Impressionistic landscape photography uses a number of fun techniques to achieve an impressionistic – that is, a painterly – effect.
But how can you get started? And once you know the basics, how can you improve your impressionistic shots?
In this article, I share some of the most common techniques for impressionistic landscape photos, as well as plenty of tips and tricks to help you get the best possible results. By the time you’re finished, you’ll have a whole arsenal of tools to use in your photos (and you’ll hopefully be inspired to capture some impressionistic shots of your very own!).
Let’s dive right in.
1. Use bokeh to create magical backgrounds
Bokeh refers to the out-of-focus portions of an image. Some photos are full of beautiful bokeh, like this one here (note the powerful background blur):
Whereas other photos – especially epic landscape shots – tend to avoid bokeh entirely.
Whether or not a photo should include prominent bokeh is an artistic choice, so there’s no right or wrong approach – but by deliberately including bokeh in your photos, you can create uniquely impressionistic effects.
To capture the strongest bokeh, you’ll need to set your lens to its widest aperture (ideally f/2.8 or beyond). You should also get close to your subject and use a telephoto lens (if possible).
Keep in mind that different lenses create different bokeh effects, so if you don’t love the results you’re getting, consider switching lenses. Also note that you can create custom bokeh shapes with fun DIY filters.
2. Don’t be afraid of blur
Photographers generally try to capture tack-sharp images…
…yet did you know that you can create stunning impressionistic landscape photography by encouraging, rather than avoiding, image blur?
The best blur takes the focus away from subject detail and instead gets the viewer to see shapes, colors, and light. The results can be stunningly beautiful, especially when combined with vivid subjects or magical sunlight.
But how can you create stunning blur effects? You have two basic options:
First, you can dial in a slow shutter speed. Then, by carefully moving your setup after pressing the shutter button, you can record beautiful blur effects due to camera motion. (I explore this option in more detail below.) You might also try photographing moving subjects with a slow shutter speed; these subjects will create stunning impressionistic streaks as they zoom by.
Second, you can deliberately misfocus your lens. That way, the main subject of your image goes out of focus, and the viewer sees a pleasing blur effect. Note that you’ll want to use a wide aperture, such as f/2.8, to maximize the blur.
(Here, I highly recommend you use manual focus rather than autofocus. Switch your lens over to its manual focus option, then turn the focus ring until your subject becomes a beautiful blurry blob!)
3. Create a soft effect
As I discussed in the previous section, some of the best, most impressionistic images rely on deliberate blur.
But in certain cases, blur can be a little too experimental.
If you find that you’re not a huge fan of blur or that blur isn’t working for a particular subject, I recommend you try to create a soft effect instead. That way, you’ll still get that nice, ethereal look – but you won’t lose too much subject detail.
You can get a soft effect in a couple of ways. First, you can move from a very cold to a very warm environment (e.g., from a cool hotel to a hot Florida street). The rapid change in temperature will cause your lens to fog up, and you’ll have a few minutes to shoot soft photos before the fog dissipates.
That’s how I captured this next photo; I started in some cold, outdoor weather, then I stepped into a warm butterfly greenhouse, which instantly fogged up my lens:
The problem, of course, is that you can’t always create the condensation effect (what do you do if you live in a very moderate climate?), and even when you can, it doesn’t last very long. Plus, moisture can damage your equipment over time.
That’s why I recommend a simple alternative:
Buy a cheap UV filter.
Then cover it with vaseline!
When you mount it on your lens, you’ll get a beautiful soft effect.
4. Have fun with intentional camera movement
Intentional camera movement is a hugely popular technique among impressionistic landscape photographers, and for good reason:
It looks amazing, it’s easy to produce, and it allows for all sorts of different effects.
Simply dial in a slow shutter speed. Start in the area of 1/10s or so, though you can always experiment with other options.
Next, take a photo, but deliberately move your camera as you press the shutter button. (You can also try zooming your lens for especially explosive results.)
Depending on the length of your shutter speed, you can create short streaks of color – or you can create long, abstract lines. And by selecting different subjects, you can have fun with stunning color effects, tonal effects, and much more.
Note that intentional camera movement tends to get better the more you try it. If you don’t get great results at first, don’t give up; instead, keep experimenting with the technique. Eventually, you’ll be able to (somewhat) predict the effect of different camera movements, and you’ll start to gain control over the process.
5. Add blur in post-processing
If you’re uncomfortable blurring your photos in camera, or you simply want to apply blur effects to images you’ve already taken, then why not add some fun effects in post-processing?
Note that you don’t need fancy editing software to create blur. Most photo-editing programs have at least one tool that allows you to blur your images, and you can certainly get great results by playing around with a clarity, texture, or blur slider in Lightroom, Capture One, Luminar, and so on.
That said, if you want to get really creative, I do recommend you invest in a processing program that lets you customize your blur settings and that offers multiple blur tools. For instance, Photoshop features multiple blur methods in the Filter>Blur menu. You can also find additional options in the Filter>Blur Gallery toolset.
6. Add experimental filters when post-processing
Some editing programs offer filters that create beautiful – and often wacky – artistic effects. And these are great for impressionistic landscape photography.
For instance, Photoshop has a big filter gallery, and you can overlap effects by working on multiple layers. Try using various artistic filters, such as Paint Daubs and Sponge. Then play around with different layer opacity levels until you get the perfect impressionistic result.
You can also create interesting impressionistic effects using apps on a phone or tablet. The Google Arts and Culture app lets you apply filters from different artworks or artistic periods to your photos (so try using effects taken directly from the Impressionists!). Prisma is another great app that’ll turn your standard photos into impressionistic art with a couple of simple clicks.
7. Blend photos with different perspectives
Here’s another post-processing impressionistic technique you can try with any landscape subject:
Take several images of the same scene, then blend them together for a painterly look, like this:
What’s cool about this method is that you can make the impressionistic effect as subtle or extreme as you like. And while I do this in Photoshop, you can do it in any editing software that uses layers (including Affinity Photo and even Luminar Neo).
To get started, select a subject, such as a tree, a waterfall, a vista, etc. Then take multiple photos and be sure to change your perspective with each one. For smaller subjects (e.g., trees), you can simply walk in a circle, taking a photo every few feet. For larger subjects (e.g., a mountain), adjust your angle, get high, get low, and so on. Just do whatever you can to mix it up.
Once you’ve taken your photos, transfer them to your computer. Then open Photoshop and select File>Scripts>Load Files into Stack. This will open all the photos as different layers in the same document.
Next, you need to blend all the layers into one impressionistic landscape photo. Reduce the opacity of each layer, which will add transparency and allow the bottom images to bleed through. I like to work between 10% and 60% opacity, but feel free to experiment (though be sure to keep the bottommost image at 100% opacity).
Finally, fine-tune the effect by adjusting the layer order, turning different layers invisible, and even changing the blend modes. Really, it’s all about having fun and creating the most impressionistic effect!
8. Add a strong Orton Effect
The Orton Effect is a technique that involves blending two photos – one sharp, one blurred – for an ethereal, glow-like result:
When used with subtlety, it can add a bit of painterly flair to your landscape photos (for this reason, it’s a technique commonly used by the pros, though it’s often so dialed back that you won’t even notice!).
But you can also use the Orton Effect to create heavily impressionistic photos. Just crank it up to the extreme.
Now, there are several different ways to make this work, and the details will depend on your post-processing program, but here are the basic steps:
- Upload your image into a layer-based editing program.
- Duplicate the original image (so you have a bottom layer and a copy layer).
- Brighten the copy layer with an exposure adjustment.
- Add some Gaussian blur to the copy layer.
- Blend the two images together for an impressionistic look!
The intensity of the Orton Effect primarily depends on the amount of Gaussian blur you use, so be sure to experiment (and don’t be afraid to raise and lower the copy layer’s opacity!).
I also recommend you play with blend modes; these can make a huge difference. Start out with modes like Lighten, Soft Light, Multiply, and Screen, all of which tend to create cool effects.
Impressionistic landscape photography: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know how to capture some impressionistic masterpieces.
So head out with your camera! Get shooting!
And above all, enjoy yourself. Impressionistic landscape shots are all about having fun with the process.
Now over to you:
Which of these techniques do you plan to try first? Do you have a favorite? Share your thoughts in the comments below!