How to understand a contact sheet

When you develop film yourself (as I do with my black and white film), you usually make a contact sheet after the developing process is complete. Contact printing gives you a picture the same size as the negative, so with 35mm, this means you can fit an entire roll onto one 8x10 sheet of paper. By looking at the contact print, you can then roughly determine which shots are worth enlarging. (In photography parlance, an enlargement is any print that is larger than the negative.)

There are certain things a contact sheet will not tell you. It will not tell you if the picture is perfectly focussed because the contact print is simply too small. Perhaps more importantly, it will not tell you if the picture is too dark or too light (under- or over-exposed). Contact prints are usually made with a rather inexact printing process, and moreover, what works for one roll may not work for another. Even within the same roll, two pictures may require slightly different printing to show them at their best, but contact printing is nothing more than a wholesale, one-size-fits-all kind of operation.

Why am I bothering you will all of this? Because when you look at these pictures, you should only be looking to see if they contain any subjects that are interesting. If you try to guess anything else about the picture (this one is too dark, this one too light), I guarantee that you will guess wrong because the negative contains much more information than you can see in a scan of a contact print of a negative. I have already made 8x10 enlargements of a couple of these pictures, and while the contact prints look unexciting on their own, the enlargements look very nice (nice enough to draw compliments from my darkroom companions).

So with that preface, let's look at the contact sheets.