About Thomas Fitzgerald

Thomas is a professional fine art photographer and writer specialising in photography related instructional books as well as travel writing and street photography. 

I Chimp and I’m Proud

I Chimp and I’m Proud

I have a secret. I little secret that I’ve kept for so long. I’m so ashamed and the guilt is tearing me apart. I just have to come clean… Actually, none of that is really true. It’s not really a secret and I’m neither ashamed nor do I feel guilty. You see, when I’m taking photos, I check the shots on my camera’s screen. There, I said it! I’m one of those people. I’m a chimper. And I couldn’t care less.

“Chimping” is one of those phrases that some photographers like to throw around with an air of superiority and a hint of condescension so they can talk down to other photographers, because they’re a “real” photographer, and real photographers never chimp.

In case you don’t know, “chimping” isn’t some weird monkey fetish, but it’s a derogatory term come up with by some to describe those who check their photos on their camera screens. It’s become such a trope that its pervasive everywhere in the photography community. Not a day goes by that some new article or youtube video pops up somewhere warning us of the evils of chimping.

It’s also almost totally bullshit.

To understand why, we must go back and look at the origins of the phrase. Back when digital cameras were relatively new, the name chimping was born to describe people who spend more time looking at their camera screens than they do actually taking photos. The actual word “chimping” was used to describe people looking a their photos going “oh oh oh ah ah ah” (chimpanzee sound). At the time, screens were a novelty, and there was still a sense of entitlement among hard core film photographers that they were “real” photographers and anyone shooting digital wasn’t serious. And so this became a handy way do differentiate. Because the “real” photographers (i.e. film) never had a screen to look at, those looking at the screen were somehow inferior.

But not everyone believed so at the time. There was a degree of a backlash, and I remember reading a quote from a professional at the time writing for sports illustrated (I can’t find the exact quote now, so forgive the paraphrasing) who said that they couldn’t understand the complaints, and that being able to check your work there and then without having to wait was one of the greatest advances in photography since the invention of the single lens reflex.

Somehow the meaning of the term “chimping” changed over the years and now many use it to mean ever checking your screen or ever reviewing your shots on the camera. The idea is that if you look at your screen you’ll miss “the shot”. They’ll even tell you that you should turn your screen off in your cameras menus. While there is a nugget of truth to this if you’re a sports photographer or a journalist shooting in a war zone for example (although, in the latter case you might have bigger things to worry about) for the average photographer, things aren’t so hectic that you go around with you camera constantly up to your eye in a heightened sense of awareness like a gazelle that wandered into a lion enclosure. Any split second away not being super focussed on whats happening through your lens might make you miss the perfect photo!

I mean, when you think about it it’s kind of ridiculous.

“But Wait!” I hear you say, “no one chimped in the film days, so there’s no reason you should chimp now, right?”

Well, that’s not exactly true.

When people shot medium format cameras, on commercial or fashion shoots, they would often use a polaroid back to check the exposure and composition, before committing the shot to film. This was basically a form of chimping. It was more important to do everything possible to make sure the hundreds or thousands of dollars spent on the shoot weren’t wasted and the shot was the best it could be. No one on any of these shoots ever questioned the professionalism of the photographer for double checking everything with a test shot on polaroid. And yet, checking your screen is essentially doing the same thing, but it’s somehow taboo?

“But surely today’s professionals don’t chimp, right?”

Yes they do. All the time. If you’re ever on a commercial shoot, especially in a studio setup, the photographer is often shooting tethered. This way they can check that everything is ok, and not on the small camera screen, but on a laptop or sometimes a large production monitor. Not only that, but often the clients, and other people not he team will comment on the shot, and then any refinements to the process can be made there and then. Once again, and I can’t emphasise this enough, the most important thing for a professional photographer is getting the shot. Ideology really doesn’t matter. When you’re spending thousands of dollars an hour, you don’t leave anything to chance, and you use every tool at your disposal to make sure the shot is correct”.

“But when professional photographers aren’t in the studio, they never chimp out in the field, right?”

Wrong again. I’ve watched dozens of online courses and many many other documentaries about photography. I’m not talking about You Tube videos either, I’m talking courses and videos from award winning, high end professional photographers. The type who shoot for Time magazine, or National Geographic, Vogue or other high end publications. In almost every video, you’ll see them regularly checking the shots on the back of the camera. And why wouldn’t they? If you have a paid client, it’s way more important to make sure the shot is correct, that the exposure is nailed, and that there isn’t some weird technical glitch than being able to say you didn’t chimp.

I watched one course from an un-named photographer who spent 5 minutes ranting about the evils of chimping. 10 minuets later he was demonstrating some technique and there he was checking his screen.

“But wait, I was told that checking your screen made you a terrible photographer. I mean it’s all over the internet, so it must be true, right?”

No. In fact the opposite is probably true. If you’re shooting for a paid client, and you never check your results you’re not a better photographer, you’re an irresponsible one. Even the best photographers can make mistakes. Even the best gear can occasionally malfunction. Imagine there is a problem with your lens. The autofocus is off, but just a little, so you don’t notice in the viewfinder. You go through a whole shoot for a client, but you never once check your screen to make sure the shots are sharp. You get back to your computer, and when looking at the photos you now realise that they’re all out of focus, and unusable. What are you going to tell the client?

“Sorry, but at least I didn’t chimp! I'm still getting paid? Right?”

This might sound like a far fetched scenario, but there was a famous story (more like infamous) a few years ago, about a Leica photographer who had their screen turned off, and did a whole shoot with the lens cap on and never noticed. Obviously that’s an extreme, and extremely specific situation, but it would have been solved by looking at his screen just once.

When I’m out taking photos, I’ll periodically check my screen to make sure its ok. I don’t check every shot if something is happening in front of me, but if something is good, or its something is important, I’ll make sure its ok, and that my focus and composition was bang on before I move on. This doesn’t make me a bad photographer. If my photographs are bad, and many are, it’s not because I looked at my screen occasionally, its because I wasn’t careful, or I didn’t frame it right, or because I’m just not that great of a photographer to begin with. Leaving it up to chance won’t make me a better one.

If you don’t want to check your screen, thats your prerogative and I’ve nothing against you for doing that. But people who make a point of lecturing others on the evils of chimping, aren’t better photographers, they just have bigger egos. This trope needs to end, because it’s not true, it’s misleading and its patronising. It is a great way to sound superior on YouTube though, I’ll give you that.

So there is my secret. My confession. I’m not ashamed to admit it.

I chimp and I’m proud.

Cover Image by Thomas William via Unsplash

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