Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Some Thoughts on Chimping

Chimping is the derogatory term used by some professional photojournalists to describe the act of looking at your digital photographs on the back of your camera while you are still in the situation you are photographing. The gist it is that you are so impressed with the photographs that you are making that you have to stop and oooh and ahhh over them, missing the action that is still unfolding around you. And it is true that it is hard to make good pictures while looking at the back of your camera, so for that time you are effectively removed from the act of composing and exposing. But reviewing work as it is being made isn't entirely a bad thing and it is worth looking back at how photojournalism evolved technically to see why the word 'chimping' might have such derogatory connotations and the new opportunities that this derogatory attitude is overlooking.

To understand it better we need to understand the separate and reciprocal relationship between picture making and picture editing. Most workaday photojournalism has been done in search of the one hero image that stands out from the rest on the contact sheet or on the screen and is selected to run alone in a newspaper or on the wire. If you are looking to make that image, you shoot a lot, and constantly, and then when the action is over, you sit down to go through the images, culling out the strongest frames and eventually arriving at the best images. Best meaning most marketable or most likely to be published.

In the analog world, editing and photographing are two related but separate practices. Photographing takes place out in the action where events are taking place in real time. Images are recorded on film, but only exist as potential pictures in the camera, still waiting to be processed and realized as actual visual realities. In the field they are simply stored away in darkness and it is up to the photographer to remember and record sequences and images, building on what she or he thinks exists in the exposed but undeveloped film.

Once the images are processed, they can be reviewed together in their entirety and the editing process begins. With all the images present, the most useful images are selected and sequenced. But, since the process has taken the editing away from the action in both time and place, there is much less opportunity to fill in holes.

Frequently images are remembered as stronger than they are, or images that were not impressive immediately upon the making come out in the editing process as being major events in the body of work. In either case, there is little that can be done to build on or correct these unexpected turns in the photographs.

In the analog world the editing is a strong learning process, one that photographers should have to go through to refine their working method. Separating photo making and photo editing has great benefits for developing a strong eye and a consistent vision. It gives time for the images to sink in, for the photographer to learn from them, to digest the lessons and think about what to do next. Within the immediacy of the digital process, much of this reflection can be easily lost. That immediacy does however offer some new advantages going forward.

Digital cameras have collapsed the distance between making and editing to the point that they can occur in tandem. This is of real value for the photographer who has a strong sense of both editing and field work. If you are simply looking to make the hero image, then this editing process is perhaps less relevant. But digital publishing has opened up the distribution possibilities for larger bodies of work, and photo essays of 1 image or of 10 images or even 100 images have roughly the same media barriers to dissemination. In other words, the market is ready and able to publish a lot more images for a massively reduced cost in distribution. The larger essay has much more value today because it shows so much more than the single image. Photographers need to be thinking in these terms.

Every body of work when it is done has weak points, areas where the photographer wishes she or he had added something, included more of a particular aspect or explored more deeply a part of the work. By reviewing work as it is being made, those weak points can be potentially identified and filled in or strengthened as the work is being developed--so long as the photographer has a clear idea of how to build a larger scale essay and is able to keep the distinction clear between editing and photographing, even while doing both at the same time.

That skill has a significant learning curve to it, one that I think is best explored by carefully practicing the image making and the editing at separate times, learning from each. But the realities are that we need also to make the best use of our technology as it works for us. Editing as part of the process is the best evolution of digital technology and it offers the most possibility for the photographer who has both editing and picture making skills. If done well in the field, the final work is stronger and more complete, building on itself rather than exclusively on the memory of the photographer in the moment. Finding a working balance between making and editing in camera is both the challenge and the way of the future.


Tammy M. said...

I agree.

suttonhoo said...

hadn't heard this expression before -- it's perfect.