Ask any number of digital photographers about their greatest pet peeves, and soon enough, you’ll hear complaints of chimping. Dreaded, hated, berated, and criticized, it doesn’t take long for the message to sink into the mind of many beginners that chimping is something to avoid.
But what even is chimping, exactly? Does it have anything to do with its hominoid namesake? And is it all that bad, or can you learn something valuable from it?
Let’s take a look!
What is Chimping in Photography?
At its core, chimping describes a really simple thing. When you check exposure by looking at your camera’s LCD screen immediately after taking your shots, that’s called chimping.
A careful glance at the rear LCD screen to make sure nothing is overexposed. Congrats, you’re chimping. To be fair, some would narrow the term down to include only the habitual (i.e. repetitive) checking of the LCD right after every single shot.
No matter how you slice it, chimping seems at first like a fairly benign thing to bicker about. After all, you’re only looking back on what you’ve already taken. Ergo, chimping can’t really affect how your images come out, can it?
However, the debate goes deeper than that. Let’s dispel the confusion by going right to the heart of the debate and seeing what it’s all about.
Where Chimping Came From and How It Evolved
Usually, it’s hard to put a precise number on a cultural habit or trend. That’s especially true in a niche field like photography. But in this particular case, you can actually cite a birth year for the act of chimping: 1995.
In that year, Casio brought out the QV-10, a digital point-and-shoot. This was the first camera in history that had a full-color rear LCD screen, and it even supported live view!
While the QV-10 wasn’t a great seller by itself, the trend of having a rear-mounted display for reviewing and framing your shots became increasingly widespread during the late 90s. And that was a real necessity, as these early point-and-shoots featured tiny, nearly useless viewfinders!
Perhaps thanks to that design evolution, sales of affordable low-end digital cameras really took off during this time period.
With all these easy-to-use cameras suddenly in the hands of amateur photographers, it makes sense that new photographic subcultures would arise, too.
Case in point, terms like ‘chimping’ arose during a period when the division between pro photographers and the new, rising crop of amateurs was creating a lot of tension in the digital community.
Looking at your rear LCD for confirmation was something that was taken for granted by the latter group. And so, it was only a short time till the former would turn it into the butt of a joke.
There’s another layer to this as well. Since professional DSLRs did not feature any real Live View functionality until the late 2000s, much later than cheaper compact cameras, using your rear screen at all for composition was seen as a surefire sign that you were wielding a less-than-desirable camera.
Why Chimping Has a Bad Reputation?
As with many other things in photography that got the dreaded “amateur” label stuck to them, chimping quickly became a sort of jargon slur.
Many street photographers in particular were quick to look down on chimping amateurs as they were too distracted by their gear to focus on the decisive moment in front of them.
Arguments range far and wide for why chimping leads to bad photos and should be avoided. Let’s take a look at some of the most crucial ones below.
Disrupting the Digital Photography Workflow
Many, especially those who learned photography shooting film, feel that chimping ruins their natural flow. Because it brings your attention away from the scene in front of you, it might make you lose situational awareness.
Sure, getting the chance to delete a bad photo immediately after taking it is convenient. But doing so at the cost of losing the perfect moment for the next is a poor deal.
In other words, it might be better to wait until you’re home to review your work. Otherwise, you might miss some potentially great shots!
Again, a camera habit that plenty of photographers picked up from the film days is that of never wasting a frame. That is to say; you only take as many chances with a single composition as you can afford to.
After all, 35mm only takes you as far as 36 shutter presses before reloading!
However, in digital photography, the rules are different. Taking photos a hundred at a time, then deleting the ninety that didn’t make the cut by chimping them, doesn’t cost you anything.
While that’s true, many feel that this style of taking pictures en masse is lazy and contributes to poor technique. If you end up shooting thousands of frames over a short amount of time but delete most of them on the rear LCD without ever even taking them home to get a good look, you won’t remember what you did wrong.
And if you do keep all of those shots, you’ll just end up with a messy, bloated gallery that’s impossible to filter through. Either way, using this shooting strategy stunts learning and may prevent you from growing from your mistakes.
Adverse Effects on Battery Life
This point is perhaps less of an issue nowadays than it used to be. Still, it remains a valid concern for many photographers.
Your camera’s LCD screen is one of its most power-hungry parts, competing with the shutter, light meter, and auto-focus system for energy. That’s why using it a lot can lead to heavy battery drain.
On earlier digital cameras, the effect was so grave that excessive chimping could reduce battery life by up to 50%, or even more in some cases.
With the newest digital photography gear, that may no longer be true. But the rule still holds that avoiding the chimping habit will allow your camera to last longer in the field.
Attracting Unwanted Attention
This complaint again rings true, especially for street photography. However, plenty of professionals from many genres have pointed out this drawback of chimping, so it’s by no means a nitpick.
Simply put, shooting and sequentially reviewing your capture can make you much more visible in the crowd. Most passersby have a relatively easy time identifying a photographer shooting in public. If they’re not just visibly toting a camera but also flipping it over and bringing it up to their face repeatedly, it becomes child’s play.
If your work benefits from staying incognito, then you’d likely do yourself a favor by focusing on the image in front of you instead of the ones on your LCD screen.
Making a Case for Thoughtful Chimping
Now, plenty of these criticisms hold value for a lot of photographers, but chimping is not all a bad thing. In fact, verifying exposure in real time can be really useful sometimes!
For example, some photography beginners might find that taking a series of images at different camera settings and then quickly going over all of them on the LCD screen can help them visualize the differences between aperture or shutter speed settings.
Others may shoot a series at differing focal lengths and compare which kind of framing makes for more compelling images. In these kinds of cases, taking a large number of photos is not counter-productive. Nor does it really make you ‘miss the crucial moment’.
A more advanced user, like a landscape photographer, may make use of chimping to quickly analyze and make adjustments to bracket exposures. When using a compact camera without a viewfinder, let alone a phone, chimping might be the only way to make sure you manage to catch your subject properly.
How to Prevent and Unlearn Chimping
While useful in certain measures, plenty of people have turned their chimping into an uncontrollable habit that leads to any of the cons mentioned above. If you want to unlearn chimping, or simply prevent it from setting in, here are a few techniques you can use instead.
Don’t Forget about the Top LCD Screen
Though many consider it an unnecessary holdover from the film days, the top LCD screen of countless DSLRs and MILCs actually serves a very useful role.
Like your larger rear monitor, it allows you to grab an immediate reference of your camera settings and exposure information. However, the top LCD is a lot more discreet and barely uses any battery power compared to the rear one.
Of course, you can’t view your images directly on it. But on some cameras, you might be able to use the top LCD to display a histogram, further increasing the utility of this oft-neglected tool.
Trust the Process
Many resort to chimping because they’re unsure of how their photos might turn out. Did I accidentally blow out the highlights on this portrait? Was the aperture just a tad too small? Did I leave the subject out of focus by mistake?
Questions like these are the ones that can make a photographer go truly mad with worry and perfectionism. Chimping is a valid response to such feelings. Sometimes, it might even save you!
Most of the time though, worrying about small things like this only obscures the bigger picture. Whether as a landscape photographer or when documenting local sports events, important moments will not wait for you to play catch-up.
In other words, the time you spend worrying – and using chimping to dispel your worries – might very well make you miss out on some good photos.
Learning to trust the process is a difficult thing. You need to learn to think about the next photo instead of falling into the cycle of shooting and reviewing. However, with some diligence and self-discipline, you might discover that the need for chimping was a lot less severe than it felt at first.
Remember: great images come from important moments and genuine real-life scenes, not from memorizing every minor setting of your camera to perfection.
Consider Picking up Film
As a photographer’s antidote to the curse of perfectionist thinking, almost no remedy is recommended more often than film photography.
For sure, experimenting with film makes sense for a lot of people. Small things, like the 36-shot limit on a 35mm roll, can indeed make a gigantic difference to your creative flow.
Shooting film on a vintage manual camera can further help you by simplifying your approach. Many film cameras are a lot less complex than today’s DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. You will find that all essential settings are either on the lens or on the top plate.
The more simplistic, slower, and more thoughtful process of film can have therapeutic effects on many digital photographers accustomed to a “spray and chimp” shooting style.
In any case, film will make you think outside the box and could well widen your comfort zone, so why not try it out?
Finding Where Chimping Fits Into Your Process
Ultimately, you can’t say unanimously that chimping is either a good or bad thing. In the end, it’s a simple, benign habit, just like any of the other things we photographers like to do on a working day, most of them subconsciously.
It is how you utilize chimping in your work that really makes the biggest difference. Is it an excuse for you to be sloppy with your technique, hoping that one out of a hundred images will turn out the way you want it to? Is it a way for you to rely more on the out-of-camera experience rather than polishing your work in post-processing?
Or is it rather a source of peace of mind, reassuring you of your camera settings as you’re still learning? Only by being honest with yourself about how you’re using chimping can you decide whether it’s time to keep or break the habit.
Until then, keep shooting, and have fun!