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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!

David Bickley's picture

Award winning photographer, Fstoppers writer and entrepreneurial consultant David Bickley is wholly engaged in helping people become more. Be it more confident via the portraits and fitness photos that brought him world-wide recognition, or more profitable in business through mentoring... David lives to bring his client's voice out into the world.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

i fully agree with whats being said here. I learned on film and its was very important to make sure you were looking at that meter correct. I know that i look at the back way to much. So i accept this challenge and will shoot some stuff tonight. Should be interesting as i dont have any thing other than the golf corse behind my house to shoot. Maybe there will be some people playing and i can bust out the zoom.

Proper exposure is based on objective measurement (metering) combined with the identification of subjective color relationships. The color relationships (including B&W) in a scene must always be verified empirically because they are the most prone to changes in framing and lighting. For example, if a photographer does the proper zone system testing for his film/sensor tone curve then the tonal value for the representation of white-with-detail will always be placed at exactly zone 7. However, the determination of what constitutes the tonal value for white in a scene is dependent on the relationship of subject matter, framing and lighting. So while the metering and placement of tonal values remains constant, the relationships between what constitutes the values is always in flux.

Chimping might be unnecessary for people that have turned their photography into a formula. For example, Ansel Adams didn't need to chimp because he always shot the same familiar landscape subjects in the same familiar lighting scenarios. Undoubtedly, he got a feel for the right exposure after lots of practice over time. But, most people (and especially newbs) that are constantly working with different subject matter while experimenting with new angles and lighting must be able to verify the changing color relationships visually. In the latter case, chimping is actually necessary for verification and anybody that doesn't do it will get an imprecise exposure.

The only problem I've seen with most people that chimp is that they aren't even chimping the right exposure! In other words, they never really learned how to take a proper exposure in the first place and don't know how to verify it visually even when they see it on an LCD. Also, it's not possible to truly get a proper exposure while relying solely on metering without first testing for the unique tone curve of the camera lens + film/sensor combination. Anybody that says differently is a hack.

Chimping lets you also ask the creative questions, such as "will the photo actually be better with 'incorrect' exposure that blow out the background?" Something that might actually ruin a film shoot.

that's a great point

I recently started a photo project like this: http://36xp.us/ I have a bit more restrictions in place and I've only shot the first 36 photos but I cant wait to see where this project takes me. Its definitely a different approach when you can't see what you've shot right away.

One use for chimping that nobody seems to talk about it when you use it to compensate for your viewfinder not presenting 100% of the scene.

Another use for chimping: I usually take a small series of shots without chimping, but whenever I do a major pose change or lighting change, I test a few shots, chimp, tweak, then run with a series. I use this opportunity to show the model the most successful shots, which usually engages them more and gets them confident and comfortable.

It's a tool, not good or bad.

When you go golfing and someone takes 10 practice swings before moving in for the real shot, it gets old fast. Same with chimping. When you go golfing and someone takes one or two practice swings, then just nails one, it never gets old. Same with chimping.

Yes, it is important to know your lighting, know your techniques, know when to use what, but chimping allows you to hone in on the one variable with all people shooting: the subject. I can always tell, without chimping, if a pose is working, but chimping allows a great level of fine-tuning to the pose that is the functional equivalent of a polaroid back from the old days. Sans cost.

While you're looking at the back of your camera, I'm getting a shot. A big reason why I love shooting film (I do own and use a 5D Mark II and 5D Mark III as well for other shooting) is because I can slow down a bit, focus on what I'm doing and shoot, it's as simple as it gets and let's me stay focused. I hate looking at the back of the screen/camera. Hate it. I usually have that feature turned off on my digital cameras because I find it somewhat annoying.

I'd rather bust out my RZ67 Pro II than my Mark III, any day, any job, any which way. :)

After moving to digital back in the 90's and not really having Ps to do post work. I realized at that time there were going to he inherent risks (as it were) to making this move. Chimping and Deleting being one of them..It just makes you lazy. I've never enabled preview on any body since my original D1x.

Do I check for correct comp? Sure I do, I'd by lying if I said otherwise. But in large part I agree with the article. There is a lot of emphasis placed post work. Much more than we were ever capable of standing in a darkroom for hours smelling like a chemical pot and being blinded leaving the light trap door. It is what it is....people have taken this craft down roads that in some people's opinions, just should never been traveled. With iPhone pictures, lens-babys, and just bad photography.

Everyone is a professional anymore. If you have a camera, a stock lens and the ability to host a site. You know it all, have done it all....And who can argue with it? It's all artistic taste, right ?

I just spoke with the person that used to work in Photo Lab. Most of her work was: "two plus; one minus; two minus; etc..." And photographers were happy with their pictures that they "made right in camera".
Of course, there are also professionals who really know their craft, but they probably don't spend time reading blogs ;)

You could even say to take it a step further and just go get some proof prints. I shoot film all the time, and one aspect about it that I love is getting the proof prints back from the lab. There is nothing quite like feeling the prints of your own photographs.

I agree with you completely...We should take pride in our work from the begging to end! Photoshop should only be use to finalize the image, not create it.

Well, I use film so there is no chimping. :D