When a photographer (professional or amateur) takes a still picture and immediately looks down to check the result on the LCD display on the back of the camera, pros call this “chimping.” That’s because upon viewing the image, the photographer is likely to sound like a chimp as he or she admires it: “Uh! Uh! Uh!”
The pros’ derision is based on a simple truth: a photographer should be able to previsualize, to know the capabilities of the camera and imagine the picture being taken. Of course, some DSLRs now have an electronic viewfinder, not an optical one, so the photographer is viewing an electronic display of the image; some “photographers” might think this eliminates the need to be able to previsualize.
Why is the ability to be able to imagine an image an important skill? Well, for many reasons. For one, the photographer who is confident of the pictures being taken and is using an optical viewfinder can work quickly, and does not need to stop and check the “recording” after each press of the shutter button. For another, the photographer does not even need a camera to recognize the photographic possibilities arrayed in front of him or her.
For cinematographers, the ability to previsualize is essential in preproduction, when the motion-picture camera is not available. On set, the ability to shoot film or video without frequently referring to a monitor — and inadvertently acting like a chimp — is, in our opinion, essential. The cinematographer works quickly and is accessible to on-set collaborators when his or her head is not looking down at a screen, away from other members of the team. Of course, cinematographers have used previsualization aids for years; Polaroid cameras were an essential part of every kit, and Jerry Lewis’ invention, the video tap (a video camera slaved to a film-camera optical system), has been in use for many decades. We are well aware that a monitor on set, whether fed images from a video camera or slaved to a film camera, is an essential tool.
But isn’t the ability to previsualize without any of that essential for a cinematographer, if only for the job interview? And with all the displays on set, including the rather remarkable iPhone with built-in Sony camera, isn’t the ability to imagine images weakened when one no longer waits for film to be processed overnight?
Indeed, professional work as varied as that done by doctors and architects is being forever altered by computer “aids,” and we believe this has resulted in a devaluation of many professions. For cinematographers, the way forward is clear: We must be well educated in the arts in general, and we must have a comprehensive knowledge of all aspects of motion-picture production and a deep understanding of the art of visual storytelling.