Create a Contact Sheet of Thumbnails with Automator in Mac OS X

Apr 6, 2013 - 18 Comments

Contact Sheets, often called Proof Sheets, are essentially columns and rows of image thumbnails, making a bunch of photos very easy to quickly review. Though they’re commonly used by photographers, they have a wide range of uses outside of the pro-photography world, from artists to designers to UI/UX engineers. Rather than creating a contact sheet by hand the hard way in Photoshop or Pixelmator, we’ll show you to instantly generate one that is fully customized, all you’ll need to do is select a group of pictures in the Mac file system and let the excellent OS X app Automator do the hard work. Everything used here is free and bundled into Mac OS X, there’s no need to buy anything else or download any other apps.

The end result will be able to contact sheet PDF file that is a specified paper size with a chosen number of thumbnail columns, saved to where ever you want, and it will look something like this:

Contact Sheet example

The resulting file is smart enough to not overwrite itself too, and it will automatically append the date and time to the file name like “My Contact Sheet on 04-06 at 2.42.36 PM.pdf” so that you can’t overwrite one proof sheet with another if several have been created. Enough talk, let’s get started!

Create the Contact Sheet Generator Service

This will create a service that generates contact sheets instantly for you:

  • Launch Automator, found in /Applications/, and from the File menu choose “New”
  • Choose “Service” from the new menu
  • Create a new Service in Automator

  • Look under the “Library” column on the side and select “Photos”, then in the next column find “New PDF Contact Sheet” and double-click it to add to the new service
  • At the top, look for “Service receives selected:” and choose ‘image files’
  • Set the Contact Sheet customizations under “New PDF Contact Sheet”, including where to default to saving the file to (~/Desktop is standard), the Paper size, and how many columns will be shown
  • When satisfied with the customizations, go to File then “Save” and give the automator service a name like “Make Contact Sheet”

Contact Sheet generator Service options

Quit out of Automator if you’re satisfied, or leave it open if you want to try out the results and then make adjustments based on what you find.

The hard part is now over, and that wasn’t so tough was it? Now let’s go ahead and make a new contact sheet almost instantly from the OS X Finder.

Make a Contact Sheet by Generating from Selected Images

Now that the Automator Service has been created, making a contact sheet is just a matter of selecting images and letting the generator do the work for you:

  • Locate and select any number of images in the OS X Finder
  • Right-click any of the selected images and go to the “Services” menu, then choose “Make Contact Sheet” (or whatever the name was that you picked when saving the service)
  • Wait a few seconds or a few minutes, depending on if you chose a handful of images or hundreds for the PDF file to generate
  • Go to the ~/Desktop (or where ever else the save location was chosen) to find the generated PDF

Making a contact sheet automatically through the Services menu

The file generation is usually extremely fast, though how long it takes is going to partially depend on how fast your Mac is, and of course how many pictures you chose for the sheet. If you used a folder of 500 high resolution images, it will take a couple minutes usually, versus generating the sheet from a collection of 50 lower resolution pictures, which takes only a few seconds. For this reason, it can be a good idea to scale down images before creating a contact sheet from particularly humungous files, but if you find yourself having to perform a ton of image resizing you can also create a simple ‘Batch Resize’ Service with Automator, or just do a manual bulk resizing process on a group of pictures using Preview app, which also comes with every version of Mac OS X.

Open the file in Preview to see how the generated sheet looks, it will have followed the guidelines chosen during your initial setup so if you’re not happy with it make some changes to the Service and just save it again, then generate a new sheet PDF.

Generally speaking, numbers that are consistent multiples of the columns chosen during the creation of the service look best. Meaning, if you picked 6 columns, anything that is a multiple of 6 (12, 24, 36, 600, etc) will tend to look the best, so that each column and row is even. Also, images that are of the same width tend to look best as well, since it creates an even amount of white space between them.

Here’s another example of the output of this Automator Service, this one showing a 3 column layout with wide images:

Generated Contact Sheet made through Services

And no the images contained in the example proofs are not my pictures, they are from the hidden wallpaper collection buried in OS X 10.8 and later.

Enjoy!

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Posted by: Paul Horowitz in Mac OS X, Tips & Tricks

18 Comments

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  1. Chia Badoongle says:

    This is excellent thanks!

    Just a tip of my own here, for those with iPad and iPhone… If you’re in a pinch and need to create a quick proof sheet in iOS make a new folder gallery out of a selection of images, then take a screenshot, then use Edit and Crop tool to crop out the iOS elements and you are left with nothing but a thumbnail page. On an iPhone you’re limited to about 20 pages per proof sheet but it works in a bind if you forget or need to send one out to clients real quick!

  2. pete says:

    If you get the “The action “New PDF Contact Sheet” encountered an error.” message, run it again and it goes away for good.

    Any ideas why this happens or how to fix it?

    • pete says:

      Never mind, I think I made it go away permanently by applying an additional step in the Service:

      “Filter Finder Items” > All of the following true > Kind is Image

      put that before “New PDF Contact Sheet” and it seems to resolve it!

  3. Michael says:

    This is a nice tip, but the resulting PDF contact sheet has no file names to reference the images.

    • PaperQueen says:

      Ditto to that. Would love a way to tag each thumbnail with its file name for identification. Hints, anyone…?

  4. Marty says:

    How does one find and edit the service after saving it and exiting Automator?

  5. tokyojerry says:

    Much easier way. Don’t even need to fuss with Automator.
    - Enter an image folder.
    - Enter full screen.
    - CMD+1 for thumbnail view
    - Shift+CMD+4 for screen capture
    - Space bar to highlight the entire window (which is full screen)
    - click the mouse, or tap the magic trackpad.

    Voila! You have your thumbnail capture. Now, edit or annotate it if you like in Preview or your favorite image editor.

  6. Rick H says:

    Thanks, There used to be an automator script for creating a poster from a folder of pics, it was really great but it stopped working when 10.7 hit. If anyone knows how to do that trick in 10.7 or 10.8 it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

  7. Blue says:

    Did this and it works great, however the first time I do it with a set of photos it always opens up an application called MakePDF and I have to go through an extra step of saying file-save etc. But if I just exit out & click make contact sheet a second time it will do it just as you described. Any idea how I can stop it from doing the first thing?

  8. Ivan says:

    On 10.9.1 the result is a blank PDF – tested on 2 laptops, with different images selections. Any clues?

  9. cghera says:

    Have the same issue on 10.9.1 get a blank pdf when I run the service.

  10. ian says:

    yep tried everything i could think of. PDF contact sheet always comes up with NO pics inside and only 1k file size. this part of the script isn’t working. i can see it making the file and accessing the photos, but the resulting file, blank…

  11. Simon says:

    I get the same problem in 10.9.3.

  12. Janie says:

    Just right click on all the images you want to include. Select Open in Preview, from the drop down menu on the far left select “view as contact sheet”.

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