How Studying Contact Sheets Can Make You a Better Street Photographer

(Two shots Henri Cartier-Bresson shot of the same scene. SPAIN. 1933. Andalucia. Seville. © The Estate of Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos)

One of the biggest misconceptions I know runs rampart in street photography is the “myth of the decisive moment”. What do I mean when I talk about “the decisive moment” simply being a myth?

Well of course there generally is a “decisive moment” when you hit the shutter – to capture that exact moment you desire in a photograph.

However one of the common misunderstandings that plagued many street photographers (including myself) was that the decisive moment simply being one shot. After studying many contact sheets from Magnum Contact Sheets book, I was able to gain a new level of insight to read the mind of a street photographer.

Curious? Read on.

Defining “The Decisive Moment”

Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, 1932. © The Estate of Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson defines “The Decisive Moment” as follows:

“There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

When I first read that paragraph, I thought that Henri Cartier-Bresson (as well as many other famous street photographers) would simply wait for the decisive moment and click the shutter once when it happened.

However I was mislead when thinking this way – because Henri Cartier-Bresson didn’t only take one single photograph when he saw a decisive moment ready to happen (David Hurn refers to this as a “pregnant moment“) but rather took several images of the same scene.

What is a Contact Sheet?

Contact sheet of Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City, USA (1962) © Estate of Diane Arbus

Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City, USA (1962) © Estate of Diane Arbus

One of the best ways to learn how to get into the mind of a photographer is to study his/her contact sheets.

What is a contact sheet exactly?

A contact sheet is when you shoot a roll of film, lay your strips of negatives on a single paper, and then develop it so you can see all the shots you took on a single roll on a piece of paper. Of course the shots come out tiny, so you need to use a loupe (a small magnifying glass you hold to your eye) to inspect your images.

‘Pulling a good picture out of a contact sheet,’ Cartier-Bresson said, ‘is like going down to the cellar and bringing back a good bottle to share.’

As the majority of us shoot digital nowadays, we use Adobe Lightroom or any other photo-management software out there to inspect our images.

Therefore when you are studying a contact sheet of a photographer, you can get into their brain.

For example, you can see what shots he/she took during an entire scene, as well as what image they finally decided to choose.

Looking at Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Contact Sheets

Two shots of the same scene that Henri Cartier-Bresson shot. There are ~4-5 other images he shot in the same scene, but I cannot find the images online at the moment.  © The Estate of Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

The more memorable shot. SPAIN. 1933. Andalucia. Seville. © The Estate of Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Once the boys noticed HCB’s presence, the moment was over. SPAIN. 1933. Andalucia. Seville. © The Estate of Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

If you look at many of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s contact sheets, you can see that many of his memorable images weren’t shot with a single shot – but were selected from multiple shots of the same scene.

For example, one of my favorite shots that HCB shot (kids playing in front of a broken wall during the war) is an incredible moment. You see the kids playing amongst the rubble, totally unaware of the war happening around them, and the look of pure joy and ecstasy in their face. All of their positions are lined up perfectly in the frame, and their unique expressions make the image memorable.

However he didn’t only wait for that one shot and move on. Rather, he shot multiple shots of the same scene, and afterwards chose the shot that resonated the most.

He shot several landscape shots, and even a few portrait shots. You can see that he captured “the decisive moment” early on in the scene, and the magic fades later on – when the children become aware of his presence.

Note: I cannot remember off the top of my head which exact frame in the scene was his memorable shot. I need to consult my books when I get back home. If you know the answer, please leave a comment below!

Looking at Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Contact Sheets (Pt2)

The famous shot. SPAIN. 1933. Valencia. © The Estate of Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

The man subtly turning away, and the moment isn’t quite the same. SPAIN. 1933. Valencia. © The Estate of Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Another image that is quite memorable for me is a photograph he took in Spain, of a mysterious man looking past him in a bullfighters pen. The man is slightly out of focus, is wearing a hat, and is looking slightly to the side, with one of his glasses giving off a strong glare. It gives the photograph a mysterious feel, and some action happening in the background on the left side of the frame adds to the tension.

Once again, HCB didn’t simply take one shot. Rather, he waited for the scene to unfold, and shot multiple shots. Some of the shots the man’s head is turned, and other shots both of his eyes are visible through his glasses (I don’t have those images above, but I saw them in Magnum’s Contact Sheets Book). However when he turned slightly to toward the glasses and had an off look– that was “the decisive moment”. I doubt that Henri Cartier-Bresson had that exact shot in mind when he was shooting the scene. Rather I would assume that he discovered the shot afterwards, when studying his contact sheets.

“Killers shoot twice”

American Girl in Italy, Ruth Orkin (1951). © Estate of Ruth Orkin

Closeup of contact sheet. American Girl in Italy, Ruth Orkin (1951). © Estate of Ruth Orkin

The shot. American Girl in Italy, Ruth Orkin (1951). © Estate of Ruth Orkin

One of my favorite excerpts from Thomas Leuthard’s book, “Going Candid” was a chapter he titled, “Killers Shoot Twice”. It is a phrase that is very raw and graphic- and stuck with me.

In street photography if you see a “pregnant moment” (the decisive moment about to happen) don’t just take one shot. Rather, take multiple shots. As the analogy Thomas used, killers shoot their victims twice to make sure they are dead. I am not saying that in street photography you want to shoot your “victims”. I am simply using this analogy because I have found it to stick in my mind!

So if you see the “pregnant moment” – work the scene. Shoot it from different angles, and try to get as many shots as you can. Take your first shot by instinct, then take a step to the left and take another shot. Perhaps crouch down and take a vertical shot. Then if the person looks pissed off or annoyed, smile and say “thank you” and head off.

When David Hurn saw a decisive moment about to happen, he would take around 5-6 shots if possible. Personally I try to take that many shots as well. However in reality the most I can take before I suspect that the moment is over is about two shots.

Martin Parr’s Contact Sheets

Below is a video of Martin Parr narrating one of most memorable images shot in the UK.

William Klein’s Contact Sheets

William Klein is not only one of the most renowned contemporary street photographers, but is also a great storyteller. Check out his contact sheets in the video below.

Further reading on contact sheets

In a future post (when I have access to my hard drive back home) I want to show some of my “digital contact sheets” from my earlier work and telling the stories behind my images. Hopefully this can help you learn more about how to approach a subject, and how to get the shot that you want.

One of the most valuable books in my collection is the Magnum Contact Sheets book. To my knowledge it is out-of-stock nearly everywhere out there, so I recommend everyone to try to find a copy. It shots some of the most memorable images shot in history, and the contact sheets of the photographer in that roll of film. Sometimes the photographer might have only shot 2-3 shots in the scene, while others have shot an entire roll of film on just one scene.

There is another older “The Contact Sheet” book available which is also fantastic. I particularly like the contact sheets of some contemporary photographers in it like Martin Parr and Carl De Keyzer.

Below are some useful articles related to contact sheets:

The Creation of Magnum Contact Sheets

Magnum put together a great blog series on the creation of “Magnum Contact Sheets“. Check out the posts below:

Magnum Contact Sheets: The Life Cycle of a Book >>


One of Bruce Gilden’s Contact Sheets. A rare contact sheet in which he got two of his best shots in the same roll of film.

USA. New York City. 1984.

USA. New York City. 1984. Feast of San Gennero, Little Italy.

When you are out shooting street photography, don’t just settle for one shot. I know that shooting street photography at times can take a lot of courage, and after getting that one shot we just want to get out of there. However if you sense that the people don’t mind or are quite friendly, take several shots of the scene (if possible).

One question I get asked is whether to use “single shot” or “continuous mode”. I prefer using continuous mode, but exercise it with caution. Don’t just go into a scene and shot your shots like a machine gun. Rather, use it but still try to be selective when shooting with continuous. I don’t like holding the shutter in continuous mode, but rather clicking every time I think that there may be a subtle or interesting gesture.

There will be times you can’t take more than one shot. In those cases, just get your shot, smile, say thank you, and move on.

Remember, it can sometimes be the smallest detail that can make or break a shot. The small eye contact, the subtle hand gesture, or the look on the person’s face.

How has studying contact sheets helped you grow/develop as a street photographer? What do you agree/disagree with in this article? Share your other insights by leaving a comment below! 

Don’t Miss Out on Free Updates!

If you want to stay in the loop with my travels, upcoming workshops, free e-books and presets, join my street photography newsletter below:

  • Stewart Reid

    The implausibility of Ruth Orkin’s two American Girl in Italy shots made me look it up – the second shot came from Orkin asking the girl to walk down the street again. (Note how she’s back on the sidewalk in the second shot.) The “staged” one is now famous… a manufactured decisive moment? That’s kind of strange to think about. It almost seems wrong by the informal standards street photographers set themselves these days. It raises some interesting philosophical questions that wouldn’t have been raised without looking at the contact sheet!

  • Greg

    Really nice write-up. It was strange to see you have to define “contact sheet”. I just assume that everyone else used to shoot film and go through the process of examining negatives and contact-sheet images on-at-a-time. I guess I am getting old. For me it was always a fun process; kind of like magic to get that first look at all 36 images I had shot the day (or week) before. I think Lightroom sometimes spoils it for us – there is no anticipation.

    I would like to point out another book for your readers. It is called “The Contact Sheet” by Ammo. I think it is still in print. I presents ~50-100 contact sheets and then examines – with the help of the photographer – how they settled on the final, and in many cases, famous image. It is a great book to have on your coffee table and pick up to read one page at a time. I have not yet read the whole thing, but have leafed through it many times.


  • Gene Lowinger

    It has been well established fact that Ruth Orkin’s shot of the American girl was a set up shot. She arranged for the guys on the street to be there and staged the girl walking by them. So much for any decisive moment.

    • jann

      Gene, the “American girl” in that shot says it was not staged. See this link:

      • Dacoit

        Well, the subject says she was told to go walk that corner a second time. So the second walk accounts for all of the men looking at the model in the famous photo — she was walking the corner a second time for a photographer, and they reacted to that in all likelihood. To my eye, the photo has always looked set up – too many men are eyeballing the model, and some seem to be exaggerating their reaction (e.g., man on scooter, man sitting at table). So the article tells me this was not a spontaneous moment after all.

        • Guesst

          agree, the sequence of the girl’s walk is wrong.
          The subsequent series with the scooter doesn’ t flow eiher.

  • Nick Kenrick

    when i traveled a great deal in asia . i was inspired by Steve McCurry . i came back with some images i was proud of . however . when i was away for 4 months i could only afford a limited number of rolls of film ( on top of the huge cost of travel for that length of time ) . i was stingy and was nervous to take lots of pics of scenes ….
    being wealthy / paid to take photos would certainly help the chances of getting better images .

    and now we have digital . so we now do not have to be so stingy and this has helped me so much to feel more free with pressing the shutter

    thanks for the info Eric. now i don’t fee so bad :)

    • PhotoStudious

      I think that its good do shoot film to learn….if I was paid to do it I will still shoot film because of the quality = )

  • Brian Day

    I love this quote from HCB:

    “My contact sheets may be compared to the way you drive a nail in a plank,” he said. “First you give several light taps to build up a rhythm and align the nail with the wood. Then, much more quickly, and with as few strokes as possible, you hit the nail forcefully on the head and drive it in.”

    Seeing contact sheets from the masters definitely helps understand some of the more effective techniques. Of course, the boundary condition is not to “spray and pray”. :) Nice article, E.

    • Eric Kim

      Thanks for the feedback D!

  • Vincent de Groot


    I personally do agree… but that does not mean that I approve shooting with 5- or more fps… for me on the street I usually take 3 to 6 frames (single shot) my portraits, always one single shot… but who am I, it works for everybody different… “find your OWN way of working”


  • PhotoStudious
  • Pingback: How Studying Contact Sheets Can Make You a Better Street Photographer - Eric Kim()

  • conrado

    the only thing i don’t like about this is book is the contact sheet images are too small, for me anyways. i would like it to have been split up in a two page spread on a not so reflective paper. the medium format contact sheets are easier for me to see. i feel like i need one of those eyepiece loupes.

  • Tsuyoshi

    Great write up Eric! And looking forward to seeing your contact sheets and various stories behind them!!!

  • Brett Higham

    Nice article Eric! Defintely picking up the Magnum contact sheets! Keep the quality coming.

  • Pingback: Timing | a photogenic world()

  • Zlatko Batistich

    This is an excellent article. Good photographers have always worked the scene. That’s how it’s done.

  • Alex Coghe

    Interesting “in depth”, mate. While not changing anything on the magnitude of the photographers mentioned, maybe a reflection on some certainties of some photographers should be made.

    • Eric Kim

      Thanks for the comment Alex. Sorry for the confusion – what exactly do you mean?

      • Alex Coghe

        No, sorry me for my english. I mean maybe some photographers are overly mythologized. Often with legends that are not reflected in reality. HCB cropped some of his images. And your article shows that often never could accomplish the masterpiece on the first try. This does not change their grandeur, but the myth should end. There are many wacky ideas: some argue that these masters born in the digital era would remain faithful to film. I am I am convinced that the majority would have used digital. Also HCB.

  • Gary Gumanow

    There are always moments that are more decisive than others. Nice to see that you have revised your stance on a major cornerstone on photography.
    Eric, the followers of this blog are always so quick to jump on me when I make comments that like “decisive moment doesn’t really exist.” The more you shoot, the more you realize the moment is more than one shot, more than one moment. It’s the moment on your contact sheet that is better than the other moment.
    HCB made it look easy to the lay person. Most new street photographers think that he waited to take one shot. Sure, sometimes that happens, but mostly it doesn’t.
    Shooting film allows you the luxury to go back 10 years and find a decisive moment that you might have missed on your contact sheets when your shots were too new. Matt Weber recently talks about this. I’ve done this as well.

  • Olivier Sylvestre

    Continuous mode…? You gotta be kidding me right…?
    Still, nice article.

  • Vicki

    I thought about the idea similar to contact sheets before. Is there any online photo website that has this function?

  • frrrrrank

    I thought the latter Bresson shot was the famous one–and actually it’s better in my opinion. The kid on the right looks like a ballerina. He’s making this moment rather than “letting it pass” by making himself noticed.

  • jiangchao866

  • Pingback: 10 Things Anders Petersen Can Teach You About Street Photography — Eric Kim Street Photography()

  • Pingback: 10 Things Anders Petersen Can Teach You About Street Photography | Uber Patrol - The Definitive Cool Guide()

  • P1xel

    I realy like this article. Thomas Leuhard “going candid” book’s address has changed from *.html to *.pdf.

  • Pingback: The “3 A” Theory: The Secret to Memorable Street Photographs | Uber Patrol - The Definitive Cool Guide()

  • izaac

    I just bought the book Magnum contact sheets, it’s really amazing. I wonder on some of them there are a lot of signs and color. For example in the Bruce Gilden sheet, what is the blue square ? a pre-selection before the final selection in red ?

    I have another important question : A contact sheet for getting out the special shots, OK . But for a story, what is the process ? (For example how worked Koudelka for his amazing book about gipsies ). Is it just a succession of very special shots or it’s a completely different work where you have to take out some shots good for the story (but that are not special shots) ?

    I participated to the magnum workshop in Paris with Bruno Barbey, and I was quite disappointed, because we took (in my opinion) too much time shooting in the street and editing. To my opinion , we should have taken more time to discuss together about selecting (we did it, but only the last day), creating a story. Here an example of a story I create about the gay marriage demonstration in France (This was the most interesting part of the workshop) : . For this I used a simple technique : I try to find a link between each couple of pictures, but it is probably not the only solution for creating a story.

    I’m fond of photogrpahy, espacially street photography. I’m a computer engineer and I don’t know yet how to deal with a more professional approach of photography. I think I need to shoot, I really need it, I think there is a lot of myself in my shoots. I need to create stories, I don’t know exactly how (For now, and as Bruno Barbey told me, I’m too dispersed because I shot every time I have the opportunity to have special composition, esthetic, I need to focus more on subjects I have to choose before). Maybe you have some ideas and maybe you have an article about story :)

    Here my photos blog so you can see what I am sensitive to :

    Anyway, I do not always agree all your articles, but I’m very grateful about the amount of useful informations you share ! Thank you so much for all your work Eric ! I hope I will meet you in France or somewhere else.

  • Pingback: How to Pre-Visualize like Ansel Adams - Page 3()

  • Pingback: 5 Insights “The Mexican Suitcase” Has Taught Me About Street Photography | Uber Patrol - The Definitive Cool Guide()

  • gaiss

    louis vuitton although she was busy helping someone else she still made a point to greet us

  • Pingback: black white()

  • Pingback: What is contact sheet? » G.V. Street Photography Blog()

  • Pingback: It Was an Unpleasant Feeling | Aware of the Void()

  • Pingback: Street Photography – How the legends did it | Nib & Lens()

  • Pingback: B&W recommendations? - Seite 3 - Leica User Forum()

  • Pingback: browserFruits Juni, Ausgabe 5 › kwerfeldein - Fotografie Magazin | Fotocommunity()

  • Best Irons

    Hi great blog! Does running a blog similar to this require a large amount of work?
    I have no expertise in coding but I had been hoping to start my own blog in the near future.

    Anyhow, should you have any recommendations or techniques for new blog owners
    please share. I know this is off topic but I
    just had to ask. Thanks a lot!

  • Pingback: Video Lecture: Why it is Important to “Work the Scene” in Street Photography | JanNews Blog()

  • Pingback: Boring, Oregon | Pinhole Obscura()

  • Pingback: visit their website()