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Metering Vs. Chimping

Posted by Greg Blue on Monday, September 28th, 2015

I first saw the term “chimping” while browsing through the Strobist blog (a very good blog on studio lighting that I recommend checking out – it’s at www.strobist.com). At first I was baffled and then worried that I was unaware of some critical lighting procedure called chimping. I asked a photojournalist friend of mine, Christopher Morris, he just laughed and explained it’s a term sometimes used by sports photographers who are often in a position where they cannot control the lighting and environment. So they keep adjusting their cameras until they find the sweet spot – the term “chimping” describes their expressions as they get progressively more excited by the results. For a day or two, chimping became my favourite term ever – that said, I will never chimp in front of another person (or on my own for that matter).

I’ve seen the term often since then and particularly in relation to a video tutorial I saw on studio lighting (although I don’t think the presenter actually used the term chimping). In this video, the photographer stated that he did not feel that hand-held meters or issues like ratios were that important now and it was easier to simply shoot, look at the image on your camera, and adjust the lights accordingly. I disagree with that statement, but before I explain why I disagree, I am going to spend a bit of time defending his statement.

First off, I may have misinterpreted what he said – he may have been saying that using a meter in that particular scenario made no sense rather than saying he felt that hand held meters were no longer useful on a whole. The next thing I would like to point out is that this statement came from a photographer who clearly knows what he is talking about – the photographer is a veteran shooter who has an obvious deep understanding of photography and lighting. His body of work is superb and he is clearly a very good instructor as well. And to be honest, his statement made perfect sense to me and I clearly understand why he feels that way – but I still disagree with his statement.

The photographer mentioned above clearly doesn’t need a meter – he’s been shooting for years and knows exactly what he is doing. I’d be the first to admit there have been many times where I have not bothered to use a hand-held meter because it was faster to simply fire the strobe and make a quick adjustment based on the image. When I’m painting with light, I almost never use a meter because I know exactly what my exposure readings will be. However, this was a video aimed at new photographers, and I don’t agree that suggesting they ignore hand held metering techniques is a good idea.

Hand held meters are like the Canary in the Coalmine – you can only understand how to fully use a hand held meter (meaning both incidence and reflective readings, along with ratios) if you have a clear understanding of lighting theory. I’m not saying that understanding meters is the only way to understand light theory, but understanding meters absolutely teaches you how to look at tones and contrast from a very valuable perspective. There are times when hand held meters are also simply the practical approach to use – for example, when I am metering background gradations such as the image below. You can view the tutorial to this image here.

Beauty Queen © Greg Blue

Beauty Queen © Greg Blue 2015

In this shot, it was far easier for me to use my reflective adapter to meter the background while I was there and trigger the strobes with my Pocket Wizard. The meter told me exactly what was happening with my background and I was able to refine it while I was there with the light rather than having to run back to my camera. When I took the first test shot, the background was pretty much exactly what I wanted. Not only did my meter tell me exactly how large the back burst would be and where it would fade to black, but it actually told me exactly what the colour would look like. Not because I was using a colour meter, but because I perform a very quick test with my hand held meter on every colour gel I own – this means I know exactly how a colour gel will look when I expose it in a particular way. It can be really encouraging to your clients when you set up your lights, take a few meter readings and, bang! The shot looks exactly like what you had agreed upon ahead of time.

Hand held meters can also be invaluable when you are on location in bright sunlight. Under such conditions, it can be very difficult to judge your image based on the screen at the back of your camera, even if you have a Hoodman. Certianly you can look at the histogram, but that will only give you the indication of whether you are blowing out your white, blocking up your blacks, or if the shot is predominantly high-key or low-key. The histogram cannot show you subtle and critical contrast on different areas of your shot – a hand held meter can do that.

I would not agree with any statement that suggests or could be interpreted in a way that states new photographers should ignore highly valuable knowledge. There seems to be a growing trend among new photographers to find the easiest and most quick fix solutions possible to photography and lighting – I even see occasional traces of this where I teach at Langara (and this is among students who clearly want to learn everything there is to know about photography).

Quick fix solutions, or only learning techniques rather than deep theory can only offer you limited artistic options – you simply will not have the tools and knowledge in order to freely exercise your creativity. It will often mean not having the ability to execute properly on your ideas – I’ve seen this thousands of times with students who are still at an early stage – they can recognize superb work, they often have fantastic ideas, but they feel the constant frustration of not yet being able to execute their ideas to the standard they want. With practice and study, that frustration soon disappears and their work becomes inspiring!

When you understand lighting and production in a deep way, there will be no need to chimp (at least never when you’re in a studio or on location where you can light the set). When you understand issues of theory and production you will very likely become a superb photographic problem solver who is highly sought after by clients.

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Metering Vs. Chimping
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Metering Vs. Chimping
Metering Vs. Chimping - I first saw the term “chimping” while browsing through the Strobist blog (a very good blog on studio lighting that I recommend checking

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