Photographers are pretty good at coming up with creative, self-deprecating insults. From GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) to pixel peeping, just look on any photography forum today and you’ll find a new term that makes you smile and cringe at the same time. One of my personal favorites is chimping – a word that describes photographers who review their photos too frequently, often at the worst of times. But perhaps chimping doesn’t fully deserve the bad reputation it has.
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What Is Chimping?
Chimping is another word for reviewing photos immediately after taking them – usually when you’re still out on location with an interesting scene in front of you. Almost everyone has practiced chimping at some point, unless you’re an all-film photographer. But it’s still looked down upon by photographers as a whole.
If you’ve ever wondered why it’s called chimping, it’s meant to be based on the “Ooh, ooh, ooh!” sounds photographers make when they review a good photo they’ve just taken. I don’t know anyone who actually sounds like a chimp when reviewing photos, but you have to admit, it’s a catchy name. (Some say that it’s based on a shortened version of “Checking Image Preview,” if you prefer the boring possibility.)
Why Chimping Has a Bad Reputation
The “distracted photographer” is almost a cliche today. They’re always looking down at their most recent photo, never out at the scene in front of them. You’ll periodically see images of a photographer at the Olympics or another major sporting event who missed the perfect moment because they’re staring at their LCD.
Chimping sounds silly, but it can be heart wrenching if it costs you a shot. Think of the wildlife photographer who sits for hours waiting for the right moment, then misses it because they looked away at the wrong time. Or the landscape photographer who reviews their earlier photos while waiting for the light to change, only to end up with a dead battery when it matters the most.
Along the same lines, if you have a habit of chimping after every good photo you take, it might come back to bite you at an important moment. It’s like photographers who say “Ooh, ooh, ooh!” to congratulate themselves at the wrong time. Chimping has its uses, but it sometimes functions as nothing more than a premature reward.
But It Isn’t All Bad
Sure, chimping has a negative reputation, but that doesn’t mean you should tape over your LCD. Sometimes, reviewing photos is the best thing you can do to improve your shots in the field. That’s really one of the main benefits of digital photography compared to film – a way to correct your mistakes in the field when you still have a chance.
So although it’s a bad idea to chimp when you’re photographing fast action, it can be a very useful technique for slower-moving scenes. Some photographers will tell you that even a slow-moving scene could change rapidly, and that’s true; you should always be prepared. But sometimes being prepared means taking advantage of every available tool to make the next shot as good as possible.
Some large-format film photographers used to carry along a polaroid instant camera for this exact purpose – seeing how the final photo would appear, at least roughly. Photographers using the same equipment today generally prefer a phone or compact camera for the same purpose, but the underlying idea is the same. There’s no better time to improve a bad photo than when you’re still out in the field.
Confession Time: I’m a Chimper
I’ve hinted at it so far in this article, but I think it’s time to be fully transparent – I’m a chimper. Always have been, probably always will be.
I’m sure this has gotten me in trouble a couple times, although I can’t think of a specific case off the top of my head (maybe because the amazing event happened so quickly I never even saw it). At a minimum, I know that my battery life isn’t as good when I chimp heavily, and that’s definitely contributed to some missed shots over the years.
Then again, some parts of photography are inherently about tradeoffs, and I think chimping is one of them. Often, it’s worth spending the time to improve your next photo even if you’re not capturing anything new in the interim. Think of it like a landscape photographer who runs from a good foreground to a better one during good light; they might miss some shots along the way, but the tradeoff has a good chance of being worthwhile.
At the end of the day, “to chimp or not to chimp” is a bit of a false dilemma. In many cases, there’s no harm to it at all, since the chances of anything crazy happening while you wait are very low. Sometimes it can be downright silly not to chimp, like in a studio where you have as much downtime as you need from shot to shot. Many studio photographers shoot tethered to a laptop for this exact reason – chimping on steroids.
But if you’re in the middle of an amazing moment, and you don’t think it will last long, you would be crazy to start reviewing photos before it’s over! The same goes for a wedding or other event during the most important moments. If you chimp in cases like that, it could be a big disaster. That shouldn’t surprise most photographers, though, and frankly I don’t think very many people actually make this mistake.
Like all things in photography, it’s best to strike a balance. I’m probably a bigger proponent of chimping than most photographers are, but so long as you keep both sides of the coin in mind – avoiding distractions without limiting the tools at your disposal – you’re on the right track. And if you hadn’t heard of chimping before, now you know another interesting photography term to throw around in the right company.