To Chimp or Not to Chimp

A fellow photographer asked me the other day about what I teach students regarding reviewing images using the monitor on the back of digital cameras, which professional photographers have, for years, called “chimping,” due to the simian appearance of photographers when they stare down at the backs of their cameras. Here is my response…

The monitor on the back of any digital camera has the potential to be a helpful tool or annoying distraction.
The monitor on the back of any digital camera has the potential to be a helpful tool or annoying distraction.

Good topic. I don’t, however, have a pat answer for you. I teach very intuitively, and as a result I try to discover what my students have and what they lack, and address it. Two thing about that are balance, and what works.

When I say balance, I mean that chimping has a place in photography, but at the same time can’t overwhelm it. Sometimes I have to tell my students to shoot instead of chimp, since they are missing the moment by staring at their monitors, and sometimes I have to tell them to look down once in a while to make sure they are getting exposure, light, composition, etc., like they are expecting.

When I talk about what works, I remember years ago when I was learning to fly. My flight instructor Phil would say, “Do whatever it takes to fly the airplane.” The same is true for photography, such that checking your images on the monitor works, if you are doing it right.

In the beginner classes I try to give my students some background without boring them, so they have some idea of how and why their cameras work. In the advanced class, we mostly shoot, and we work with light and lenses and composition. We shoot each other and the environment around us, and we don’t ever use the phrase “we can fix that in Photoshop later.”

How do I chimp? Once I have established that I am where I want to be (white balance, exposure, etc.), I tend to avoid chimping until I have a serious lull, like a time out at a ball game or waiting for the next band at a concert, with just occasional glances to make sure I’m still inside my parameters. Sometimes chimping a card during halftime at a football game or when my 3 p.m. isn’t there until 3:20 p.m. is a way of pre-editing my card, so I don’t have quite as much product to view when I get back to the office.

My fellow photographer also asked how I felt about using chimping as a surrogate or crutch, since he and I both came from the old school film-and-print days. Back then we had to rely much more heavily on memorization and experience to help is with complex lighting situations, and the monitor, particularly with the blinking highlights and histogram features, helps us solve those problems on the spot. I tried to express to him that I feel the monitor on the back of the camera is a tool in the toolbox of photography. It has the ability to aid us in great imaging, but it can also stand in the way by distracting us. Properly utilized, though, chimping can be an excellent aid to modern photography.

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3 Comments

  1. I must shoot as if Photoshop does not exist.
    I must shoot as if Photoshop does not exist.
    I must shoot as if Photoshop does not exist.
    I must shoot as if Photoshop does not exist.
    I must shoot as if Photoshop does not exist.

    I must shoot Photoshop.

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  2. I like the “do what works” idea, and it blows out of the water all the “you must do this” mantras in photography today.

    For me, chimping is best done five minutes before I start shooting an event. Shoot a couple of random shots, chimp, correct exposure settings, then I’m ready to go. (Repeat if the light changes.)

    As a sports photographer, I tried to save my chimping for timeouts, halftime, etc., only after glancing around to make sure nothing interesting was happening on the sidelines.

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  3. As for a “crutch”, it may be. I also know people who say auto-focus is a crutch, and adjustable ISO settings, and so on.

    It wasn’t available when they learned photography, so they think we shouldn’t need to use it. I say “pshaw” to that. When I learned photography, auto-focus was available. I use manual when it’s required (macro, etc.), but there’s no need to limit myself to just one old technology.

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