Monkey see, monkey do

The digital camera is a great invention because it allows us to reminisce – instantly.” – Demetri Martin

In the digital age a relatively new phenomenon has arisen called “chimping.” The term, sometimes attributed to USA Today photographer Bob Deutsch, refers not only to the reviewing of pictures on the monitor on the back of a digital camera, but also the sounds those photographers make (ooh, ooh, ooh) when they get excited over a picture they like.

Some photographers, usually those brought up in the film age, tend to turn up their noses at chimping.  It took a lot of training, talent and skill to know whether we got the shot. Then again, we burned through a lot of film back then to make sure we got that shot. What some photographers forget is that we did have a form of chimping back then. Poloraid made a special back for cameras – mostly for larger format equipment, but there were some bulky impractical devices for 35mm – where you can use the company’s “instant” film to view the pictures. Used mostly by studio/portrait photographers to check lighting setups, it took a minute or two for an image to develop. An eternity in today’s terms, but far quicker and more convenient that developing a roll of film.

I chimp, I admit it. It can be a great tool. It can be used to check the exposure for a certain scene. There’s still fine tuning to be done (the monitors aren’t always 100% accurate), but when used with the camera’s histogram function (the highlight, midtones and shadows of a picture displayed on the monitor in graph form) it can be very effective.

To check a lighting setup, whether it’s in a studio or on location, chimping can be a great help as well. In the old days, big expensive studio lights had modeling lights along with the flash tubes. These lights helped the photographer see where light was falling on the subject. Today, one can use cheaper smaller flash units, such as the ones you see photographers have on the hotshoe connection at the top of their cameras. Now you can use those strobes off-camera with a wireless transmitter. All you have to to is shoot and chimp, then move the flashes where needed.

Chimping is also great for those camera-held-over-head so-called “hail Mary” shots. Anytime where you’re not looking directly through the viewfinder a quick chimp can help to verify your aim and framing.

In sports, chimping can help with timing a photo. Say if I wanted to get a “ball-on-bat” shot in a baseball game. I can view the monitor to see if I’m shooting too early or too late and then adjust when I press the shutter button. Also I can chimp to make sure that I’ve got the jersey numbers of the athletes in a particular play for later identification.

One of the downsides to chimping is that using the monitor uses the battery’s power. During the early days of digital cameras battery technology wasn’t the best and too much chimping could leave you with no power and a dead camera. But with today’s much more powerful and efficient batteries, it isn’t much of an issue.

The main drawback to chimping is that you can miss what’s going on right in front of you. An important moment or the best pay of the game can happen right as you’re looking at the pictures on your monitor and you’ve missed it all together. I’ve seen it happen many times, and I’d like to say that hasn’t happened to me, but it has. What I try to do is chimp at the beginning of a shoot to check my exposure and/or timing, and then I’ll continue shooting with a minimum of chimping only to review the monitor if conditions change.

The urge to chimp can be tremendous. Everyone does it to one extent or another. So go ahead and chimp, just try not to make the sounds.

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