Impressions of Light

Create Artistic Blurs In-Camera
Tips for achieving a painterly effect with subtle camera movements

Alders, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington 2006


Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California 2006


I have been a photographer for four decades. I started out with my first camera in 1974, a 35mm Pentax Spotmatic film camera. Over the years, I have most often photographed natural patterns and other details in the landscape. In 1982, I acquired a 4×5 field camera, and for the next 20 years, I photographed mostly with 4×5 transparency film. I continued to concentrate on photographing landscape details as well as broad views and dramatic light.  

My intention in using a large format camera was to render Nature with great detail such that the textures and eloquent light on my subjects became extra-ordinary. Since switching to digital, I used Canon’s high-resolution DSLRs and currently use a Sony high-resolution camera, to create most of my images. No matter the tool, however, my goal has remained the same – to inspire passion for the natural world and convey my emotional response to the subjects I photograph – that of awe and wonder.

Back in 2005, I discovered a new way for me to convey such an emotional response. I give credit for this inspiration to students taking an online course I was teaching. They had picked up some blurring, or “painting with light” techniques from other instructors. I had a strong visceral response to their images. I tried it out myself and became very intrigued by the possibilities, then immersed myself in creating this new portfolio of work.

Since I was a boy, I have loved impressionistic painting. My mother was a docent at the National Art Gallery when I lived near Washington, D.C. as a teenager. I was inspired by the en plein air approach of Monet and by the pointillism of Van Gogh I viewed there. Art was one of my favorite elective courses during high school. In college, I became intrigued by the motion studies of the great color photographer Ernst Haas. Another photographer that inspired me was Freeman Patterson, who also was using camera motion as a creative technique, as well as other methods for creating impressionistic photographs. 

The motion studies seen in my Impressions of Light work are simply another way to depict the profoundly moving beauty I see in Nature. The technical aspect of sharpness or softness of focus ultimately doesn’t matter to me. 

I try all kinds of movement, up and down or sideways, starting and stopping and changing direction in the middle of the exposure. Sometimes I just jiggle the camera. It’s a learning process, a sort of feedback loop. Every frame is different. I tend to photograph in bursts of five to ten images at one shutter speed. I then watch the images come up on the LCD, so see what happened. Based on what I see, I adjust shutter speed, focal length, or my camera position or movement to refine the effect. 

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 technique 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. 

This process continues until I think I’ve created something good. I end up with dozens, and sometimes a few hundred photographs after I try all the creative options that come to mind. The LCD screen is a vital tool in reviewing my results. 

As I edit the large number of images I generate, my use of Adobe Lightroom (or any software that helps review and compare files) helps tremendously. My selection process involves rating the images that appear to have the most potential, and once I have several similar frames, I use the Compare View function. I rank my photographs as I edit and process, coming back at least many times to arrive at the final top photos. Then I begin to work with those top images in Lightroom’s Develop module and/or in Photoshop.

In terms of composing, I start with an image design and camera position that would work for me as a sharp photograph. A great joy in making these images is the freeform and spontaneous style of capturing them. Still, I am conscientious about applying the same quality of any composition I make. For example, in my Winter Forest photo, I carefully moved my position to create the spaces between the trees that are a critical design element for the image.

Since the camera is moving during the exposure, it is not possible to control precisely where objects land within the frame. Most compositional issues, such as distracting bright areas along the frame’s edge, can be corrected by responding to feedback from the LCD. Any other problems with composition can be solved in the editing process, as I make enough similar images that usually at least one works out.

The most important note on my technique is that these images are all single exposures created with camera motion only. Having seen other techniques used, such as multiple exposure methods, I find the single-exposure approach works best for the mood I wish to create. The resulting images have an organic and painterly look rather than a “digitized” look. Other methods often look heavily manipulated or Photoshopped, while my style is to work with the textures and light and color I see in my camera.

Even when I use my camera set to its low­est ISO and the lens stopped way down, there’s often still too much ambient light to permit a long enough exposure time. In that case, I use a Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter, with which I can adjust the strength of neutral density to reduce the light entering the camera by up to eight stops. This tool has greatly increased both my options in bright lightings conditions and in controlling the balance of aperture and shutter speed. For example, with my flower close-ups, I can still use a slow shutter speed even when using the widest apertures.

In my processing, I make a few minor adjustments in Photoshop, including boosting contrast lost when a scene’s brighter areas blur into darker ones. I output images with Canon’s 12-color, pigment-based printers, which have 24- and 44-inch carriage widths, respectively. I usually print on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag, a watercolor-style paper. This paper’s texture is very effective at accentuating the painterly feel of these images.

Around the same time I was building this series, I watched a DVD entitled Andy Goldsworthy’s Rivers & Tides. If you are not familiar with his art, I highly recommend that you check out his books and this DVD. He is dedicated to connecting with Nature, especially around his home in Scotland, and this DVD shows him at work and talking about his art. I scribbled down some notes as I watched this inspirational documentary. As I listened to him express his philosophy, I realized, in a more concrete way, what I am trying to do with my Impressions of Light series:  Remove the context; distill down to the essence, convey the energy of a subject or scene in a fresh way.

The blurring process has the effect of simplifying the landscape, much as what occurs in snowy or foggy conditions. For me, these images defect the mind’s tendency to dwell on the concrete issues of place and name when viewing a subject. The spirit of a place or an object is less objectified and can be more strongly conveyed.


Winter Forest, Yosemite National Park, California 2007


Giant Sequoias, Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, California 2007

 I’m trying to stretch, not just to be different but also to find new ways to express what I’ve been trying to show all along—the beauty of Nature. It may sound trite, but that’s still what motivates my photographic explorations. To both grow and survive creatively as an artist, I have found it important to push myself in new directions; in other words, to evolve. Success towards this goal cannot be achieved passively, but it must be sought out. I have tried to adhere to the concept that as an artist, one should always question one’s preconceived notions.

Published by William Neill

William Neill, a resident of the Yosemite National Park area since 1977, is a landscape photographer concerned with conveying the deep, spiritual beauty he sees and feels in Nature. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars, 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 received a BA degree in Environmental Conservation at the University of Colorado. In 1995, Neill received the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's assignment and 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. Also, he writes a monthly column, On Landscape, for Outdoor Photographer magazine. Feature articles about his work have appeared in Life, Camera and Darkroom, Outdoor Photographer and Communication Arts, from whom he has also received five Awards of Excellence. His corporate clients have included Sony Japan, Bayer Corporation, Canon USA, Nike, Nikon, The Nature Company, Hewlett Packard, 3M, Freidrick Grohe, Neutrogena, Sony Music/Classical, University of Cincinnati, UBS Global Asset Management. His work was chosen to illustrate two special edition books published by The Nature Company, Rachel Carson's The Sense of Wonder and John Fowles's The Tree. His photographs were also published in a three book series on the art and science of natural process in collaboration with the Exploratorium Museum of San Francisco: By Nature's Design (Exploratorium / Chronicle Books, 1993), The Color of Nature (Exploratorium / Chronicle Books, 1996) and Traces of Time (Chronicle Books / Exploratorium, Fall 2000). A portfolio of his Yosemite photographs has been published entitled Yosemite: The Promise of Wildness (Yosemite Association, 1994) which received The Director's Award from the National Park Service. A retrospective monograph of his landscape photography entitled Landscapes Of The Spirit (Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown, 1997) relates his beliefs in the healing power of nature. William has taught photography since 1980 for such prestigious organizations as The Ansel Adams Gallery, the Friends of Photography, Palm Beach Photographic Workshops, The Maine Workshops and Anderson Ranch Workshops. He specializes in landscape and nature photography and is concerned with conveying the beauty seen in Nature. Currently, he teaches online courses for and One-on-One Workshops in his home studio near Yosemite National Park.

2 replies on “Impressions of Light”

  1. William,
    So you basically start with a purposefully slow shutter speed, hand-hold the camera, and then experiment with the different sweeps of motion?

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