When photography became an affordable and established craft in the late 1800s, many early practitioners were shunned by the art community: their images were considered merely mechanical reproductions of the world. To be real art, critics demanded that artists mediate the world in dramatic fashion.
So many early photographers turned to contemporary practices in painting, producing impressionistic photographs. Despite being able to produce sharp, detailed pictures, the “pictorialist” photographers created intentionally soft images. It wasn’t until around near the end of the 19th century that a group of Bay-area photographers resisted this trend. Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, a few other photographer insisted upon “straight photography,” creating sharp, detailed images.
For most of my career, I have worked in the space created by Adams and his crew, striving to produce super-sharp, highly detailed images of natural subjects. This means acquiring sharp lenses and quality cameras, placing them on the sturdy supports, and practicing precise techniques, such as using mirror lock-up, triggering with a remote, and paying careful attention to post-processing.
Recently I decided to carry my photography back the early pictorialist roots: I decided to try my hand at impressionistic photography. Why not see what it is like to record the feelings, emotions, sensations with which the world marks us?
So, I threw away my tripod (just kidding!) and started moving my camera around during exposures (gasp!). I jiggled the camera. I shook it. I turned it. I moved it up and down. It was fun, and, wow, the results were exciting.
Now capturing impressionistic shots is part of my mindset in the field. Most of the time I am still creating sharp, detail-rich images, but, when a scene or subject strikes my senses just right and I start feeling it, I start breaking all the rules.
Here are some suggestions for creating your own impressionistic images:
- To get slow shutter speeds, set your camera on the slowest ISO and your lens on its smallest aperture. You may even want to attach a polarizing or neutral density filter. Then hand-hold your slower shutter speed shots, intentionally moving up and down, left and right, or in any direction that complements the look of your subject.
- With zoom lenses, increase or decrease focal length during the shot. Experiment with zooming, sometimes leaving the lens at one position for a time during the exposure.
- Begin capturing in-focus and then defocus during the exposure for a softened look.
- For lenses with a tripod collar, loosen it up and then rotate your camera while shooting.
- If you have a long lens and a gimbal mount—I use the Sigma 500mm f/4.5 on a Wimberley head—try smoothly swinging the lens around during ¼ to 1 second exposure.
- Finally, try combining these techniques for increasingly unusual effects.
Curious Critters, David’s new children’s picture book, is now available. Click here to see sample pages or to purchase from Wild Iris Publishing All images in Curious Critters were all produced with Sigma lenses. Curious Critters will be available through bookstores and online in November. To see more of David’s hallmark white-background animal portraits, visit curious-critters.com.