The Return of Pictorialism

Posted on September 15, 2008

Sometimes, your most interesting photos come entirely by accident:

Floral Impressionism

Is it a painting? A photograph? A photograph of a painting? I personally think this is the most unique image I’ve ever taken – the blurred flower petals (yes that’s what they are) look like soft brush strokes on canvas. Not our usual idea of how a photograph should be (sharp and in focus), this picture reminds me of the efforts of pictorialists, who believed that photography should emulate painting.

But unlike so many of their efforts, no soft-focus lenses or special filters were used. Heck, I didn’t even Photoshop this, other than adjusting exposure and contrast. The technique’s not an exact science, but here are a few things that contributed to this effect.

First, I used a very small aperture: f/25 (anything smaller than f/16 should do). At such tiny apertures, diffraction effects (from light entering an extremely small area) are clearly visible on the image.

Secondly, I used a very high ISO (at least 1600, 6400 in the image above). Because this image was shot at night, with a very small aperture, I needed to push the ISO to get a shutter speed less than ten seconds – the longest shutter speed I’m comfortable hand-holding. Plus, high ISOs add a nice grainy effect, which I think enhances the picture.

Thirdly, I shot with a Nikon VR (Vibration Reduction) lens. Without its stabilizing effect, the flower’s shape would be unrecognizable; the whole shot would be a blurry mess. Of course, there is no way a VR lens can make a ten second handheld exposure sharp, but this is not the point. The corrective power of VR helps the flower keep some of its form through the long exposure. Canon users can use their IS lenses, of course.

Creative photography is a fusion of technical knowledge, experimentation, and artistic vision. Artistic vision to visualize a interesting image, experimentation to try new techniques, and technical knowledge to understand why they work. Keep shooting and you’ll never know what you’ll find.

» Filed Under Everything and Nothing, Photography


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