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8 Tips for Beautiful Impressionist Photography

How to create impressionist photos

A note on authorship: This article was updated in November 2023 with the contributions of three expert impressionist photographers: Eva Polak, Anne McKinnell, and Erin Fitzgibbon.

Unlike conventional photography – which focuses on capturing crisp and detailed images – impressionist photography challenges us to see the world through a different lens, one that is less concerned with sharpness and more with the emotional and visual impact. Impressionist photos aren’t just about what is directly in front of the camera, but about the story you choose to tell through colors, shapes, and even blur.

I love capturing impressionistic shots, and in this article, I share the techniques that’ll allow you to paint with your camera – so you can create the kind of artwork that resonates deep down. My methods encourage you to embrace movement, play with focus, and celebrate abstraction.

So whether you’re a seasoned photographer looking to break the mold or a beginner eager to explore, prepare to capture some amazing images!

What is impressionist photography?

Impressionist photography

Impressionist photography is a style where the photographer tries to convey the feeling or suggestion of a scene, rather than a literal description. In other words, it’s about capturing a scene’s overall atmosphere by presenting the essence of a subject through shapes and colors rather than sharp, realistic representations.

In impressionist and abstract photography, the focus is on eliciting emotion through the interplay of texture, form, and color. This style encourages the use of vibrant hues, distinct shapes, and lines to craft visually stimulating compositions.

Imagine briefly observing a scene and then turning away before your eyes can fully comprehend the details. What remains is a vague memory of colors and forms, a distilled essence of the original scene – and that is what impressionist photography is all about.

Tips for amazing impressionist images

Impressionist photography

Ready to start capturing some stunning impressionist photos of your own? Here are the tips and techniques to get you started!

1. Look for shapes, patterns and textures

As you go about your daily activities, notice the shapes around you. Even a standard house or apartment is full of interesting shapes, patterns, and textures that can be used to make impressionist photos.

Look closely at different objects around you and consider whether there are any reoccurring shapes or themes. Then use them to your advantage.

Lines, for instance, can be used very effectively in a photograph, as the eye will tend to follow them through the shot. Look at the undulating pattern the wave makes as it comes to shore:

Impressionist photography

And if you like to walk in the city, look for patterns formed by the buildings.

Basically, the more interplay of form you can find, the better!

2. Use intentional camera movement

Impressionist photography

Intentional camera movement is an excellent technique for creating impressionist landscape photography, especially when you’re faced with prominent lines, such as the horizontal expanse of a beach or tall trees in a forest.

The method requires practice to master, but the process is part of the creative enjoyment, and each shot is practically guaranteed to produce unique results. Here’s what I recommend:

  1. Set your camera to Shutter Priority mode.
  2. Select a slow shutter speed between 1/20s and 1/2s.
  3. Aim your camera at the center of the scene, and press the shutter button halfway to set the exposure.
  4. Pan your camera so it moves parallel to any dominant lines in the scene.
  5. While panning, fully depress the shutter button. Continue the motion even after the shutter has closed for a fluid effect.
  6. Experiment with different shutter speeds for different results!

3. Look for reflections

Impressionist photography

Reflections are one of the best ways to create impressionist photography – and if you look carefully, you’ll see they are everywhere.

As you walk around, seek out smooth surfaces. Think about how you can use each surface to capture a viewpoint that you simply couldn’t have shot otherwise.

Pay special attention to colorful reflections in rain-soaked streets; they will create shimmering scenes with an impressionistic quality.

Also, lakes and rivers can create some wonderful reflective surfaces.

And always bear in mind that when a surface is textured or shaped, unusual and interesting reflections can appear.

4. Try zooming

A zoom burst, or zoom blur, is another technique that is simple, fun, and easy to achieve. It involves changing the focal length of your lens (zooming in or out) while you take a photo, causing the shot to blur from the center outward, as if the scene is bursting toward you.

Impressionist photography

To use this technique, you’ll need a camera with a zoom lens (one that includes a zoom ring). Set your camera to Shutter Priority, and dial in a shutter speed of around 1/10s.

Compose your photo as you normally would, then zoom the lens as you press the shutter. The key to success with this technique is to get the amount of zoom burst right. Experiment with zooming speed and direction, and also experiment with different shutter speeds.

Impressionist photography

5. Use selective focus

Selective focus involves isolating a small portion of your frame to be in sharp focus while letting the remainder of the image be rendered in a soft, painterly manner. This technique is most effective when using a lens with a wide aperture (for example, f/1.8 or f/2.8).

For optimal results, use a telephoto lens to zoom in on the point of interest, or grab a macro lens and get up close to your subject.

Set your camera to Aperture Priority mode and choose the widest aperture available. Manual focus may be necessary to ensure the desired area of the frame is in sharp focus.

(Pro tip: For particularly striking results, include vibrant colors in the frame!)

6. Deliberately defocus your lens

Pulling the lens out of focus is a quick way to give a scene an impressionistic look, like this:

Impressionist photography

Use Aperture Priority mode and set your lens to the widest aperture (small numbers such as f/2.4 or f/4). This is critical because you want a very shallow depth of field.

Then switch your lens to manual focus and start looking at things through the camera. Turn the focus ring until everything is blurry.

And try varying the point of focus; this will create different amounts of blur, which can suit different subjects.

7. Use the focus-through technique

Impressionist photography
Image by Anne McKinnell

This technique is especially effective with flowers due to their semi-translucent nature, which allows light to pass through them. To execute it effectively, focus your lens on a flower that is a few feet away while positioning another flower so close to the lens that it becomes impossible to focus on.

This creates a layered effect, with the foreground flower providing a colorful, blurred overlay that frames the sharply focused flower in the distance.

A few more tips for this impressionist technique:

  • Employ a telephoto lens to ensure a decent amount of foreground blur
  • Choose a semi-transparent object to place near the front of the lens (rather than a fully opaque object)
  • Use manual focus to prevent your camera from mistakenly focusing on the foreground object
Impressionist photography
Image by Anne McKinnell

8. Have fun with panning

Panning is a fun technique to learn, and although it takes some practice, it’s relatively easy to get started. You can use panning to capture running people, bicycles, cars, or just about anything else that’s moving.

Once you’ve chosen a moving subject, set your camera to Shutter Priority mode, and choose a shutter speed between 1/10s and 1/60s. As your subject comes close, focus on it in advance and start tracking with your camera until you are confident that you are moving your lens in sync with the subject.

Impressionist photography

The trick to a successful impressionist-panning image is to find a suitable subject. Strong vibrant colors are ideal, and lines that appear throughout the frame will keep the colors distinct and separated.

How to capture impressionist photos: final words

By embracing the methods I’ve discussed, you can essentially reinterpret the world around you! Impressionist photography really does allow you to capture scenes in a way that stirs the soul and ignites the imagination. Ultimately, you can help your audience experience a world that is at once familiar and fantastically new.

Whether you seek to integrate these methods into your existing practice or you’re just dabbling for the joy of discovery, remember that the essence of photography lies in the way you see the world. Let impressionist photography be a celebration of your unique vision, a testament to the beauty that exists in the blur, and a bold statement that every scene is a canvas waiting for your distinctive touch!

Now over to you:

What methods do you plan to use to capture impressionist photos? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Eva Polak
Eva Polak

is a photographer, artist, author and teacher, and is well known for her enthusiasm and passion for impressionist photography. She is an author of three books which are outlining ways to use your camera for painterly effect. Eva has had three solo exhibitions and has participated in a variety of group exhibitions. Her photographs are in private collections in New Zealand, Australia and Europe. As an educator, Eva has passed on her knowledge and experience to keen photographers through a variety of workshops.

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