Should You Still Be Chimping?

In digital photography, chimping is when you take a photograph, look at the LCD screen, and then adjust your exposure settings (ISO, aperture, shutter speed) if they are a bit off. In this article, I will tell you why you shouldn’t be doing this.

What is a Lightmeter

A bit of photography basics here but the exposure of an image is adjusted with aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. Each of these can make an image darker or brighter, but each also comes with secondary and tertiary effects such as grain/noise, depth of field, etc. To expose an image correctly, you have to not only balance each of these three values, but also figure out how adjusting a particular value will change the aesthetic qualities of the image because of the secondary effects of that given value.

As an example, if I want more light and make the aperture wider then the depth of field becomes narrower. This is great if I’m happy for the background to be out of focus, but if I want everything sharp and in focus, I’m probably better off increasing ISO instead. Of course, this comes with the detriment of having more noise.

Most digital photographers will lock in two values ​​and then figure out what the third one is. So for example, if I’m shooting a portrait outdoors and it’s bright and sunny, I’ll start by keeping the ISO low at 100 because I want to minimize grain. Next, I’ll consider how much of the foreground, subject, and background I want to focus and adjust aperture; for me I don’t like things to go extremely blurry so usually somewhere between f/5.6 and f/11 is a good place to sit. This means that my “wiggle room” is only for shutter speed, for which I consider the reciprocal rule; on the 85mm I’d not go over 1/100sec. Usually outdoors on a bright sunny day though, I can probably bring the shutter speed to be much shorter than this. There is a bit more to this with consideration to lens length and the reciprocal rule, but that’s probably outside the confines of this example. I guess my point is, I tend to think more in terms of ISO, then f-stop, then shutter speed. If this weren’t enough, I’d probably come back to ISO and adjust that when I couldn’t adjust shutter speed any further.

This is all fine and good where I can take an image, see what the exposure is like, and then adjust as needed. What a light meter does is I can simply put in two of the most important values, and it will tell me the exact input for the third value.

Why You Shouldn’t Chimp

If you’re using one or two lights or are outdoors, you can absolutely chimp if you are shooting digitally. Generally, with modern sensors, you can get away with being even a half stop or a stop off of your exposure and then just adjust afterwards in Capture One (or Lightroom).

When working with multiple lights in a studio setting, I find myself often “building up” the lights. This means that instead of having multiple lights turned on all at once, I’ll put one light on, see what it looks like and figure out what power it needs to be at. Once I’m satisfied with that one light, I’ll turn the next one on. So on and so forth until I have all the lights I wanted on for that scene.

As soon as you start adding three or four or more lights, things become complicated though. This issue is only further compounded if you are mixing strobes with continuous light. If power on one light is a little wrong from where you need it, it becomes difficult to figure out which light needs adjusting.

Chimping With Film

Over the pandemic lockdowns, I had the luxury to work from home. I also had the luxury of a lot more time on my hands and slowly but surely built up a film kit. My bright idea was that I could figure out the exposure on my digital camera, and then simply copy those settings over to the film camera. This was great, in theory, but in practice, I wouldn’t recommend it. Me being me and loving to jump into the deep end, I started out on a large format camera and working at those sizes, between film, developing lab costs, and getting the images scanned, a slight mistake on exposure costs over $40 per image. That is not a fun place to be, I don’t want to be there.

As soon as I purchased a light meter (albeit two years in), the difference in correctly exposed images was immediately noticeable. Every single image I metered with a light meter was correctly exposed! I simply put in the film speed and the aperture I wanted to photograph at and voila! This is what the studio light settings should be. Or alternatively, voila! This is what the exposure time should be when shooting outdoors. It was magic. Well, actually it was light meter technology at work.

Conclusion

Chimping is something we’re all guilty of. I’m certainly not one to look down from my light meter high horse, I’ve only been on it for two months. My point isn’t so much to tell anyone what to do; but rather highlight the few situations where having a light meter is much better than not having it. I still chimp when I’m shooting simple setups strictly digitally. But when I work with more complicated setups or am shooting on film, the capabilities inherent with using a light meter are not only obviously apparent, but crucially important for a more streamlined workflow.

I guess it really comes down to how and what you are shooting. As someone who entered photography on any serious level through digital cameras, light meters are still this great new thing. I imagine someone who started natively in analog and film would have different opinions.

Do you use a light meter in your workflow? Why or why not?

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