Creating Abstract Impressions: by Anne McKinnell

Impressionist painters were more concerned with colour than line. Their goal was to leave the viewer with an impression of the scene rather than a literal depiction and their works often included a sense of movement.

Photographers can also create emotional abstracts that leave only an impression of the original subject by using a slow shutter speed, from 1/50 of a second to 1/2 second, and moving the camera while the shutter is open or allowing a moving subject to pass in front of the camera.

This technique is fun because every frame turns out different. An afternoon can easily slip by as if moving on the waves of colour. There are 3 ways of approaching this technique:

1. Pan with a moving subject
When you move the camera while the shutter is open, it is called panning. With a moving subject, you want to pan at the right speed to keep the subject in the frame. Panning on a moving subject with a very slow shutter speed has a drastically different result than panning with a faster shutter speed. A faster shutter will have more sharpness in the subject and show some blur in the background. A very slow shutter speed is more abstract and allows you to really feel the movement while retaining just enough detail in the subject that you can still tell what it is.

1/50 Second, f/18, ISO 100

2. Pan with a motionless subject
There’s nothing stopping you from using the panning technique on a subject that is not moving. In this photo, I panned horizontally on a beach scene.

0.5 Seconds, f/9, ISO 100

This photo is a basket of flowers. I panned diagonally to get a different look.

0.5 Seconds, f/18, ISO 100

3. Let a moving subject pass a motionless camera
On an overcast day the conditions were perfect to photograph these soft pastel flowers in a nearby garden. But when I got there the weather had become windy. I decided to go with the flow and used a long shutter speed to blur the movement.

0.5 Seconds, f/4, ISO 100

Selecting a shutter speed is a matter of trial and error. I usually start around 1/4 second and then decide if I want more or less blur. The amount of blur is also affected by how fast you move the camera if you are panning. Try a variety of camera motions: you can make fast sweeps vertically or horizontally or just move the camera a little bit in any direction.

If you need to reduce the amount of light coming in your lens, you can use a small aperture or a filter such as a polarizer or neutral density.

My best advice is to just play without any expectations. Try different speeds moving the camera and different shutter speeds. Remember to focus on colour and keep any bright areas of sky out of the frame. I hope you have fun and are pleasantly surprised with the results.

Anne McKinnellAnne McKinnell is an award-winning freelance photographer based in Victoria, BC. She specializes in travel, landscape and abstract photography. Her creative eye inspires unique images that portray her appreciation for the natural world. Her greatest skill is patience, which allows her to consistently capture perfect light.

Company: Anne McKinnell Photography

Photo Credits: © 2010 Anne McKinnell

Here’s how you can share your tips, techniques and tutorials on

*The Current Photographer website contains links to our affiliate partners. Purchasing products and services through these links helps support our efforts to bring you the quality information you love and there’s no additional cost to you.