Create Artistic Blurs In-Camera

Tips for achieving a painterly effect with subtle camera movements
This Article Features Photo Zoom
Sand dunes, Death Valley National Park, California; Alders, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington.

Impressionistic photography has caught on. The process of blurring photographs with a camera is everywhere. Call it what you will; it can be an exciting process, and I have many online students giving it a try. The idea of “painting with light” by moving the camera during exposure has been around for decades. I was first captivated by the idea when I saw Ernst Haas’ photographs about 30 years ago. The great color photographer was a pioneer in using slow shutter speeds while panning with the subject’s motion. That was “way back” in the film days when one couldn’t see results right away. Now, with digital cameras, we see what we’re doing as we photograph through the LCD previews, making the process much more engaging.

I’ve often been asked about how I make my own Impressions images, so here are some tips. Many folks are excited with this technique, but are then frustrated by their results, so I hope this will help you if you want to try blurring yourself.

First, it’s important to remember that composition and light are just as important to a good blur as any photo. Granted, it’s hard to control framing while moving the camera, but it comes down to editing; image design can’t be neglected. Distracting elements in a composition are a problem regardless of sharpness. I look for the same basic design elements as any landscape image before I start moving my camera.

Once I frame the image, I’ll shoot a burst of frames while moving the camera. How I move the camera depends on the subject. If working with a forest scene, like the alders image, I move the camera up and down. With the sand dunes image, I moved laterally to the right and left. In both cases, I panned along with the major lines in the scene. With other images, like flowers or leaves, I make very small motions, not sweeping motions, so that the edges are softened. This works for my tastes since I usually want the shapes to be “painted,” but distinctive of that subject. The degree of motion varies, sometimes long sweeps up and down, then some short. If I see an area of the scene, like a bright sky or distracting object, I refrain my motion to avoid it.

Alders, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington.

Then I review the series on the back of the camera and make adjustments in the variables of shutter speed, aperture and camera motion. Repeat your creative ideas until done. One of my favorite aspects of panning is how the subject, whether landscape or detail, can be simplified. The strong lines of a forest can stand out against a “painted” background. For this reason, I use longer exposures in the range of 0.5 to 2 seconds. I’ll often try a “bracket” of shutter speeds to see what looks best on the LCD. One of my favorite tools for impressionistic imagery is the Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter. It allows me to use slow shutter speeds, especially in bright lighting conditions.

Editing is as important, perhaps more so, when you generate dozens of frames from your explorations. It really helps me to have a program like Lightroom to sift and compare frames. I use the Survey View and Compare Views all the time in order to see the different effects of my efforts.

I’ve found that postprocessing is an essential aspect of making strong “blurs” just as it is with any digital capture. Since the camera motion softens overall contrast during the capture process, especially between highlight and shadow, most images need extra contrast. Of course, how much contrast is needed will be a matter of taste. With the alders photo, I tried more contrast than seen here, but the mood got too dark. So I backed off until there was a good balance—a sense of lightness, yet the tree shapes were distinct. For my sand dunes image, a strong contrast Curve was needed to define the strong graphic shapes of the dune forms.

One last thought: Once you’ve made a few impressionistic images that are keepers, be sure to treat yourself by making some big prints. I use watercolor paper for this style of photograph and have found that the painterly “brushstroke” qualities really come alive when printed at least 16×24. I’ve made 26×40- and 40×60-inch prints that have an especially strong impact at those sizes.

To learn about William Neill’s private workshops in the Yosemite area and his e-books
, Impressions of Light and Landscapes of the Spirit, plus his PhotoBlog and online courses with, visit

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.