images and make informed decisions about which ones to keep and use.