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Chimping: The Rise of the Planet of the Apes?

Its exact origins unclear, the term "chimping" refers to the habit of checking every shot on the camera's LCD screen just after taking it. It's generally used in a derogatory sense, but it should it be?

You've undoubtedly seen people doing it. They shoot an image and immediately take a look at the results on the camera back, then do it again. And again. When a shot comes out well, everyone around knows about it because of the exclamations they make. Indeed, the sounds of "ooh, ooh, ah, ah" that excitedly accompanied their chimping help to explain the implied meaning of the phrase.

You may well do it yourself sometimes and feel guilty about it because people tell you it's a sign of being an amateur. Those who claim to know better will tell you that professionals don't engage in chimping. But you can't help yourself. Sometimes you've just got to see how a photo came out.

The general theory on why chimping is bad seems to be that while you're busy checking out what you've already shot, you're missing what you could be shooting. Stands to reason in certain fast moving situations I suppose. But if you really shouldn't be reviewing your images after shooting them, why do camera makers continue to give us bigger and bigger LCD screens on the backs of new models?

You probably know not to judge exposure by what an image looks like on the camera back, expecially when shooting outdoors. The lighting is just too contrasty. If you want to check exposure, use the histogram display, not the appearance of the image itself as your guide. But that's an awfully big LCD for just a histogram and some menus.

One of the huge paradigm shifts ushered in by the introduction of digital photography is the very fact that you can indeed see your images just after taking them. That wasn't possible with film. At long exposures and dim lighting, you never really knew what you would end up with. Yes, I always thought I understood what the results would be, but I wasn't always right. I remember shooting one entire roll of film on Artist Point near Mt. Baker here in Washington State before the sun was even up. There was a beautiful orange glow on the horizon with deep blue above but the foreground was in complete shadows. My hoped for subject was a reflection of Mt. Shuksan in a small alpine tarn. In the dark, I could see the well enough to line up the reflection in the water, but not enough to see the landscape around the water. I just had to trust that whatever was there was supposed to be there and would fit in well with the composition. What I hadn't realized was that there was a small metal interpretive sign along the trail beyond me put there by the Parks Service. I couldn't see it at all, but the long exposures on my film could and did. I noticed it as I was putting my gear away by then it was too late to do anything other than hope the lens had cropped it out. Reviewing the slides later, it was there in every darned one as the sun came up.

It's possible that old-time film purists coined the neologism of "chimping." If they had learned to take good photos without seeing their work until the film got developed then others should be able to as well, if when digital did make it possible to see them while still on location.

Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape??Chimping can be overdone of course. If your only aim is to congratulate yourself on a great shot, that can likely wait. But if you really need to check your results it's nice to be able to. And it's not just your histogram exposure that needs checking sometimes. Dim lighting is just one situation that may call for occasional chimping. Long exposures that render motion rather than freeze it can be equally challenging. Shoot a waterfall with an exposure time of several seconds or more and you know the water will be silky, but how silky? Personally, I like there to still be at least some texture showing, but not too much. With experience I generally know what range of shutter speeds will work for what I'm after, but being able to interactively fine tune the appearance can be a huge advantage.

Even when the light isn't challenging, and even when my shutter speeds are more manageable I find that chimping can help to improve compositions. Human vision sees things in three dimensions while a photograph is rendered in just two. Sometimes things look quite different flattened into a photograph. An obvious relationship of being in front of or behind something can become an unworkable merge in an image, blending distinct objects into a single colored mess. Contrast renders differently to the human eye than it does to the camera too. You might see detail in a shadow area that comes out in your photo as pure black.

The more that you understand the way your camera sees the better you will be at seeing potential images the way your camera will, but when you're unsure or just need to double check, go ahead and do so. The chimps are smarter than we think.

Date posted: December 9, 2012


Copyright © 2012 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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