How Intentional Camera Movement Can Create Unique and Stunning Photos

How Intentional Camera Movement Can Create Unique and Stunning Photos

Intentional camera movement is taking a photograph with a longer shutter speed and purposefully moving the camera during exposure. Most photographers swear by using a tripod for this technique, but I'm here to show you that you can do it handheld just as easily.

Intentional camera movement is the process of moving the camera during an exposure in order to purposefully produce image blur for creative purposes. It's different than camera shake blur, which is the unintentional blurring of a photograph due to incorrect camera settings, low light, or due to the camera not being kept still enough.

ICM is done with a longer shutter speed in order to achieve these blurred results, and photographers commonly use tripods to steady the camera during exposure, often with a three-way tripod head that allows the locking along the horizontal or vertical plane for intentional blurring in only one specific direction.

Does that mean you can't do ICM if you don't have a tripod or a three-way head? Of course not. You just have to be a little more careful with your camera movement and the settings you dial in. So let's take a look at how you can shoot ICM photographs handheld.

Time It Right

Camera settings back screen

I set my camera to shutter priority mode and dialled in 1/20 sec shutter speed with ISO100

The most important step to getting a good ICM shot is in the length of the exposure. The shutter speed should be long enough to get camera movement blur, but only just. As a general rule, start at 1/10th the length of your lens' focal length and then go slower from there. For example, if you're shooting on a 200mm lens, then use 1/20 sec shutter speed as your starting point.

Aperture and ISO sensitivity don't matter too much here, so it's easiest to just use shutter priority mode if you don't feel comfortable setting your exposure in manual mode. If your shutter speed isn't getting long enough because the scene's too bright, then drop down your ISO sensitivity or stop down. If it's still too bright, you might have to use a neutral density filter to darken the frame.

Lens Choice

Lens choice telephoto

For this shot I used my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VRII ED set to 150mm focal length

Focal length will determine the shutter speed required to acquire sufficient blur. A longer lens requires a shorter shutter speed. Wider lenses will need much longer shutter speeds because their field of view is so wide and a small camera movement will be more difficult to register as blur. I've taken all these ICM images on a 70-200mm lens shot at 150mm.

The Method

Vertical movement with the camera

As I photograph the trees in front of me I'm tilting the camera up and down to move vertically with the direction of the tree growth

Start by widening your stance and putting a little bend in your knees (if you're standing). Lock your elbows in towards your body and steady the lens with the left hand underneath it. Then, move in the direction of the subject's shape to retain the detail of your subject. For my forest shot, I moved vertically, because that's the direction of the tree growth.

You have to balance the speed of the camera movement with the length of the shutter speed. I can't tell you exactly what that should be, as it depends on which focal length lens you're using, the available light, and how fast you're moving the camera. Also, it depends what you like the look of: if you prefer a more blurred shot, then you'll want to go longer with the shutter speed or move the camera faster (or both). In my photos, though, I used 1/8 sec at 150mm with an aperture of f/2.8 and ISO 100.

Issues You'll Encounter

The Shutter Speed Isn't Long Enough

Shutter speed too short in photo

The shutter speed was too short here and there's a little too much detail in the forest for my liking

For me, there's not enough blurring in the above photo to make it look good. Remember, the technique is called intentional camera movement, and this shot just looks like unintentional camera shake blur. Also, there's a little too much detail in the trees for my money. You'll also get the same issue if you're not moving the camera fast enough.

Not Moving in a Consistent Direction With the Subject

Keep it steady in direction of the subject

I accidentally moved the camera horizontally while taking this photo which caused the smooth tree shapes to become jagged

Look at the edges of the trees here, and you'll see jagged edges. It looks like aliasing in a video game, where edges are smooth and straight but stepped and odd-looking. But the reason for this is that it's actually because I wasn't moving consistently in the direction of the tree growth. There was a little side-to-side movement during the exposure, which caused this jagged outline. That's why most photographers use a three-way head on a tripod, as it avoids this kind of issue, but to be honest, it only took me a few seconds to get a handheld shot that was perfectly straight, so it's not really an issue.

Image Stabilization Will Help

Shooting on a lens with IS will help with getting things looking right, as it'll smooth out all the imperfections of movement as you wobble the camera back and forth. In fact, any kind of IS will work, so a camera with in-body image stabilization will also benefit this kind of photography.

Experiment With the Technique

Experiment with the settings in-camera

Try mixing up the length of the shutter speed and the speed of your camera movement to get different results

Try going longer again with the shutter speed or moving the camera even faster. You might find in some situations that an even more extreme blur will produce gorgeous, silky results. In the above photo, I used exactly the same camera settings as before (f/2.8, 1/8 sec, and ISO 100), but this time, I moved the camera much faster during the exposure, and the trees have lost a lot of fine detail, becoming more line-like.

Conclusion

Final handheld ICM photo

My final handheld ICM photograph shot without a tripod

I really love handheld photos for intentional camera movement, because they allow me to travel light (without a tripod), and there's less setup time. What's great is that almost every photo is different. The composition changes as you take photos, because you're constantly tilting up and down (or panning left to right), firing shots off as you go, and the results look different if you switch up movement speeds or shutter speeds. It's an incredibly fun way to get some more conceptual photos.

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34 Comments

Matthew Lacy's picture

I definitely enjoy doing ICM photos, and especially ones with trees. I've done some work with the technique, and also dabble in ICM composites. Have you done anything that wasn't one frame?

Thomas Starlit's picture

These are great! I'd hang that on my wall

Matthew Lacy's picture

I'm glad you liked it.

Lee Huberts's picture

wow that last one is beautyful

Matthew Lacy's picture

Thank you. It's a three-image composite.One for the sky, one for the lake and foreground, and one for the background.

Robert Nurse's picture

These are really good!! I particularly like 2 and 3!

Matthew Lacy's picture

Thank you Robert.

Eivind Rohne's picture

These are beautiful!

Daniel Simon's picture

Alternatively, just forget to tighten your tripod legs properly while making a long exposure. I like how this shot went from a typical tourist shot of Venice at sunrise to something more, but try as I might, I could not replicate it. Oh well. Will definitely try out some of the advice above - thanks Jason!

Alan Brown's picture

This turned out really well Daniel. There are so many variables in ICM that make every image unique and impossible to reproduce. There are many that shoot ICM using the technique in your 'accident' (although not with a flaky tripod,,,)

Mark Harris's picture

Didn't realise the technique had a name, but it's a favorite of mine. And the blur doesn't have to be linear (then the centre is naturally sharper as it moves less than the edges).

Matthew Lacy's picture

Good work Mark.

Maksims Ter-Oganesovs's picture

really good!

Alan Brown's picture

Great work Mark!

Alan Brown's picture

For those interested in this and other creative ICM techniques check out ICM Photo Magazine (icmphotmag.com) and the corresponding Facebook group. The mag contains a lot of stunning examples, interviews with artists, articles on ICM etc etc.
The FB group is great to see what others (novice and veteran alike) are creating.

BTW - well done Matthew, it's great you are getting recognition for your wonderful work.

Matthew Lacy's picture

Thank you Alan.

Zack Schindler's picture

This is an ICM shot I did of Saginaw Bay, Michigan in 2014. I had the camera on a tripod and then panned slowly.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Very good. I like the effect and the look. I recently started shooting these, but need to devote more time to it. Thank you.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Very good. I like the effect and look. I recently started doing these, but need to devote more time shooting. Thank you.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Very nice. I like the effect and look. I started doing this, but need to shoot more. It's interesting. Thank you.

Daniele Filacchioni's picture

I have been working on this technique since the early 90s, it has always fascinated me.

mathieu brousseau's picture

I absolutely love the second shot of the woman walking. Great job!

Daniele Filacchioni's picture

Thanks a lot Mathieu!

Chris 'stAn' Hargrave's picture

These are fantastic Daniele - the person with the umbrella is very intriguing

Daniele Filacchioni's picture

Thanks my friend!

Ian Browne's picture

yours get better on the way down --- love the last one. that's stunning !!

Daniele Filacchioni's picture

Many thanks Ian!

Maksims Ter-Oganesovs's picture

wow, thats definitely a great shot and tutorial. I will try it ;)

Ashraf qureshi's picture

Awesome Blog...!!
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Jason Memmer's picture

I was playing with ICM this past Fall in Colorado with the Aspen trees.

Ian Browne's picture

Most of my better abstracts images seem to be unintentional camera movement blur :( :lol:)

Denis Trudeau's picture

I tried yesterday and it worked

"after the snowstorm by Denis Trudeau on Fstoppers" https://fstoppers.com/photo/544450

Alan Brown's picture

Nice work Denis.

Madz Nine's picture

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