Viewfinder Hours


Back in my days running Backpacker magazine, we had an “authenticity” metric that we developed and practiced. I think it’s time for that here in the photography arena, as well. 

The Backpacker metric was “bag nights.” You got a bag night if you spent your sleeping hours in a sleeping bag in the wild (not your backyard ;~). One of the reasons we developed that metric was to make sure we were practicing what we preached. However, it also turned out to be a key differentiator between our magazine and some other “outdoor” magazines that pretended they covered the same territory as us. 

Consider this, you make tents and two magazines come to you see if you’ll advertise. Magazine #1 says they’re the #1 outdoor magazine, but most of their stories are about personalities, they don’t have a significant field editor staff, and they have high turnover in subscribers. Magazine #2 says that their 20 editorial staff (including the graphics department) spent an average of 40 bag nights a year, with a couple logging over 100. Oh, and they do have a large field staff and their long-term subscriber rates are amongst the highest of all magazines. Which would you pick to advertise your tents?


Authenticity is important. It means that your opinions are based upon real use and not casual contact with something. 

The Internet is filled with non-authentic opinions. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of authentic ones, only that it’s often difficult to discern which is which.

What worries me is the high dependence upon product measurement numbers. We saw this same measurement-happy craze back in the HiFi era, where frequency and power numbers suddenly became the primary way to judge product. As I write this, DxO has just produced their “numbers” for the Nikon V3, for instance, and the emails are already pouring in bemoaning the fact that the V3 doesn’t score better than the V1 or V2. Uh, okay. But what’s that really mean? Are those numbers “authentic?” 

What if I were to tell you that I could give you a camera that had 30% more pixels with basically the same image quality when measured in a standard sized print? Would you want one? I hope so, because that many more pixels should equate to more acuity, all else equal. That’s close to what I’d expect out of the V3 over the V2, by the way. I’m a little worried about the small drop in DR on the V3, but without a camera to test in the wild yet, I can’t make any definitive assessment. However, I’d bet that on modest sized prints I’d prefer the V3 over the V2. We’ll see when I eventually get some time with the camera. 

So where am I headed with all this? 

Today I’m going to introduce a new metric, one that I hope you’ll take to heart and start tracking: viewfinder hours. Simply count the number of hours you’re primarily working the viewfinder. I’d count wandering the streets of your town for 60 minutes with your camera looking for photos and taking one every few minutes as “a viewfinder hour.” Obviously, you don’t need to be looking through the camera’s actual viewfinder the entire hour; you can use your eyes as a virtual viewfinder, as long as you eventually put the camera up to your face and consider or take the shot.

I’m serious about this. I’d like every one of you reading this to start tracking your “camera time.” By actually writing it down when you do it. Just mark your calendar with “1 hour,” “2 hours” or whatever you did today. Oh, you didn’t carry your camera with you and you didn’t take any shots? That’s a zero. 

This kind of metric doesn’t tell you anything unless you do it for a longish period of time. I’ll remind you from time to time about tracking your viewfinder hours. Then at the end of the year I’ll ask everyone about how they did. I suspect, but can’t yet prove, that this site has a lot of readers with significant viewfinder hours. In other words, authentic users. I’ll bet some of you, maybe even many, spend more viewfinder hours than I do. As I’ve backed away from doing a lot of client and stock work in the last couple of years, my viewfinder hours have dropped some (I’ll deal with that in a moment). 

I’ve written about goals before, and this is a good metric to consider for a goal. My personal goal is to make sure I’m averaging at least (and preferably far more) than an hour of viewfinder time a day. That may seem a bit low to you, but professionals have this crazy problem: most of our time is spent at marketing and sales, not shooting. In my case, I also spend a considerable amount of time writing about the things I find during viewfinder hours. A single discovery in an hour of shooting sometimes can cause me to spend hours more of time researching and writing about it. 

Just as you can have viewfinder hours, you could also count your editing hours. That’s the time you spend ingesting, tagging, selecting, processing, and editing photos for some final form (client, print, Web work, etc.). For some types of work (say large landscape prints) I’ll bet that your editing hours are likely longer than your viewfinder hours for that project (assuming you were shooting spontaneously, and not going back to the same spot until the perfect conditions occurred, in which case the opposite might be true). In other cases—say a wedding photographer—they shoot so many images and have such tight deadlines they need for their editing hours to be equal or lower than their viewfinder hours. 

Still, the balance of viewfinder hours and editing hours tells you something about where you might need to concentrate your training time. If you take a few photos but spend considerable time processing them, one of two things are true: (1) you are capturing less than optimal images that take you a long time to “fix”; or (2) you are much more into what you can do with a set of data (image) than capturing the image in the first place. 

So if you’re going to log your viewfinder hours, it’s worth logging your editing hours, too. 

Aside: One thing I’ve noticed lately is that I’m spending a lot of time doing post processing for others. About two years ago Nikon’s PR photos started showing that they were being done differently. Most of that was due to less editing time on their part. Virtually every PR photo I’m getting from camera companies these days is not properly managed. Most these days have badly managed highlights and virtually all of their data is well below middle gray and bunched up near black. In some cases, I see inappropriate black levels, too (I’m looking at you Fujifilm). Sometimes I even see color casts. Come on guys, you’re camera companies; someone there must know how to create quality images.

I’m going to take my own advice and work a bit harder on my own viewfinder hours goals for the rest of the year. Indeed, I’m going to go log some serious viewfinder hours for a couple of weeks, and with a number of the more talked about recent cameras. Thus, the bythom sites will be mostly quiet until April 15th, when I come back into the office and start spending more keyboard hours again ;~).  

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