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5 Impressionist Photo Techniques

Impression, Sunrise

Impressionism is an art movement that began in the 19th century with the works of Monet whose painting "Impression, Sunrise" gave rise to the name of the art movement.

I often think of photography as two different art forms.

There is the traditional style that depicts a literal representation of a scene by showing how it actually appears to the person who is present – the style used in photojournalism and travel images.

Then there is another style when the photographer tries to convey the feeling of a scene, a general impression, or suggestion of a scene.

Lacking in detail these impressionist images emphasize colour over line and are often soft, dreamy, and have a painterly feel.

Think of the impression a scene leaves in your mind when you glance at it quickly and then look away before giving your eyes a chance to focus. Usually it is an impression of colour and shapes and maybe an idea of some things that were in the scene with little detail – just the essence of a subject.

Beach blur using the intentional camera motion technique.

Beach blur using the intentional camera motion technique.

When it comes to creating these dreamy sorts of images where things are out of focus it should be obvious to the viewer that the photographer intended it to be out of focus. If it’s only out of focus a little bit it looks like a mistake.

Try to capture the feeling or mood of the scene rather than a literal representation.

Now, on to the techniques.

1. Intentional Camera Movement

Flower blur using the intentional camera movement technique.

For this image I moved the camera in a diagonal direction. I also sharpened the image in post-processing which is what gives it the appearance of brush strokes.

This technique works great on landscapes with strong lines such as the horizontal lines in a beach scene (shown above) or the vertical lines in a forest scene but you can do it anywhere.

You will need to experiment quite a bit before you get a result you like but that is all part of the fun. Every frame will turn out differently.

  • * Start on shutter priority and pick a long shutter speed such as 1/20 to 1/2 a second.
  • * Point your camera at the middle of the scene and hold the shutter half way down to lock in the exposure.
  • * Pan in the same direction as any strong lines that exist in the scene.
  • * Start the panning before you completely press the shutter and continue after the shutter closes. That will make the movement smoother.
  • * Experiment with shutter speeds.


2. Zooming

Similar to the above technique, this one is intentional camera movement too, but instead of panning you zoom your lens in or out during the exposure. I like how this technique looks on city lights.

The Legislature in Victoria, British Columbia using the zoom blur technique.

The Legislature in Victoria, British Columbia using the zoom blur technique.

  • Set your camera to shutter priority and pick a shutter speed of at least a couple of seconds.
  • I find it easier to do this technique at night to allow for a really long exposure. If you do it during the day you might need to use a neutral density filter to block out some of the light to allow for the long exposure time.
  • While the shutter is open slowly zoom the lens. Try to make the zoom as smooth as possible.
  • You will probably have to try a number of different exposure times and try zooming quickly and slowly for different results.

3. Selective Focus

With this technique only a very very small portion of the frame will be in focus. The rest will be extremely soft and painterly. You will need to use a lens that has a very wide aperture opening (f/1.8 or 2.8 for example). It will work best if you move away from your subject and use a telephoto lens to zoom in.

Sap abstract using the selective focus technique.

Or you can use a specialty lens like a Lensbaby.

Bourbon Street, New Orleans during Mardi Gras captured with a Lensbaby.

Bourbon Street, New Orleans during Mardi Gras captured with a Lensbaby.

  • Use the aperture priority setting on your camera and set it for the widest aperture (lowest F stop number).
  • You might have to focus manually to get the right part of the frame in focus.
  • This technique tends to works best when you have good colour in the frame.

4. Long Exposures

I always remember the day I made this image because what I really wanted to do that day was the selective focus technique. But when I got to the location it was super windy and there was no way I was going to get anything in focus.

At first I was disappointed until I decided to go with the flow. The flowers blew all over the place while the shutter was open for half a second and I was delighted with the result.

Flowers using the long exposure blur technique.

  • Set your camera to shutter priority and pick a long shutter speed like half a second or longer.
  • Find a subject that is in motion.
  • You will probably have to try lots of different shutter speeds before you get one that is just right depending on how quickly your subject is moving. I like it when the result is very abstract yet there is still enough detail to identify the subject.

5. Focus Through

This technique works great with flowers because the petals are semi-transparent and light shines through them. What you want to do is focus on a flower that is a couple of feet away and allow another flower to be extremely close to the end of your lens, so close that it could never be in focus.

Flowers using the shoot through technique.Flowers using the shoot through technique.

  • Use a telephoto lens.
  • Find an object that is semi-transparent that you can place in front of the subject which is in focus.
  • Use manual focus so your camera isn’t confused by the object in the foreground.

The reason I like these techniques is because it gives me a real sense of freedom when there are no rules and I can play around as much as I like.

Even if these sorts of images aren’t your thing, I really encourage you to try it out for a day just for fun, just to release yourself from the obligation of making everything super sharp all the time.

Remember – you are the artist and you can do whatever you want.

I would love to hear about your experience with these techniques! Let me know how it worked out for you in the comments.

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Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

  • MeiTeng

    Thanks for sharing. Love tip #4 and the resulting image is very nice.

  • GradyPhilpott

    Great tips for more interesting and creative photography, but I’m not sure most of these photos are truly impressionistic in the true sense of Impressionism, the 19 Century art form.

    I think the first one is, but a couple look abstract to me. One resembles pointillism, while the rest look like common photographic effects.

  • Brad Hayami

    Great article. One of the best I’ve read on DPS in quite a while! I love the blurred flowers and the panned beachscape … I’ll be trying both of those ASAP!

  • http://www.portraitinspiration.com Jai Catalano

    Nice photos. Not so impressionistic but very nice nonetheless.

    http://portraitinspiration.com/inspiration-for-the-day-81/

  • stephanie

    A few months ago I was sitting around a campfire with friends and unknowingly experimented with this technique. I’ve never researched or looked into it until I read this – I was simply fascinated with how I could make the fire look like a painting. I’ll be trying it even more now that I’ve read this!

  • Scottc

    Great photos and a very interesting article. Impressionist photography isn’t my thing, but I like the techniques described in tips 3 and 5. I’ve never used a lensbaby, but the photo in this article is one of the better lensbaby photo effects I’ve seen.

    I’ll give a few of these a dedicated attempt. I’ve touched on a few of these techniques by accident, such as with the unintentional camera movement with slow shutter in this photo.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4724529635/

    Thanks for sharing!

  • pete wendt

    very fun pictures
    thanks for sharing

  • http://cholito.org Alejandro

    in the second one, it doesn’t look like the camera was being continuously zoomed, but instead, it was zoomed with pauses in order to have the lights to look like that, wasn’t it?

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/43017182@N06/ Steve

    Exactly what I was thinking, Alejandro

  • Carmela

    Great ideas! Thanks for sharing. I am going to try some of these techniques.

  • http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com Jeff E Jensen

    These are all great tips, this can be really fun to play around with. You can get some really amazing images, and some not so amazing images. Definitely something that you have to play with and figure out.

    Here’s some recent images from a trip to Valley Forge, PA:

    http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com/2012/11/autumn-abstracts.html

  • http://nil Thomas George

    I am,very useful of all your tutorials. thank you.

    Thomas George

  • http://www.pipermackayphotography.com Piper

    wonderful article and stunning images!!

  • Leah

    I “discovered” this a year ago with my first camera. I twitched when taking a picture of a rose garden and the result, I thought, was still awesome. Sure, it was blurry, but it made me think about running through a meadow of roses. I also did this once accidentally when taking a picture of high branches during sunset. I got something colorful, but webby. Technically “incorrect”, I still keep the picture. Now after reading this, I’m going to go out and “mess up” on purpose!

  • http://www.edithlevyphotography.com Edith levy

    Excellent article and tips Anne. Thank you.

  • Alejandro Z

    I recently took some similar pictures in a road trip with some friends, I liked the way they looked and decided to keep them. I just posted one to 500px as this article gave regained my interest in that area.

    http://500px.com/photo/20548107

  • http://knost.wordpress.com Patrick

    Great techniques to try this weekend. Thanks!

  • Albin

    Really interesting techniques to try. FYI, Martin Bailey has done some wonderful “focus through” landscape and flower shots.

  • http://benchapmanphotos.blogspot.co.uk/ Ben Chapman

    Tip number 2 is one of the first things I ever tried.

    It was off my own back too, I just thought ‘hmmm I wonder what happens if????’

    The image was of a carved pumpkin, the zoom created an effect that made the light come out of the carving.

    I sent the picture to a local paper and it was considered one of the best reader pictures that year…which put a smile on my face.

    That was years ago.

    I’m recently going through a stage of playing, experimenting, trying new things with my camera.

    Damn I love this hobby!

  • http://annemckinnell.com/ Anne McKinnell

    Thank you everyone for all your kind comments about the post. I’m so glad you found it helpful.

    @Alejandro and @Steve I think you’re right! I made that image a couple of years ago and I forgot I did that. Every 5 or 10 seconds I zoomed in a little bit. I have always liked how that one turned out.

  • http://www.photographybusinessriches.com/ Dane Bergen – PhotoBizRiches

    I love some of the things that can be done with long exposure photography, like the ghosting images and super long exposure of the night sky

  • Paula cannon

    I am doing a photography course at the moment and am just starting abstract and impressionist photography so this was very helpfull

  • D. Williams

    I really like the effect and suggestions. I have a similar shot of a humming bird. I will do more of this on purpose.

  • Cypus

    I have a photo contest coming an the theme is “the Green color”. I was looking for abstract techniques and found just what I needed in your article.
    Thank you !

Some older comments

  • Paula cannon

    July 1, 2013 11:38 pm

    I am doing a photography course at the moment and am just starting abstract and impressionist photography so this was very helpfull

  • Dane Bergen - PhotoBizRiches

    December 29, 2012 04:03 am

    I love some of the things that can be done with long exposure photography, like the ghosting images and super long exposure of the night sky

  • Anne McKinnell

    December 23, 2012 04:49 am

    Thank you everyone for all your kind comments about the post. I'm so glad you found it helpful.

    @Alejandro and @Steve I think you're right! I made that image a couple of years ago and I forgot I did that. Every 5 or 10 seconds I zoomed in a little bit. I have always liked how that one turned out.

  • Ben Chapman

    December 18, 2012 08:36 am

    Tip number 2 is one of the first things I ever tried.

    It was off my own back too, I just thought 'hmmm I wonder what happens if????'

    The image was of a carved pumpkin, the zoom created an effect that made the light come out of the carving.

    I sent the picture to a local paper and it was considered one of the best reader pictures that year...which put a smile on my face.

    That was years ago.

    I'm recently going through a stage of playing, experimenting, trying new things with my camera.

    Damn I love this hobby!

  • Albin

    December 15, 2012 02:24 am

    Really interesting techniques to try. FYI, Martin Bailey has done some wonderful "focus through" landscape and flower shots.

  • Patrick

    December 14, 2012 10:17 pm

    Great techniques to try this weekend. Thanks!

  • Alejandro Z

    December 14, 2012 05:38 pm

    I recently took some similar pictures in a road trip with some friends, I liked the way they looked and decided to keep them. I just posted one to 500px as this article gave regained my interest in that area.

    http://500px.com/photo/20548107

  • Edith levy

    December 14, 2012 01:02 pm

    Excellent article and tips Anne. Thank you.

  • Leah

    December 14, 2012 12:59 pm

    I "discovered" this a year ago with my first camera. I twitched when taking a picture of a rose garden and the result, I thought, was still awesome. Sure, it was blurry, but it made me think about running through a meadow of roses. I also did this once accidentally when taking a picture of high branches during sunset. I got something colorful, but webby. Technically "incorrect", I still keep the picture. Now after reading this, I'm going to go out and "mess up" on purpose!

  • Piper

    December 14, 2012 03:34 am

    wonderful article and stunning images!!

  • Thomas George

    December 14, 2012 01:43 am

    I am,very useful of all your tutorials. thank you.

    Thomas George

  • Jeff E Jensen

    December 14, 2012 12:42 am

    These are all great tips, this can be really fun to play around with. You can get some really amazing images, and some not so amazing images. Definitely something that you have to play with and figure out.

    Here's some recent images from a trip to Valley Forge, PA:

    http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com/2012/11/autumn-abstracts.html

  • Carmela

    December 13, 2012 11:31 pm

    Great ideas! Thanks for sharing. I am going to try some of these techniques.

  • Steve

    December 13, 2012 02:05 pm

    Exactly what I was thinking, Alejandro

  • Alejandro

    December 13, 2012 12:32 pm

    in the second one, it doesn't look like the camera was being continuously zoomed, but instead, it was zoomed with pauses in order to have the lights to look like that, wasn't it?

  • pete wendt

    December 13, 2012 11:33 am

    very fun pictures
    thanks for sharing

  • Scottc

    December 13, 2012 09:47 am

    Great photos and a very interesting article. Impressionist photography isn't my thing, but I like the techniques described in tips 3 and 5. I've never used a lensbaby, but the photo in this article is one of the better lensbaby photo effects I've seen.

    I'll give a few of these a dedicated attempt. I've touched on a few of these techniques by accident, such as with the unintentional camera movement with slow shutter in this photo.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4724529635/

    Thanks for sharing!

  • stephanie

    December 13, 2012 07:08 am

    A few months ago I was sitting around a campfire with friends and unknowingly experimented with this technique. I've never researched or looked into it until I read this - I was simply fascinated with how I could make the fire look like a painting. I'll be trying it even more now that I've read this!

  • Jai Catalano

    December 13, 2012 04:56 am

    Nice photos. Not so impressionistic but very nice nonetheless.

    http://portraitinspiration.com/inspiration-for-the-day-81/

  • Brad Hayami

    December 13, 2012 04:40 am

    Great article. One of the best I've read on DPS in quite a while! I love the blurred flowers and the panned beachscape ... I'll be trying both of those ASAP!

  • GradyPhilpott

    December 13, 2012 03:44 am

    Great tips for more interesting and creative photography, but I'm not sure most of these photos are truly impressionistic in the true sense of Impressionism, the 19 Century art form.

    I think the first one is, but a couple look abstract to me. One resembles pointillism, while the rest look like common photographic effects.

  • MeiTeng

    December 13, 2012 02:44 am

    Thanks for sharing. Love tip #4 and the resulting image is very nice.

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