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An Introduction to Intentional Camera Movement

how to use intentional camera movement

When thinking about photography, we don’t often jump to thinking about intentional camera movement or movement in photography.

Many photographers rightly obsess about sharpness and detail. There is no reason why we shouldn’t capture consistently sharp images thanks to modern sensors boasting millions of pixels and highly sophisticated AF systems.

Most of us also own a decent tripod, so there is little excuse for blurry shots. Having invested in the gear, why would you want to do anything but capture a bitingly sharp result?

The answer is simple of course – for creativity. Photography is an art form and recording our subject exactly as we see it will not always communicate our vision and emotion effectively.

Intentional camera movement (ICM) is an abstract style of photography which I suspect you are already aware of. It is not a new trend; photographers like Ernst Haas were experimenting with deliberate camera motion in the mid-20th century. However, it is a technique growing in popularity as photographers look for fresh ways to be creative or unconventional.

Photographers like Valda Bailey, Chris Friel, and Doug Chinnery are among the leading lights in the UK for using ICM for creativity and abstraction. Look at their work – their images will provide you with far more inspiration and variety than my own.

I don’t consider myself to be a particularly good or innovative ICM photographer, but I do like the results and enjoy playing with camera motion when the opportunity allows. There is so much scope for originality and if you’ve not attempted ICM previously, I hope this introduction encourages you to play.

Read more: How to Capture Movement in Landscapes 

Intentional Camera Movement

Let’s start by clarifying what ICM is. It is a technique where the photographer intentionally moves the camera during exposure to create a more abstract rendition of the landscape or subject. Instead of recording a sharp, lifelike image, you are effectively painting with your camera.

how to use intentional camera movement

The scene or subject provides the shapes, colour, texture, and interest and the sensor is your canvas. Results have an impressionist feel to them, and they often resemble a painting more than they do a photograph.

By its nature, this is a very subjective technique – you will either love or hate the results. There is no right or wrong, all that matters is that you produce an image that you enjoy and that reflects your personal vision.

Camera setup

The camera setup is relatively simple. Almost any focal length can work, but a short telephoto is often a good starting point. A tripod isn’t necessary, working handheld will provide you with far more creative freedom. However, there may be situations where you find support helps you pan the camera with more control and precision.

panning and intentional camera movement in photography

Shutter length is key to success, so select manual or shutter priority mode to control the length of exposure.

Typically, an exposure length of between 1/4 sec to 2 seconds works well, but it will depend on the effect you wish to achieve. If the shutter speed is much faster than this, you will struggle to move the camera enough during exposure. The effect will look accidental, rather than intentional and flowing.

To generate a slow shutter, select a low ISO and small f/stop. There is no need to worry about the effects of diffraction (or noise for that matter) when shooting ICM, so if you need to opt for an aperture of f/22 or even f/32 to achieve the right shutter length, do so.

using intentional camera movement in photography

You could even consider using an ND filter or a polariser to absorb light and lengthen the exposure. The best times of day to shoot ICM images are typically around dawn and dusk when there is less light and exposure length is naturally longer anyway.

Read more: How to Take Long Exposure Landscape Photos

How to Use Intentional Camera Movement

While shutter length is a key ingredient for ICM photography, it is the direction and speed of camera movement that has the biggest impact on the look, feel, and flow of images.

Different panning directions provide different results and reactions. A vertical or horizontal motion is the most common way to pan the camera, but diagonal, circular, or back-and-forth movements can prove equally effective.

Try rotating the camera or using a random, irregular motion. Less conventional actions can sometimes provide the most painterly and eye-catching results.

intentional camera movememnt in photography

It is important to experiment and play.

Regardless of the direction of your camera movement, it is normally best to keep your panning action smooth and deliberate.

Begin panning just prior to releasing the shutter and continue to move the camera until just after the shutter closes. By ‘dragging the shutter’ in this way you will create some very impressionistic results.    

I should highlight that this is a very hit-and-miss style of photography and experimentation is key to success. It can take countless attempts to get a photo you like, so remain patient.

how to use intentional camera movement

Some ICM photographers will take hundreds of images before they are satisfied. No two efforts are ever quite the same and the slightest change in movement, shutter speed, or the speed of motion will yield very different results.

Read more: Panning Technique – Conveying Motion in a Photo

When should you use ICM?

Subject selection is important. Identify scenes or subjects containing strong colours, contrast, shapes, or a distinctive, instantly recognisable outline. Trees work well, as do cityscapes, coastal scenes, and strong sunrise or sunset colours. Waves, boats floating on the water, people, and patterns are understandably popular subjects.

intentional camera movement landscape Photography

Both colour and black and white suit the technique. What is important is that you create an image of the world that is very different to how we would normally perceive it. You typically want the subject to remain recognisable but distorted enough that it challenges the viewer to decipher the image, thus, making the subject be seen in a fresh or objective way.

When shooting ICM, be prepared for some puzzled looks. From an outsider’s perspective, it will look like you have absolutely no idea what you are doing as you randomly waft your camera around! Perseverance is required, and a good degree of luck and randomness is often needed before you achieve the type of effect you desire.

tips for intentional camera movement in photography

Thankfully, the ability to review images instantly allows photographers to quickly assess what is or isn’t working and refine their camera setup and technique accordingly. Also, consider combining creative techniques. For example, you could ‘layer’ multiple ICM images together using your camera’s multiple exposure mode.  

Of course, it is possible to replicate ICM using photo editing software. For example, using Photoshop, click Filter > Blur > Motion Blur. Using the Motion Blur dialogue box, alter the combination of angle, pixels, and distance to mimic ICM results.

However, doing so rather defeats the objective of the technique. By definition, this is a practice that relies on the photographer to physically move the camera to create a specific effect. It should be an in-camera technique – not one you attempt to create retrospectively.

Read more: Create Impressionistic Images Using Multiple Exposures

In conclusion

Understandably, few techniques polarise opinions as much as ICM. The results are very ‘marmite’ – you either love them or hate them. Just don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

Photography should be an experimental and innovative process. It’s important to remember that we shouldn’t be taking photos to please others. Instead, we should be focused on satisfying our own creative vision. Whether that vision requires you to capture a sharp rendition of your subject or not is entirely down to you…

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Visit Ross's website

Ross Hoddinott is among the UK’s best-known landscape and natural history photographers. He is a multi-award-winning photographer and the author of several bestselling photography titles, including The Landscape Photography Workshop (with Mark Bauer). Based in Cornwall, Ross is best known for his images of the South West of England, but he travels all over the UK in search of outstanding views and atmospheric conditions. He is a Nikon Alumni, an Ambassador for Manfrotto and a Global Icon for F-Stop Gear. Ross is a popular and experienced tutor and co-runs Dawn 2 Dusk Photography, specialising in landscape photography workshops.

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