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In Defense of Chimping

Aspiring photographers are often counseled to resist the temptation to check their images on the camera LCD screen after each shot. The practice is colloquially referred to as "chimping," and is often used with derogatory overtones to mark someone as a rank amateur. But that makes no sense to me.

The exact origins of the term "chimping" is shrouded in mystery. I've heard several versions, but the truth is, like many informal coinages, we may never know for sure. But by now, it has entered the vocabulary of the digital photography community, even if not yet listed in many dictionaries.

The camera back panel LCD display can convey a lot of useful information. The variety of settings possible on modern cameras can't all come with individual knobs, buttons and readouts, and the LCD provides the means of consolidating everything to just a few controls, with the labels and indicator values appearing on the display. But it also gives us the ability to see the results of our efforts, even if the image is displayed on such a small screen.

The basic line of reasoning against chimping is that a preoccupation with reviewing your images means you can't also be paying attention to the subject you are photographing. You might miss something. Once the shutter has been pressed and the exposure finished, the contention is that you should be focused (literally and figuratively) on your next shot, not the last one. What's done is done, and all that.

But other rationales for discouraging chimping can also be found. It breaks up your train of thought. Once you get in the groove of shooting something you should stay with it. It creates unnecessary pressure to perform. You might be better off not knowing about your mistakes right away. And if you did get a great shot, you might be tempted to stop right there rather than continue to explore the subject more deeply. There's time for tears and celebrations later. Right now, there's shooting to be done. Even that chimping is bad because it uses up precious camera battery power. This list goes on and on. But if you weren't supposed to check your images after shooting them, why do camera makers include this ability in what they sell? Surely there's more at issue here than tempting you with whiz bang tricks you're better off not doing.

Back in the prehistoric era of photography when we all shot film, there was no debate about chimping. There simply was no analogous action possible. Each image recorded by the camera was methodically wound onto the film take-up spool and the next frame ratcheted into position. There was no way to see what you had shot until the film was later developed.

That led to some interesting problems though. Obviously, anything shot at a sufficiently long or fast enough shutter speed would be rendered in a way not directly observable to the human eye. Freezing or blurring the motion of moving subjects can create compelling images precisely because we can't ordinarily see things that way. Images shot under low light may come out just fine given enough exposure time, but those subjects may be lost in shadows to the naked eye making composition and exposure tricky.

Not all photographers are drawn to the same type of subjects, so it's possible that some might never have been faced with these sorts of issues. And there's really no denying that many of the stated objections to chimping do contain at least a grain of truth. But I believe the reason why chimping became such an evil thing in the minds of some photographers runs deeper. Frankly, for any photographer who learned his chops with a film camera, who felt at home with the process of shooting film, would likely feel at least a tad awkward stopping to peek at his results in real time. I know this first hand since this characterization described me in the beginning of the digital era. I remember it took me a while to get used to digital and how it differed from film. Looking at the LCD display just wasn't something I felt comfortable doing. I doubt I was the only one.

And once the advice to avoid chimping got started, few photographers were willing to question it openly. What if anyone saw them doing it? If they had to look, they must not trust themselves. They must be, dare I say, a mere amateur, or at least not as professional as they wanted to portray to others. Simply put, photographers were taught not to get caught chimping. It was akin to getting caught cheating. Real photographers didn't chimp. It became a badge of distinction to be against chimping. And so the legend grew.

Those old days should be behind us now though. Many photographers today grew up on digital. The new capabilities made possible by the format were part of the package, not something foreign to them as it was for many transitioning from film. You couldn't chimp with a film camera, but some photographers today still advocate living by old limitations.

I freely admit to chimping when I feel the need to. Why not leverage all the tools at my disposal? One of my favorite uses is a part of what I call "iterative composition." The process goes like this: take a picture, then check out the results on the camera LCD display. This is the first chance you have to see things as your camera does. The histogram is a better gauge of how bright an image is, but in other ways, chimping is a "what you see is what you get" sort of thing. If there's any aspect you think you could have done better, make the needed adjustments and shoot again. Repeat as necessary until you're happy. This assumes that your subject will remain cooperative long enough for you to work your way through a few attempts of course.

When you stop and think about it, pausing to look at the images you are shooting shouldn't seem strange at all. Does a serious painter refuse to glance over at his canvas, believing that doing so would distract him from the subject he is painting? Maybe a few extreme abstract painters I guess, but most others will pay attention to both subject and painting without ever considering any other way of working. Makes sense to me.

Now, anything can be done to excess, but many of those things can not only prove acceptable but down right helpful in moderation. The same can and rightfully should be said about chimping. If you feel a need to check your images as you go, you have my permission. For whatever that may be worth.

Date posted: November 27, 2016


Copyright © 2016 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Iterative Composition
Chimping: The Rise of the Planet of the Apes?

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