On Chimping

First, let’s check that you know what it means to chimp. When you take a photo with your digital camera do you check it out on the camera’s screen? You’re chimping. Do you shoot a pile of images and then sit down somewhere and check out the images on the screen? You’re chimping. Alright then, we’ve all chimped at one point or another and this isn’t going to be an accusative article, more of an examination of why we are given to chimp.

First of all the default on many cameras is to display the image you jus took for a short period of time, typically a few seconds - the camera manufacturer wants you to chimp. I suppose it’s a reassuring (patronizing?) decision on the part of the camera maker to show you that what you just did worked, and in actual fact the behaviour, even after you’ve found the setting and turned it off is much the same.

Is it so bad? Let’s just put it out there that everyone does it at some point or another. The problem with being able to see what you just did is that you stop paying attention to what you’re doing in the moment. Is that so bad? Well, in a word — yes. (and no). It really depends on what kind of a photographer you are and how seriously you take your work.

I will say that when I’m in remote places that showing people the image on the back of the camera some in handy and is a great ice-breaker. It’s certainly easier than carrying a tiny printer and supplies all over the place and less expensive than polaroid film. Is that champing? Now there’s a question. Maybe.

Look, if you shoot digital you’re going to chimp at some point (as if you don’t already right?) but I’m going to make a point about getting better as a photographer and trusting your instincts, hopefully making a case against being a chimp in the process. Deal? (good)

Your digital camera (whatever it is) is a marvel of technology, a high resolution, handheld scanner of incredible complexity. Think back before there was digital. When we used film and still, the cameras were (and are) marvels of technology. The difference? You can’t chimp with a 35mm / 120 film camera. Mind you, we had polaroid and in its day that was the equivalent of chimping. Still, if you travelled with a camera and you pretty much had to trust your skills and intuition until you developed and printed the negs. So why can’t you do that now with a digital camera? Actually, you can… if you have the willpower.

Try this. Head out for a day of shooting and put a black card over your rear screen; no peeking! Spend the day making images, go home and transfer them to Lightroom. Then and only then take a look at what you did for the day. Lightroom is the digital replacement for the darkroom (hence the catchy name) and it’s a challenge to see if you can do it.

I freely admit to chimping when I started. It was neat to see the image, sort of like peeking under the wrapping paper at the holidays, but I found that it did get in the way and that I could live without it and frankly, if I could afford it I’d buy one of the Leica anniverrsary editions that has no screen on the back — I just have better places to spend 19,000.00 ++ (and that doesn’t include the 11,000.00 lens).

I’m not going to build some pompous list of why you shouldn’t chimp. Hey, if it’s your thing and it makes you happy I say go for it, but I would urge you to try not to and to instead focus on being present and making better images. Let the results you get be a reward at the end of the day.


  1. Food for thought, Byron. I hear often from She Whom I Love of the dangers of observing the moment vs "being in the moment".

    Against the black card experiment in my case: my consumer DSLR shows some settings on the back screen more easily than in viewfinder - I frequently shoot Program but underexpose 2/3 stop or overexpose a stop, etc. as a shortcut for sunlit subject, snowy scene etc. I've taken batches of badly-exposed pictures when I forgot to put the settings back to default the previous time. I like a quick check of the first shot for reassurance, THEN immerse in composition, and review all the shots later on.

    So: I'll give it a try, but not when the event is "one try, no do-overs"!


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