What If You Couldn't Chimp? What If You Couldn't Edit?

What If You Couldn't Chimp? What If You Couldn't Edit?

It occurred to me today that the vast majority of modern photographers are completely dependent on the perks of technology to make their images. Of course even in the darkroom there is a certain level of "tweakability" but never before have we been able to do the things we can now. The phrase "fix it in post" is so commonplace today that everyone assumes that we can alter the very fabric of reality in Photoshop...and while that may be true, it's the wrong mentality in my opinion. Thinking this way enables us to become lazy in the studio. Rather than making sure the shot is as perfect as it can possibly be in the camera, many photographers rely on post processing to make it work.

Now before you jump on the flame wagon let me clarify. Of course there are commercial jobs that require extensive retouching, and effects that digital can't reproduce without post processing because guess what? We aren't using film anymore. Light leaks, double exposures and expired film don't play a role in digital photography. I get that. What I'm talking about here are poorly exposed images. A simple problem to fix that goes unresolved for no good reason. Rather than take half a second to adjust the exposure the tendency is to fire away and fix it later. Don't deny it, we're all guilty of this at some point. Not only that but today's photographer can't progress through a shoot without chimping every 5th shot. Now why would I harp on chimping? Shouldn't we use the ability to check our shots now that we can? After all isn't that basically the same as shooting a polaroid?

Yes we should, and yes it is. However, I think it's used less as an exposure check and as more of a crutch. Checking your shots every once in a while is good, it can help you catch things like misfiring lights or focusing issues. Yet constantly checking the back of your camera can severely disrupt the flow of a shoot.

Which brings me to the two-part challenge I want to issue to you this week (and please do this outside of a job):

Step 1.) For one day I want you to cover up the LCD on your camera (gaffer's tape, painter's tape or masking tape all work great and won't leave a residue). I want you to commit to taking at least 36 images without being able to check your work. Give yourself the experience of shooting with film again, or for the first time, by blinding yourself to the results.

Step 2.) After you're done, let the images sit for at least day before you load them up on the computer...just like if you sent them off to the lab. Then no matter how good or bad they are, do NOT adjust them. No actions, no presets, nothing.

Yes, I know that step two is more strict than film. Here's the point though: You can still shoot without the tech! You know your craft, you know your gear...so if you can walk fine on your own why rely on crutches? I guarantee that you'll look at that covered LCD at least twice, but I'll also guarantee that you will surprise yourself when you see the images you took this way.

In fact, let's add a third step for those of you brave enough to do it honestly. After you've done this, tell us about what you learned in the comments section below. If you want, post a link to an image from that day and talk about the challenges and successes of it!

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42 Comments

Or shoot real film - even if it's in a disposable camera! Film has an interesting side effect of also pre-committing yourself to particular "editorial effects" (aka post processing filters). Want punchy green colors? Velvia. Fantastic blue/red? Ektar 100.

That being said, modern photography is much more technical than photography of old. There are just so many pictures being taken today that you have to define yourself in a niche. The fact that anyone CAN shoot, chimp, shoot, repeat without end means that we all expect the results thereof.

That's when we'd be much better photographers, no joke

I rarely chimp because I grew up shooting film. I have no need to examine every shot I take on a tiny screen.
Indeed, if I could order my DSLR's from Nikon with no JPEG funtionality and no screen then I would do - ideally with a High Eyepoint finder like the F3 used to have too!

Yeah, I never shoot JPEG. However, I find the screen invaluable for meticulously detailed adjustments of composition. I can't say I chimp on every shot, but I like to get a sense of what I am getting in the camera.

Mark Kauzlarich's picture

I chimp occasionally and recently wondered to myself if I could do my job if I didn't shoot digital. I feel that I have an eye, though, and frankly, I can't go back in time to when I was 13 and the digital revolution happened and make myself a seasoned film photographer with 20 years experience prior, just so all the older shooters don't look at me like some young scrub who "doesn't know what it was like." The best I can do is not lean on my equipment like a crutch and turn out good work. That's good enough for me.

Also, apparently someone else read a recent thread on Sports Shooter? This idea was conveyed VERY similarly on SS recently.

It's a valid question, even those of us that started in film have gotten sloppy because of the perks of digital.

The idea came from a book I read a few years ago and an assignment I gave my students at a work shop in 2010. The challenge isn't uncommon though.

Nothing but respect David, but "sloppy" is an unnecessarily pejorative word. What you (and I used to) call a sloppy method of working, someone else might call spontaneity.

I believe everyone should try both new and old methods, but in the end, it is what works for you. I am reminded of Edward Weston "guessing" his exposure settings, much to the chagrin of his incredibly methodical friend, Ansel Adams.

Mark Kauzlarich's picture

I think it is a good challenge. I shoot film occasionally. I plan on shooting more in the future. As a journalist, I find the continued use of film fascinating, if somewhat self-serving sometimes.

I know some people say "people don't use film in actuality anymore. Its just not reasonable." Tell that to David Burnett, who shoots with a modified Speed Graphic and Holgas for journalism work. Sure, he's an outlier in skill and renown, and he grew up with the equipment, but he never really used the tools in such a way until recently. Why not do it yourself?

I think what the entirety of this SHOULD boil down to is a "slow down and think" mentality, in any way it takes to get yourself to do that. I like the method above, but I'm looking forward to upcoming travels and potential use of Lomochrome, Holgas, maybe one day an XPan II, or any variety of funky tools that make me rethink how I shoot.

I am not sure I am on board with the sentiment here. I agree that we should not use the tools on a digital camera as a crutch, but the same can be said of anything. Where do we draw the line? One person's crutch is another person's instrument. It all depends on how you use it, when you use it and whether you use it to your advantage.

I am an old film shooter and resisted digital for a good many years, but the quality of photography that is coming out of the digital age is light years ahead of the stuff before (imho— generally speaking). And that comes from being able to look at the image and make adjustments on the fly. Polaroid did not always have a direct relationship to the film you were using, and a histogram is a lot more accurate than a light meter (which I still use to initially set up). Also, I am making more creative decisions based on what I see on the screen, things I would not have even considered until it was too late (models can change what they are doing after seeing the images, as well).

As far as the darkroom is concerned, I have always made considerable adjustments when printing (and developing) film. You always tried to get as good of image in camera as possible to not waste time and paper, but a good portion of my creative decisions came in the darkroom. I would never "straight print" anything unless it was just the first step. I often made considerable exposure adjustments. And there were times that I wished I had given myself another option (not shot with a particular filter, for instance) or had made a disappointing mistake with my exposure. By that time, not only was it too late to correct it, it was often too late to completely understand why I had made the mistake or chosen the wrong filter to begin with (even with notes).

Do I believe that everyone should learn basics? Yes (I never used auto focus until 2006), but I don't believe that using a digital camera stops you from doing that. In fact, having the tools at hand (histograms, previews, clipping warnings, etc.) speeds up the process if you know what you are looking for and why. Learning film style shooting might be a useful exercise to understand your own way of working, but it is not necessarily superior. Chimping can be a distraction, but it can also teach in real time.

i agree with you completely. The real-time feedback is an amazing tool to teach photographic technique and principles. Personally I don't even remember what color my light meter is anymore.

The point is simply to pose a challenge and see what people learn from it, if anything at all. :)

Perhaps I was reading hostility into the post that wasn't there (re-reading it, that seems to be the case). Locking down your photos could be a useful exercise.

I personally had a wake up call a while back. I was originally in the "film technique is better" camp until I was finding myself feeling like my images just weren't as good (technically and creatively) as the people I was working with. I had to humble myself and go to the young whipper-snappers for advice on getting the most from my digital tools. Immediately, I discovered it was my old film techniques that were holding me back. That realization completely changed the way I work, and It is the best thing I ever did.

I think there is certainly something to be gained from this as an exercise or a mental "tool in your toolbelt". Additionally to your point - paying clients are paying for results, and you would look awfully foolish if you had all poorly focused, poorly exposed images and your response was "well I didn't' check them in-camera during the shoot". On the other hand, shooting 10 exposures and hoping that one is interesting will never advance your craft, as you should always be shooting with your artistic composition and technicalities pre-figured out - otherwise you are just counting on luck to make things happen.

I agree. The exercise is good to do as an exercise. Any limitation you give yourself to work around will hone other skills.

I was reading into the article a nostalgia for film shooting that so many of us suffer from. I used to shoot 4x5 and a completely manual medium format camera (I still shoot manual on most things), and I miss the romance of using them, but my work in digital is just so much more creative because I can make minute adjustments in real time.

Sometimes limiting yourself can spark invention. Sometimes it is just limiting.

The image looks pretty racist until you read the post. Who ever drew this took a HUGE risk and not very good with watercolor paint.

Yes that looks nothing like a monkey, even after reading this idiot rant.

Not a rant. A suggestion to try a new exercise and why. You obviously have never seen a rant before.

Retarded post. Remember when camera didn't exist and we had to paint? Get real.

Learning to paint can also teach you a lot about photography.

Surrey Weddings's picture

learn your light meter.... and only press the button when it is worth it

It's great advice to change things up creatively and it can be a cool exercise.

If you want the experience "of shooting with film" by all means go back and rock an F4 and go sniff chemicals in your basement. And can we pick a better term than chimping? Its dopey and doesn't immediately convey the act its trying to describe...

I love that you put this out here and think it's a great exercise. I completely agree with your post and about people way over-chimping. Drives me... bananas. (cue hate mail) I have a friend I sometimes shoot with and EVERY SINGLE SHOT is chimped. Even if no adjustments are made its click-chimp-click-chimp-click-chimp. My daughter even shouted to her one, "Come on, get the shot already!" It's painful to do photography with her.

Yes, there are perfect times to chimp - like you said - to check exposure. I usually fire off a test shot to make sure my settings are what I think they are - then stop looking until a new location or new light. I feel that's enough. But if the light isn't changing, why keep looking? Trust yourself that you know what you're doing. Trust that you know how to set F-stop, app, ISO etc. for a proper exposure.

Personally, I love this challenge and plan to do it this week. I also shoot a Rollei - so the exercise isn't foreign to me - but will be fun to do with the Leica. Thank YOU for posting this out there.

The first thing that came to my mind, reading the post was "a really cool post". I myself rely on chimping to figure out my lighting (don't own a flashmeter). That said, I still own a Yashica FX-D film camera and a Pentax film camera, which I shoot occasionally. Mostly with a black&white film.

As I'm typing this I have 3 film in my fridge, one ASA 100 black and white (for the non film guys that would be ISO 100). A ASA 400 Kodak Portra and an Kodak T-Max ASA 3200 Film, which I will use for some crazy project.

A used film camera with a prime lens costs around 50€ on ebay. If you want the real film experience, don't cover up your Screen or something. Get yourself a film camera instead.

what if you had no camera.. only crayon and paper?
time moves on.. get used to it..

I have an SLT, i always know how the image is gonna look like ;D

The 2-day chimp?

It sounds like this would be a good creative exercise but let's call it what it is...its chimping drawn out over 2 days. You're chimping when you go back to those images the next day and look at them and try to learn from them. The only difference is that its not immediate. If you really wanted to stop chimping then you'd snap the picture and then NEVER look at the images...ever! And that would be stupid because you'd never learn anything because you'd have no feedback.

Great idea to present a personal challenge to get people out of their comfort zone and promote creativity, but don't step on other people in the process.

Reading posts like this makes me wonder if there was anything such thing as a bad photographer before the digital age.

after reading posts like this, i have an impression that america market is so big, that it has a place for so many amateur photographers and that things are really bad out there :).
now i wonder, can oneself call himself a photographer if he can`t exposure a picture properly?

p.s. whats up with the stereotype about film? with film its not "just some leavel of tweakability" , film is absolutely tweakable! you can do almost anything with the film, you just need to learn and know how. its a different work-flow though.

I try not to chimp - I shoot sports and often shoot in bursts at the peak of play and the reactions, so often it's not feasible to go back and chimp 10-15 shots when you have to get ready for the next play. However, when I'm indoors I try to shoot manual (since the light and my aperture don't change) and to get the initial settings right I have to chimp and adjust after every single test shot, and it gets annoying. When it's not in your workflow, it's a hindrance and aggravating - and sometimes you'll miss the next shot. I have a dozen photos of peak action with another photographer in frame chimping their last shot.

After reading this, I realized that I chimp more in some situations and in others not at all. Probably due to my comfort level with the setting/subject. And most often for content/composition (architectural interiors) than exposure-especially when the camera is to close to the wall for me to get my eyeball behind ;)

Bah, +1 on spot metering. Duh.. Get your subject exposed Period.

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