Some of the feedback I got to my last column led me to realize that a lot of readers don't know what constitutes a good proof sheet. To put it succinctly: A good proof sheet doesn't make your photographs look good; it shows you what's in your photographs, conveying as much information as possible about the content of your negative or digital file.
Now that we're into the digital age, not everybody uses proof sheets. Many photographers prefer to work with their photographs entirely on-screen. For a variety of reasons, I still find proof sheets extremely valuable. Every photographer's preference is entirely personal and idiosyncratic. If your choice is to work on-screen, that's fine with me—I'm not going to belabor my choice or debate the two approaches. If you're curious to know the way I do it, however, this column might interest you.
Proof sheet photographs are a lot like RAW digital files. They tend to be flat, dull, and lower than you would like in contrast and saturation. Show an untrained viewer your proof sheets and they will be unimpressed with your photography. There will always be a few exceptions; occasionally a photograph will be so striking that it stands out no matter how it's reproduced. I have a few of those in my portfolio. But by and large the vast majority of your portfolio-quality work won't fall into that category. A photograph that looks striking in a proof sheet will likely prove to be a winner—but most of your winners won't look striking in proof sheets.
Darkroom proof sheets are usually, but not always, contact prints from the original film. Hence they are often referred to as "contact sheets." I prefer to say "proof sheets" because this isn't always the case. For example, a lot of workers, myself included, learned the trick of putting three strips of 35mm film in a 4x5 film carrier and enlarging by a factor of two to print nine 35mm frames on a single 8x10 sheet of paper. It makes studying the details and visualizing the final crop a lot easier. Also, the tonal placement is closer to what you'll expect to see in a final (enlarged) print.
For normally-exposed negatives, the usual procedure to making a proof sheet is to choose a paper grade substantially lower than the one you would normally print those negatives on. In color work, that simply means finding the lowest contrast paper you can that's on the market; there aren't a lot of choices. In black and white work, it means dropping at least a full paper grade below whatever is normal for you. The exposure should render middle grades approximately correctly, but blacks should not look solid black; there should be a clearly visible difference in print density between the unexposed edges of the filmstrips and the entirely clear area between strips. If your negatives are unusually dense, you won't be able to maintain that difference and there will probably be some blocking up in the shadows, but it still will be a lot less than you would get in a normal-contrast print.
Here's a tip that will speed up your printing if you're making contact proof sheets. Set up your enlarger as if you were making a typical enlarged print from one of your negatives, say an 8 x 10 from 35mm film. Set the lens aperture to some plausible value for your printing. The exposure time you end up using for a decent contact sheet, combined with the way the individual frames look on the sheet, will give you a pretty good idea of what your starting exposure settings should be for making enlargements. Write the proof sheet exposure information on the margins or back of the sheet for later reference.
If you're proofing digital files, enlargement is entirely virtual. I settled on 15 frames/sheet. It puts the same number of photographs on a proof sheet that I got from contact printing my 645 negatives, which is big enough for me to see what's really in the photograph. I still use the Contact Sheet II automation in Photoshop, because it's what I know and it works for me. Figure 1 shows my control panel settings. (Most image processing software will give you some way to generate a proof sheet, but I don't use these other ways, so please don't pepper me with questions about how to set them up correctly.)
You'll notice in the control panel that I set the effective size smaller than a full page. I did that so that it left room on an 8.5 by 11 sheet for me to punch the edge of the page for a three ring binder and room at the top for me to add title and date information about the "roll." I have a simple little action in Photoshop that takes the proof sheet, expands the margins accordingly, and lets me type information into a text layer at the top of the page.
Since I work 99% in RAW format, all my photographs get massaged by Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) before Photoshop merges them into the proof sheet. The default settings for ACR are not ideal for reviewing photographs. They produce a pleasing image, but it's too contrasty and it doesn't show the full range of information in the RAW file. Kind of like the difference between looking at a camera JPEG and a camera RAW file, although not that extreme: The JPEG looks attractive, but the RAW file shows you what's there. Figure 2 shows the settings I saved as my default settings in ACR. The two important differences are that I've added 20 points of highlight restoration, which is enough to avoid excessive clipping in the highlights without significantly compressing the midtones, and I've moved the black level slider all the way down to zero. Also check the Tone Curve Point tab in ACR to make sure that the "Linear" curve is selected.
That's pretty much it. Not rocket science. Not even really bottle-rocket science.
Making decent proof sheets doesn't have to be a burden. I'm happy to say that although I am years, even decades, behind making enlarged prints of all of my very best photographs, my proof sheet files are 100% up to date.
Ctein's regular weekly column, which was delayed for one day this week, will appear once more on Thursday (next week), and then will be switching to a new time slot—Wednesdays on TOP.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.