The Travel Series: The Benefits of Making Virtual Contact Sheets


Because I composite many images, I use a ranking system that's only slightly different from the classic Adobe five-star rating system when going through my travel photos. I use one star for images that don’t work but embody an idea that is worth revisiting. Images that can work get two stars, if combined with another image (panorama or composite). Solid images receive three stars—but for me to want to release it, to make up for what it doesn’t quite reach in graphic impact, it will need to serve a specific purpose amid other images, make a smart point, or elicit a strong emotional response. I use four stars for images with high graphic impact, as well as the qualities I mentioned for three-star images that I’ll show. Five stars are for hero images, the ones that clearly stand above the rest and have lifelong, lasting impact.

Whether you follow Adobe’s ranking system or mine isn’t what’s important. Using a well-thought-out system that makes sense to you and that you will use consistently over the long term is the key. When you look back at your past image rankings, you don’t want to have to remember which system you used to understand your rankings.

I find I become more discriminating about my images over time. After I’ve gained a little distance from them, I downgrade many images. Hopefully, this also means that over time I’m becoming a better photographer. During the process of revisiting past images, I often find ones I overlooked while on location or in transit. These images tend to be subtler, whose power builds over time. I start paying serious attention to images if I find myself being drawn back to them again and again, not because I want them to work―that’s a recipe for fooling myself―but because they serve a clear function, or are smarter and/or more emotional than the average image. For more on this subject, read my post, Sizzle & Fizzle Or Sleepers & Keepers.

"It’s curious to call them by the traditional name 'contact sheets,' because they’re not made by contacting film to paper."

Using Smart Collections in Lightroom speeds up the process of gathering and revisiting these images. I use Smart Collections―1 Star, 2 Stars, 3 Stars, 4 Stars, 5 Stars, and 3+ Stars. These Smart Collections are critical for focusing and accelerating my visual thought process, helping me to make the most of a location in a short amount of time. I can see what’s working and what’s not, correct mistakes, figure out what it’s going to take to up my game, identify missing shots, and seek out the ones that will bring a set of images together. Smart Collections serve as a chronology of all the ranked images I’ve made. They create a unique kind of journal. Most importantly, they start the process of assembling bodies of work.

I use Collections for assembling like images to develop projects, typically grouping selected images by location or theme. Unlike Smart Collections, I find Collections’ support for a manual sort order essential. Manual sort orders enable me to create image pairs and sequences, continuities that bind groups of images together into bodies of work. (For more on Continuity, Bodies of Work, and Developing Personal Projects, download my free PDFs at Creativity / Storytelling resources here.

Unlike when I used film, where I had to make physical contact sheets to select images, I rarely print my virtual contact sheets. It’s curious to call them by the traditional name “contact sheets,” because they’re not made by contacting film to paper. But, they’re no less essential to my creative process; if anything, they’re more important. Virtual Contact Sheets allow me to edit images at higher levels of thinking. I even use them to select and sequence images for slideshows, exhibits, and books.

I save virtual contact sheets, and sometimes I even save different states of a single contact sheet. I take screenshots of Lightroom’s display of my curated Collections. So many people requested to see them that I started sharing them on my blog. Having to make remarks about my virtual contact sheets helped me obtain an even better understanding of my creative process and my results. You can view several of my contact sheets and read my comments about them here.

1. A Virtual Contact Sheet from Morocco. Nice work, but this is not a direction I choose to pursue now. Exhibiting them would be a significant brand shift. Doing it well would require more time spent making images like this. I’m not willing to devote the time.

2. Virtual Contact Sheet from Morocco. There are one or two keepers here, as is. But there are many useful images that will work well for composites.


3. A before-and-after sketch made in the field. Side-by-side comparison confirms that this is a direction I want to pursue. Creating a meaningful comparison and contrast to my previous portfolios of dune images will be one key to bringing this to a successful resolution.


4. A three-star image from The Skeleton Coast, Namibia, that sets the standard by which to measure future dune images―accept this level or better, not less.



5. A five-star image from Sossusvlei, Namibia, that represents my best efforts to date—a level to aim for or exceed in the future.


Be sure to also read Creating Sketches in the Field, by John Paul Caponigro's close associate, Seth Resnick.

About John Paul Caponigro: Seth Resnick and I run a company called Digital Photo Destinations. These are workshops, not photo tours. Teaching and critiques are a critical part of our programs. We are back from a series of workshops that started in the Atacama Desert of Argentina, in December; two creative workshops in Palm Beach Gardens, in January; Antarctica, in February; Iceland, in March; and the finale was Morocco. Find out what’s coming next and sign up for our early alert list at this link.


Wow I love your work and would like to be updated on your future workshops.

Thank you

Waseem Khan

Looking forward to info on workshops and tips for improving my work.

It is funny how language evolves.  For instance, the cc: on our emails refers to carbon copies - - when we used to put a sheet of carbon paper between two sheets of paper in the typewriter.  Those were the days . . . what fun it was to erase a mistyped character on multiple copies.  I like your ranking system . . . now I have a new task on my "to do" list!  Enjoyed your images & your article!

Virtual contact sheet says it perfectly. It is a great metaphor for anyone who has worked with film. I can't imagine the even the most truculent digital native having any probelm with this term if they have any love for photography at all.

Like the idea of a work shop with critics rather than a purely photo tour.

Have always loved and am in awe of your work!

I have difficulty selecting which photos to keep and which to discard. 

Sorry guy, but making a contact sheet with digital is impossible. Can't be done.

A Proof book or proof print is possible.

Why not update your terminology to be accurate rather than continuing to rip off the language of photo processes that do not apply to digital?

Maybe consider calling them proof sheets? I like this term as it is both more correct, and implies proof of contact (with the world).


I was in Namibia in early June. Sossusvlei was so spectacular, it was worth driving myself there even though the drive in a small Nissan was a little scary!

 I live in Peru. It will be nice to share different captions.