A Curse and a Blessing


One of the best things about the digital era in photography (compared to the analogue film era – for those of us who started there) is the fact that you are able to immediately check the result. You can right away on the image preview screen on the back of the camera see whether you got it or not. With film you were (and still are, of course – film is by no means obsolete) somewhat in limbo and had to wait until the films were developed, at least if you weren’t using Polaroid instant film. Now with the image preview screen, if necessary you can change the exposure or you standpoint or other settings to get the correct or best capture if you missed it the first time.

That’s the blessing of the image preview screen. It’s simply a huge advantage for today’s digital photographers, and can speed up the learning curve and development of the photographer.

But it can also hurt you.

The preview screen can break your concentration. That’s the curse of it. Again and again I see photographers checking the screen – after every captured image, to make sure they got it. In the mean time they miss out the best moment happening while their eyes are on the preview screen. In my workshops I almost always end up telling most participants to stop using the screen – to tape over it or turn it off or at least not check it all the time. If you are photographing a static subject it doesn’t matter, but when you are photographing people or events or on the street, the conditions change all the time – and rapidly. You don’t want to miss out the best picture just because your attention was on the preview screen. Then the preview screen becomes more of a curse than a blessing.

Taping the screen is probably an overkill, but turning it off so it doesn’t pop up after each exposure is a good idea. Then you don’t get inclined to check it all the time. What I usually do is check the screen after the first shot and then go with the setting that works till I am done. Of course sometimes the lighting conditions change and I might have to check again, but I try to keep my eye on the subject as much as possible. Well, I keep it on the viewfinder. The fact is that the more your eye is on the viewfinder, the more you increase your chances of getting the shots you want. I find it distracting when the image pops up after every exposure, and I urge you to turn off the automatic preview screen. You can always review it, simply by tapping the preview button when it’s necessary to check focus, composition and the histogram for the exposure. That way you get the blessing of the preview screen without the curse.

It may take some time to build the confidence to the point where you feel you don’t need to check the screen more than occasionally. When I am in the field and I know what I am looking for, I shoot, shoot and shoot. I want to give my full attention to what is happening in front of me.

A quote by master wildlife photographer Thomas Mangelsen regarding this: «I was with a good friend in the Pantanal in Brazil this summer and I am always giving him a hard time about chimping because we were watching jaguars, they’re rare, they’re endangered, they’re skittish and your opportunity is short. The jaguar would be moving along the river, and I would be looking, looking, looking and I’d look over at my friend and he would be chimping. I caught myself literally yelling at him a couple of times. “You know the jaguar’s here, keep shooting!” But he was so consumed with seeing what he got and his rationale was to look for a mistake, Artikkelforfatteren har fanget en levende alligator.maybe he needs to fix exposure…fair enough. He was chimping and editing in the back of his camera, deleting, deleting, deleting, and I just can’t really tell. I can get the general idea of what I shot on the back of the camera, but I’m not so damn sure there might be something there I don’t want to throw away. I spend my time looking for the good stuff as opposed to deleting the bad stuff. I don’t really care about the bad stuff.»

What better after this quote to end with a picture of myself capturing an alligator in Pantanal. I definitely didn’t have to use the preview screen for this one…

106 thoughts on “A Curse and a Blessing

  1. For me the blessing is you can take loads of shots and then go back and choose the est.. I don’t waste my time checking each shot.. definitely loose the zone!! xx

    1. It’s nice to have the possibility to check the exposure (on the histogram more than the captured picture itself), but yes, I do the exact same thing. Thanks for comment, Lisa.

  2. Great post (as usual), Otto.

    I’m usually so busy taking dozens of photos from every possible angle (as an amateur and relative beginner), that I wouldn’t have time to review each image, even if I could actually see on that tiny LCD screen.

    I vow to only shoot 20-25 images when I go outdoors, but inevitably arrive home & download 150-200 photos and have plenty of choice when reviewing them on the large computer screen.

    It’s surprising how a small change in angle or camera setting, that as a relative beginner I wouldn’t have noticed while outdoors, gives me plenty of choice when deciding the final result on the computer screen. I do give the first shot or two of the day a quick look on the LCD screen though. I have been known to shoot without thinking and ending up with a black screen.

    1. Yes, it doesn’t take much changes, does it for the image to appear totally different. Just a slight movement of angel might be the difference between an OK picture and a great picture. With digital cameras, it’s hard to restrain oneself when shooting – and I don’t think it’s necessary either, although both approaches will work, giving different end results.

  3. Love the alligator shot! I love the fact that digital cameras let me shoot to my heart’s content. I figure there’s always time to fix things later. Good post!

    1. Interestingly enough the camera can get in the way of the creative process. And then again we can live without it, can we? Not if you are a photographer at least. Thanks for the comment, Suzanne!

  4. hi otto, thank you for your tips again.. when i try to photo a certain subject, i try to shoot at different angles because lighting really matters.. i rarely look at the screen, maybe once just to see if the camera is working or not.. for me, the most exciting part is reviewing them on my laptop then that’s the time i’ll choose the best shot that i want to post in my blog.. i love your photo with the alligator.. i noticed that you’re pinning the tail between your legs.. good thing it was on a relaxed state otherwise i think its tail could whip really hard..

    1. Yes, it’s anyway hard to judge the image on the review screen, so getting back and have the pictures come up on a big screen is always rewarding. Thanks for the comment, elizz!

  5. I agree. When I hold the camera in my hands, it takes over. Zen moments transform my mind, and I focus–mostly. But it does depend upon the setting. I find it important to reduce distractions. Your point is valid and good advice.

    1. The point is to focus on the creative process and moment, not the camera. But putting the camera to the eye, makes me focus, too. Well said, Sally!

  6. Great post. I am guilty of doing this repeatedly, I must stop looking at the screen so much. That’s a lovely pet you have there!

  7. That’s the first time I’ve heard the term, “chimping”. Like you I look for the good stuff instead of deleting. Looks like a great time in Brazil!

    1. I never heard about chimping before I came across this statement. And, yes, I did have a great time in Brazil, not only having fun with alligators. Thanks for stopping by, Allen!

  8. My message during my workshops (from which I’ve now retired) was that if you’ve carefully composed your image in the viewfinder there’s absolutely no need to view the screen.

    As Otto says, those of us who started with film had to trust our creative vision, so use your willpower not to chimp. But don’t cover up the viewer because you need it to check that most useful attribute of digital cameras, the histogram… the only reason why you need to look at the back of your camera (unless you’re using liveview).

    1. Thanks, for the comment, George. And, yes, I was only joking about taping the viewer, because indeed being able to use the histogram is one of the advantages of digital photography.

  9. So true. Every word. I decided a long time ago that I was missing too much by checking the results. I now only check the first shot for exposure, color temperature, etc. then let fly until something changes and prompts me to check again.

  10. Otto, great post with a message that needs to be repeated and practiced. I love checking out the details of the photo (mainly the exposure and when necessary a general idea of focus) at the beginning, and then on with the shooting. Getting lost in the scene is the best thing I love about photography…as getting immersed is where you mention you focus on what is in front of you and just let it flow.

  11. Great post, Otto! Your advice about taping over the image screen made me laugh out loud. It reminded me of piano lessons many years ago. I kept looking at my hands instead of the music, making it very difficult to sight read, so my teacher put newspaper over my hands so that I couldn’t see them. I had to practice that way as well, within a week or two, I stopped looking at my hands while playing because I got no feedback from doing so. Your advice to turn off the screen to break the habit of “chimping” is excellent; even for a week or two, it could help break that reflexive habit of checking every shot. In fact, it is a much better test of skill to learn how to read the light and the meter and move forward with the shots than it is to constantly check the screen.

    1. I love the analogue of learning to play piano without looking. If you can learn to read the subject, light and changes and trust yourself, that’s much better than letting the viewer slow you down. Thanks for the great comment, Lynn

  12. i’ve never heard of chimping either! i thought that he must have been making monkey sounds!!!

    no no NOOOO don’t look at the image viewer when there’s amazing material in front of you! i rarely look down, but every so often i will realize the setting was changed, and i say, ‘oops!” and switch to the right one and keep rolling.

    i love the alligator shot as well!


    1. It happens to me, too, sometimes I get the exposure wrong, but not so bad that I can’t manage to salvage the picture if necessary. That’s a good thing about RAW-capture; you have a must larger latitude. Thank you for the comment, Lisa!

  13. A marvelous image Otto. So much to say about it that I’ll leave it at marvelous. Good to know that I’m not the only one conflicted about the review screen. Be careful out there (clearly you can tame alligators but be careful anyway) 😉

  14. This is so true, Otto.
    I honestly don’t use mine very much, because unlike with film, I know I can take as many shots as I want. Love that about digital!

  15. I like the idea of not checking the viewfinder, we may concentrate more on the exposure settings before we set up the shot.Although I have taken a shot quickly only to realize that the exposure was WAY off-and never would get it again. (those ones are in my mind’s eye) Something to look forward to another time. I imagine alligators are strong and not easy to handle.

    1. To tell you the truth about this alligator, it wasn’t that unwilling to be handled… One way to avoid getting exposures way off, is simply using program mode to let the camera do the exposure calculation automatically. It’s not always spot on, but usually not very far off either. Thanks for commenting, Jane!

    1. One would think professional photographers would focus on the subject, but again and again I am amazed to see how many professionals spend more time looking at the review screen than the subject itself. Thanks for the comment, andelieya!

  16. I’ve learned in my short time that when looking at the camera’s image screen I don’t always see what’s there until I pull it up on my computer screen….so I have learned not to look, too much, and not to delete in the field at all….ever. Sometimes I come home and see what I think is a really bad shot on the view screen of the camera, put the photos up on the computer, and wow! I think it’s not bad after all.

    1. I think your attitude is great. Deleting on not in the field is not only about taking attention away from the subject, but also as you point out, about the fact that it’s impossible to judge the pictures on the review screen properly. You really have to wait until you have the pictures up on a big screen. As for the alligator, we were just playing around… Thanks for comment. Angeline!

  17. Intressanta aspekter du tar upp, med det digitala kontra det analoga. Det finns säkert många, för att inte säga nästan alla nyblivna “fotografer” som borde få sig en tankeställare.
    Jag hoppas och tror att du med dina kurser kan förmedla och åskådliggöra seendets svåra konst.
    Problemet idag är att “alla kan”…köp en kamera och du är fotograf…köp ett staffli och du är konstnär…köp en laptop och du är författare…osv. osv.
    Jag blir så trött, jag orkar inte längre, jag har lagt ner mina kurser…kanske kommer jag tillbaka?
    All lycka till dig, jag hoppas verkligen att du kan och förmår förmedla…i alla fall lite av den svåra konsten att SE.

    1. Takk for lykkeønskningene, Gertie – og takk for et tankefullt innlegg. Som du har sett av min neste post, tror jeg heller ikke at “alle” kan ta mesterverk bare fordi de har kjøpt nytt kamera eller en eller annen ny app – selv om mange tror det. Mye av de vi ser i dag er uten tvil, i mine øyne, keiserens ny klær – særlig synes jeg dette gjelde innen postmodernismen – for å trekke diskusjonen inn i et større perspektiv. Jeg tror ikke jeg kan endre verden med min blogg eller mine kurs, men hvis jeg kan hjelpe en eller annen til å finne sitt ekte kunstneriske eller kreative uttrykk, så er jeg fornøyd. Hvis verden ellers vil bli bedratt, så la den det. Jeg håper ikke du har mistet alle illusjoner. Det er dessverre lett for i dag med alle som kan alt mye bedre enn alle andre uten å kunne noe som helst, men da må vi bare fortsette å uttrykke oss slik det gir mening for oss. For meg handler kreativitet om å tilfredsstille min eget behov for å uttrykke meg, mer enn hva andre mener om meg. Selv om det selvsagt også kjennes godt med anerkjennelse av og til…

  18. i had a chuckle as i read your (always) great tips on avoiding the “chimping” syndrome. recently, i helped with a children’s stage play – the director asked me to take some shots for the newspaper…used her camera and of course she was out on an errand, i ended up shooting most of it without knowledge of the viewfinder. talk about ultimate amateur moves and shooting “in the dark!” it was only the last few shots i realized my mistake, but fortunately, by sheer luck, i got plenty good ones of the cast. ha-ha. 🙂
    -love the alligator catch! i’m wondering if it was a catch and release or catch and eat? or catch and go to the zoo? 😆

  19. Excellent advice! I turned off the autoplay feature on my camera a long time ago, and I’ve never looked back. Other than using the screen to check for exposure at the beginning of a shoot, I virtually never take a peek during a photo session. I’m all about connecting with my subject, and ‘chimping’ during a photo session simply destroys the flow and undermines my skills and confidence as a photographer. Great post!

  20. My review screen, as good as it is on a Nikon D60, only gives me a general idea of whether I have anything worth keeping. My eyesight, combined with the vagaries of ambient sunlight striking the screen leave me mostly confused until I can upload onto the computer. Perhaps that’s the advantage of aging eyes?

  21. I suppose I’m as guilty as anyone, but at least I very seldom delete on-camera. That has saved me some photos that I would sorely have missed.

  22. Excellent advice as always Otto. I very nearly missed the moment the sun broke the horizon taking the pictures in my last post because I was doing just as you advise against, checking my results on the review screen. I do have the option to turn it off with my D800 so perhaps I will. Even with landscapes, the light can be changing so quickly I don’t think we can afford to not be shooting all the time.

  23. i have a fairly new digital phone/camera and it doesn’t pop up a photo when taken, but stays on the viewfinder screen. if you want to review it, have to tap on the small thumbnail in the corner.

  24. “I spend my time looking for the good stuff as opposed to deleting the bad stuff. I don’t really care about the bad stuff.” I can totally you words of wisdom in photography even to everyday life my friend. Great stuff as always. You inspire me to one day follow my passions. to travel, discover, to see the many things I missed in this world. To think and live outside the box!

    1. Such encouraging words, my friend. Thank you. I hope you will be able to follow your passion, which you already do, I believe, by your family.

  25. My neck hurts from nodding in emphatic agreement… yet I’m STILL guilty.
    Confidence is my issue, and I know it’ll take time and practice to develop that confidence.

    MY experience is that the stupid screen on the back also gives me a FALSE sense of success. Very often it looks perfect on the screen, but when I get it uploaded to the computer… soft or blurred or some other problem.

    And of course, that chips away at my confidence. *wink*

    Love the shot at the end of this!

    1. You are absolutely right about the false sense the review screen gives you. You cannot trust it. But keep working, and confidence will slow come. Thank you for commenting, Theresa!

  26. What interesting advice! I am one of those who actually doesn’t check my screen at all, with the exceptional of the ONE or two) really important snap shot that I want to send to family and friends to prove that I was there!

    My problem is perhaps that I spend too much time setting up the photo BEFORE pressing the snap button! But that would also be not “being in the present”.

    For that reason, I usually stand and enjoy the spot for a while before (OR after) prepping and taking the snapshot.

    Regardless how one takes photos, you are absolutely right! Enjoy the moment! 🙂

    1. Taking in the scenery is always a good idea – and since you look at it and not the camera, you are still not missing out. Thanks for the comment, and enjoy the moment, you too!

  27. This could have been a metaphor for life, don’t you think,Otto? We often are so busy looking back that we miss what is going on right in front of us.
    Wow! You really did catch an alligator. That is very cool.

  28. I usually don’t check the review screen. I’ve missed some shots because I forgot to adjust my settings before I started shooting, which meant totally over- or under-exposed. But I’ve found that my review screen lies to me. Often it will look like I need to make an adjustment, but once I get them on my computer, the originals were the best, before the adjustments! So for the most part, I just shoot and keep my fingers crossed. Love that shot of you with the gator!

    1. Yes, it’s really hard to judge the any picture on the review screen. The only really good tool is the histogram – if your camera is able to show it on the screen. But, just keep shooting! Thanks for the comment, Barbara!

  29. To some, chipping is like an addiction. I used to do it a lot myself until I got comfortable with my first DSLR. Love your alligator shot!

  30. You are right about checking the screen. It is an easy habit to get. It gives instant feed back to most. I find that checking histogram is useful or to make sure focus is there when shooting at shallow DOF. IMO.

  31. Excellent point Otto, guilty as charged but at least I don’t spend time deleting. Great shot of you and your gator pal, wow! I will of course think twice now and just keep shooting, I like your theory, I do use it to check focus since I just got a new camera, at some point I hope to be able to feel good to go without checking.

  32. Thanks for making me re-think how I use my digital camera. While I don’t often take action shots; I do find that when I’m at a social event I am missing some because of being consumed by the end result. From now on, “forget it”; after the initial tweaking, there’s always photoshop!

  33. I have my new camera now and very rarely use the led screen. Only if a position I can’t get my eyes behind to I use it. I love seeing thing as they are throught eye viewers. Uhm I don’t even know if I have the photos showing up after I take them I am always so concentrating on what I am taking photos of. but sometimes looking might be good. I was at a wedding recently and was snapping away most the evening when finally someone wanted to look at a photos so I opened the led screen and had a look. What was that shadow that was showing up in the lower center of all my photos? I had my I don’t know what it is called to shade cover for zooms or whatever, but realized with the flash it was causing a shadow in my photos, so took the thing off and the rest of the photos for the evening were fine. If I hadn’t taken a break to view a few photos some one wanted to see I never would have been aware. But really knowing not much about photography it was something I just never thought of as I went from outside to inside taking photos. I often even open both eyes to follow what I am viewing in through the eye piece. Especially humming birds as they can move out of photo range but need to watch when they return. With a digital you can click click and click. Don’t worry about what doesn’t turn out. I change my settings now often as I am just learning to find what works best. One of the photos end up coming out ok or even exceptional. When in the moment. Keep clicking.

    1. I guess your experience shows that it’s sometimes wise to check the review screen – as long as it doesn’t become an obsession. I am glad you were able to adjust during photographing at the wedding. Would have been sad to get back with all pictures ruined by the sun shade. Thanks for the comment and sharing your experience, Carrie!

  34. Oh I failed to mention that first photo of yours has a very haunting look to it. I don’t know how you got the children so they were both lighted yet the adulted who is in between them was shadowed.

  35. Dear Otto,

    As a non-photographer who is, however, a parent, I read your sage advice in another way — thinking of all the parents I’ve seen who are so busy with their cameras, filming their children, they miss the concert, soccer game, etc. I keep meaning to write about a woman I knew back in the days before digital cameras. We were part of a group backpacking for a week through the Sierras in California, a route we had never traveled before, and the woman had brought along just one roll of film–20 frames. She had to decide (at every moment, let’s say) whether or not it was picture-worthy, as part of a week-long experience she had yet to have. Fascinating challenge. On another subject, you know I run an interdisciplinary journal — zeteojournal.com. In theory we are about writing, but I would certainly be open to some kind of photo essay. Best, Wm. (montaigbakhtinian.com)

    1. You have a very good point. The camera can certainly get in the way of missing the actually event or moment taking place, not as a photograph necessarily, but as a personal and connecting experience. I might have to write something about this another day! I think what this lady you are referring to during a backpacking in the Sierras is something more people should try. I do something or the same when I travel to Cuba. I use a little point-and-shoot camera with film and allow myself only to take one picture each day with this camera (I wrote about this “project” in a post: Cuban Diary. As for writing a photo essay for zeteojournal, I think that would be fun, if we can find a subject that might interest your readership. Thanks for a thoughtful comment, William!

  36. Capturing alligators? That’s going above and beyond. lol! I really like the first image in this post. There’s a story there. 🙂
    Great advice, Otto. I rarely look at the image review screen because I can’t really see what’s on it. With digital, I figure it’s better to keep shooting and delete later when I can see what I captured. Very often the image I thought was good is not, and the image I thought was bad is the good one, so I don’t trust the image review screen anymore.

    1. That is a good approach, and I agree with you it’s not really possible to trust the review screen. I am glad the alligator amused you! Thanks for commenting, Robin!

  37. Excellent post. I was thinking about chimping the other day. I can’t chimp because I still use B&W film exclusively. The last time I took a photo of one of my 4 year old twin granddaughters, she wanted to see the picture. Ever try to explain film, developing and printing to a 4 year old?

    1. It’s an interesting generation bridge, isn’t it? Maybe because I grew up with analogue photography I am less inclined to chimping. Good luck explaining the 4 year old!

  38. This post taught me something I didn’t know. Thanks! I’ve often been annoyed by the two-second delay after each snap, and now you’ve taught me I can turn it off. I’ve just done it, and taken a few snaps, click click click. And your post taught me a new word. Chimping!

  39. Good advice, OTTO. Until I upgrade from my point-and-shoot, covering the view screen is not an option because it IS the viewfinder. Cameras without viewfinders are NOT “progress.” The view screens are totally useless in strong sunlight. At that point the cameras become the “point-and-hope” variety.

    1. Yes, unfortunately view finders seem to be out of style with the exceptions of a few cameras. The viewing screen doesn’t provide with the same usefulness as a real view finder. Thanks again for you comment, John!

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