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! 

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