photo impressionism

origins of photo impressionism

Historically there is  a close connection between photography as an artistic medium and impressionism. Both are contemporaries of each other and both relied on technological innovation that permitted easy mobility. In the case of impressionist painters it was the introduction of tube paint. For photographers it was the Kodak camera. Not surprisingly, photographers began to use an impressionistic approach to their images almost from the beginning. For more on early the photo impressionist photographers see The Photo Impressionism Project: Pictorialists.

the idea

I have experimented with in-camera multiple exposures, dragged shutter exposures and digitally layered photographs to create photo impressionistic images (for purists I admit the images are really examples of post-impressionism). They have promise.

I like the way impressionistic photographs convey energy and motion. As well, the soft image resulting from impressionistic techniques can bring the eye to rest on unexpected detail. 

There is a paradigm shift in impressionistic photography. Less often says more; meaning sharp focus and a steady image can sometimes get in the way of the idea being conveyed. The idea of framing the image also gets turned upside down. With photo impressionism the movement of the frame is often more important than what is moving in the frame.

To me that is the essence of photo impressionism. It is a genre grounded in the unexpected which leaves the viewer with the subject’s  essential impression.

the techniques

The marathoners; by Stephen D’Agostino
  • In camera multiple exposures; I like this effect the best because there is an element of chance and the soft colors and forms remind me of impressionistic paintings. To my mind this technique results in the most interesting images.
  • Photoshop montage; is much more contrived but the effects can be very powerful.
  • In the round; really a subset of montage. A large number of images are taken of an object from all angles and then merged into one image to capture it in the context of its environment. This technique is a subset of opacity blending or image averaging.
  • long exposure, slow shutter; usually panned images of moving subjects lasting a half second or more. These images convey motion in a way that is graceful, almost elegant while preserving the spontaneity.
  • Slow sync flash;
  • Rear sync flash;
  • Multiple flash;
  • Moon  light exposures: and
  • The Orton Technique.

in camera multiple exposure

I first experienced the use of multiple exposures to create photo impressionistic images in Freeman Patterson and Andre Gallant’s book “Photo Impressionism and the Subjective Image“. Still a  great read if you are looking to push your creativity. I have tried to add to their ideas by choosing subjects that are more dynamic.

Photo impressionistic image of dragon boat racers by Stephen D'Agostino. an example of photo impressionism using the multiple exposure technique.
Photo impressionistic image of dragon boat racers by Stephen D’Agostino

Take a look at my dragon boat or marathon images in my multiple exposure gallery and I think you will agree it is a powerful technique. Or take a look at the images I exhibited as part of Toronto’s Contact Photography Exhibition. Framed on stretched canvas the images evoke the sense of impressionist painting.

Not all digital cameras provide for multiple exposure photography. I started using the Fujifilm S Pro DSLR series and liked the result using the traditional manual exposure technique familiar to film shooters; reduce the exposure by the square root of the number of images (9 exposures = -3 compensation). More recently I have been using Nikon’s D4 which has a multiple exposure mode that automatically makes the exposure compensation.

While it is possible to reproduce the multiple exposure effect by combining layers in Photoshop, I think the in camera technique produces a more satisfying image.

In Front of The Mona Lisa 1 by Stephen D'Agostino. An example of photo impressionism using the multiple exposure technique.
In Front of The Mona Lisa 1 by Stephen D’Agostino

slow shutter

Compared to multiple exposure I like the softness, almost elegance of slow shutter images. A sense of motion without hard edges. Like multiple exposure it is an in camera technique and as a result is immediate and spontaneous.

Dragon Boat Detail by Stephen D'Agostino. An example of photo impressionism using the slow shutter technique.
Dragon Boat Detail by Stephen D’Agostino

I use two techniques to try to increase the movement in my images . Moving subjects like the dragon boats lend themselves to panning. For more static subjects like people in art galleries, the focal length of the lens becomes the moving element.


Dragon Boat Montage by Stephen D'Agostino. An example of photo impressionism using the montage technique.
Dragon Boat Montage by Stephen D’Agostino

Unlike the other techniques, montage is a post production exercise using overlapping layers and opacity control to convey a sense of motion. As a result it can be criticized for being contrived. Even so I love the effect.

in the round

Washington Monument In The Round by Stephen D'Agostino. An example of photo impressionism using the in the round montage technique.
Washington Monument In The Round by Stephen D’Agostino

A subset of montage but much more reliant on opacity control (image averaging), in the round involves taking many photographs of the same object from all sides to show the object in its complete environment. Although the technique involves much post production I find it very satisfying. Think of it as an in camera technique and work hard at sizing and alignment in your viewfinder for the best result.

Carousel In the Round by Stephen D'Agostino. An example of photo impressionism using the in the round montage technique.
Carousel In the Round by Stephen D’Agostino

The Washington Monument image above is composed of about 40 images taken in a wide circle around the monument. Image size and placement was in camera but the individual images had to be merged in Photoshop because my digital camera times out after about 30 seconds. From my point of view this is my first successful in the round image.

Taken the same day as the Washington Monument above using the same technique, a carousel located close to the Smithsonian Castle. The big difference from the preceding image is that the layers are set to luminosity.

For more information on in the round technique you can see a collection of my favourite images in my in the round gallery. Or you can read related posts from my blog using this link.

12 thoughts on “photo impressionism”

  1. great read! I just started playing with this idea using a lens baby and I was not quite getting the effect I wanted. I am excited to try out these other techniques. Thank you!

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photography, photo impressionism and infrared black & white