Blurring The Line

Depart from the confined realm of the literal and create abstract motion-blur images that convey the feel of autumn color

Soon after acquiring my first SLR, I befriended a group of local artists and spoke with them about the way they responded to visual experience. Hearing them discuss tones, edges, movement and blending differently than how photographers do sparked a desire in myself to create more painterly images with my camera. My first attempts to create pen-and-ink and watercolor-inspired imagery used controlled amounts of focus. Then, I expanded my methods to include In-Camera Movement (ICM). My friends began calling this imagery the "Orton Effect."

If you want to employ ICM with your images, the tools you need are basic: A DSLR with manual and aperture priority mode and a wide to normal zoom lens cover about 95% of the subject matter I explore. I also use a polarizing filter for control over reflection and color saturation, and an ND filter during longer exposures when I want to make slower camera movements. I usually keep my camera in aperture mode to quickly scroll through the shutter speeds as I work. My most used shutter speeds are ½ to 4 sec.

All of my work is handheld, which allows me the freedom to combine complex movements. But when you first start exploring ICM, making smooth, handheld movement may be difficult. In this case, you can practice creating fluid movement with a tripod and an unlocked head. This will provide smooth movement in all directions, but be aware that it will limit you to a fixed pivot point instead of long, brushlike movements.

As you look for subjects for your ICM, some will be obvious, while others will develop with your eye. Seeing lines and shapes in your subject is the first step to determining the direction of your movement. One way to see these more vividly is to defocus your lens while looking through your viewfinder. Begin with the recognizable lines and then search for more complex or implied shapes.

When I first started working with ICM, I used slide film. This may have been a good thing in that I thought through each exposure more carefully. But using current technology to view the exposure immediately allows you to become familiar with the look each movement produces and leads to more accurate previsualization for your final image over time.

1) Swirl
A large-leafed maple canopy viewed from below provided the raw material for this image. The effect was achieved by rotating the camera, changing the focal length and zooming in during a 2-second exposure. A soft backlight helped to pop the color. I overexposed slightly with a polarizer and 2-stop ND filter. Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Nikon D200, AF-S Nikkor 18-70mm ƒ/3.5-4.5G IF-ED, polarizer, 2-stop ND filter

2) Tranquility Trail
This is a maple tree and a gravel path leading into the woods around my home. The light was a perfect soft overcast. I used a small circular movement while softening focus with a 2-second exposure. South Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Nikon D200, AF-S Nikkor 18-70mm ƒ/3.5-4.5G IF-ED, polarizer, 2-stop ND filter

3) Courage
This is an example of implied lines. This is a row of maples in front of darkened woods, with a trail and fallen leaves on grass below. From this, I was able to extract a strong abstract by using a 2-second exposure with a soft, modulating line movement while zooming in slightly to ensure the bands of color were parallel. The trunks were erased and the red canopy of leaves was blended together during this movement. Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Nikon D200, AF-S Nikkor 18-70mm ƒ/3.5-4.5G IF-ED, polarizer, 2-stop ND filter

4) Complexity
This is a grouping of young aspens in the fall. While many of the movements I use are 1 to 4 sec., this is 1⁄15 sec., with a medium camera speed. It's a simple vertical line that rendered the leaves as smudges of color while at the same time retained the white lines of the slender trunks. There was soft backlight giving contrast in the background. Nanaimo Lakes, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Nikon D200, AF-S Nikkor 18-70mm ƒ/3.5-4.5G IF-ED, polarizer

5) Heavenly
Whenever there are patterns of dark and light areas, you need to be sensitive to the type of camera movement you make so it won't erase the dark areas with the light areas. In order to retain the dark trunks of these almond trees, I moved my camera in a vertical line with slight horizontal modulation, ending with a tiny return loop. Bakersfield, California. Nikon D200, AF-S Nikkor 18-70mm ƒ/3.5-4.5G IF-ED

6) Stark Serenity
Looking directly skyward among a grove of alder trees, I simultaneously zoomed in while changing my focus to create dramatic depth and smooth lines. Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Nikon D200, AF-S Nikkor 18-70mm ƒ/3.5-4.5G IF-ED

7) Ecstasy
This maple tree was silhouetted, causing an almost electric, vibrant color. During the 2-second exposure, I used small circles and pulled focus toward the camera. Departure Bay, Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Nikon D200, AF-S Nikkor 18-70mm ƒ/3.5-4.5G IF-ED, ND filter

8) Fractured
This is a small bush by the edge of a river with light reflected off of its wet leaves. A fast horizontal camera movement with a 1⁄30 sec. exposure rendered the leaves as hundreds of shards of light, creating wonderful complexity. Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Nikon D200, AF-S Nikkor 18-70mm ƒ/3.5-4.5G IF-ED, polarizer

Fall Color Motion Blurs, Step By Step

1 Select your subject and identify the line you're accentuating.

2 With your eye to the viewfinder, slowly move the camera with your entire body along the line several inches, as if on a track (not simply a pivot or pan).

3 Lengthen the movement to extend past the subject. Explore the process of blending the contextual space with the subject through both movement and the adjustment of shutter speeds.

4 Practice adding slight modulations or waves to your line. You may notice the blending of tones and colors.

5 Continue to expand your range of motion, adding variety such as small circles, arcs, and smaller line and pivot movements. Your choice of movement is reliant on your subject matter, your eye and your intention of mood.

6 Once you feel comfortable with these camera movements, begin experimenting with your lens capabilities. Adjust your focal length with your zoom lens and alter your focus during the exposure. Zooming is the key to creating images with diverging lines opposed to parallel lines. Lens adjustments will require practice for finger dexterity.

7 Study your results. This can be done throughout your shoot to see which movements and shutter speeds are working best with your subject and if you're on the right path.

Michael Orton is a photographer in Nanaimo, BC, Canada. See more of his work at


    I first saw these techniques explained several years back by Bryan Peterson of PPSOP. I’ve taken many photos of multi-colored flowers using the swirl technique and of various scenes making the small circles. When I entered them in various contests, the judges HATED them. Apparently, those judges didn’t “get” it.

    Thanks for the beautiful images, and specific instructions for this very creative mode! I had a great time trying some of the techniques last weekend. Looking at one of my favorite parks in a different way was very fun. I will need more practice, especially with my favorite, image number 2. Those tight little circles are very challenging!

    I’ve been looking for a monthly assignment to give to our photo club this month. After reading Michel Orton’s article I now know what we’re going to try!

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