Photoimpressionism – Tutorial

Creating impressionistic images is something I find very satisfying and enjoyable about photography. There are several ways to create these types of images to generate a painterly, artistic result.

The making of impressionistic photos can be done with multiple exposures or with a single exposure and with either a film or digital camera. The guideline that follows will show how to do it both with film and digital as well as with both multiple and single exposures.


If you’re using an automatic film camera, it has to have a multiple exposure feature built into it. All of Canon’s EOS SLRs have this feature. Other camera manufacturers included it in some of their models but not all. In some models you can only make 2 shots on the same film frame but in other models you can do up to 9. Canon’s EOS SLRs allow up to 9 – but you can do more and I’ll explain how below.

I use Canon cameras so I’m going to explain the technique as it would be done with an EOS SLR.

The first thing you need to do is compensate for the build up of exposure on the film frame. If you put 9 shots on a frame of film and don’t make any exposure adjustment, you’re going to end up with a very overexposed photo – not what we want. Assuming 100 ISO film, the easiest way to compensate is to adjust the ISO setting in the camera to equal the number of shots you want to make. So if you’re going to take 9, you’d set your film ISO to either 800 or 1000. You’ll need to take the camera out of auto-ISO mode to do this.

Once you’ve got the exposure compensation set, you go into the Multiple Exposure feature (how you access it through the menus is different depending on the camera but the manual will show you) and set the number of shots you want to take. The camera won’t advance the film until the last shot in the sequence has been taken. With the exposure compensation and number of frames set, you’re ready to make your multiple exposure, impressionistic photo. Compose as you would normally. Take the first shot then move the camera slightly in any direction – not much, just a small amount. Make your next exposure and move the camera again. Continue this until the last shot has been taken. It does take practice to figure out how to move the camera and how much to get the result you want. You can also with with a zoom lens and zoom the lens between shots. If you try this, start at the wider end of the zoom and work toward the narrower end. Starting at the wider end allows you to make sure there’s nothing unwanted to distracting in the frame because you’re only going to go narrower from there. With time, you’ll soon get a good feeling for how to go about it.

Remember I said you could do more than 9 shots on a frame with a Canon SLR? The way to do it is to set the number of exposures to 9 like we did above. After you take 8 shots, you can reset the counter and the exposures will continue on the same frame. So, if you set it to 9, take 8 then reset it to 9 you can get 17 shots on a frame. You can do this as many times as you want (within the limits of the ISO setting of the camera, of course). You need to make the appropriate exposure compensation before you start too. If you wanted 17 shots, you’d set your ISO to 1600.

The shot below left is a 17 shot multiple of a small maple tree that had turned colour for autumn. The shot on the right is a 26 exposure multiple of a plot of lupines.

Impressionism Examples (click for larger version)

If you’re using a manual film SLR you can still do multiple exposures, it’s just a little more work.

You still need to make the same exposure compensation as with an automatic SLR.

Getting the camera set to make the multiple exposures is where the little extra work comes in.  After each exposure, you’ll need to press the film rewind release button.  This disengages the internal clutch for the film advance mechanism.  While holding the rewind release button, cock the film advance lever.  This will reset the shutter but won’t advance the film.  After the shutter is reset, let go of the rewind release button and you’re ready to take your next shot.  It’s a good idea to cock the film advance lever after letting go of the rewind release button.  This ensures the film is properly tensioned in the camera and that it stays flat.


The process, with most digital cameras, is a fair bit different.  With the exception of a couple Pentaxes and Nikons, digital SLRs don’t have a multiple exposure feature.  It’s interesting that while Canon was known for including the feature on all of its EOS film SLRs, it has yet to include the capability into any of its DSLRs.

Since, for the most part, you can’t do it in camera, you have to do it with editing software – the Digital Darkroom.  Using a digital camera to generate your working originals is simple.  Shooting in RAW is best because it gives you the most flexibility when editing.  You can either make as many exposures as  you want in camera or you can take one in camera and make multiple copies after the fact.  I prefer to make as many as I want in camera because it takes less time than making copies later.  You don’t even have to move the camera between exposures necessarily because you can position the layers manually later in the Digital Darkroom.

The one thing you will need to make digital impressionistic images is computing power.  RAW files from my 5D, for example, are about 73MB when converted to 16 bit TIFF files.  Layering 16 or 17 of those on top of each other makes for some pretty big working files.  A good computer with at least 2GB of RAM and a sizable amount of free hard drive space to use as a scratch disk will make the work easier and faster.

I’ll show you two ways of creating multiple exposure, impressionistic images digitally.  I encourage you to take these ideas, play with them, change them and see what you come up with.  Please feel free to write me with your methods and results if you feel like sharing them.

The shot on the left is the original.  I made 15 in camera exposures.  The middle photo is done in Photoshop CS3 using layers.  The one on the right is done using HDR software.

Digital Impressionism Examples (click for larger version)

To create the effect in Photoshop using layers, open all the images in Adobe Camera RAW (or your RAW editor of choice).  If you make changes to any of the RAW files before converting, you should synchronise the changes to all of the images so you’ve got consistency in your starting exposures.  Convert the RAW files to 16 bit TIFFs and open them in Photoshop.  Other image editing programs may be able to be used as well.

Choose one of the exposures as the base layer – it doesn’t matter which (they’re all the same, remember).  Copy each of the others and paste them onto the base layer (Select>All, Edit>Copy, Edit>Paste or CTRL+A, CTRL+C, CTRL+V – the equivalent to the CRTL key on a Mac is the Option key).  Change the Blend Mode of each layer above the Background to Lighten.  This is the equivalent of a 1/2 stop increase in exposure and it allows the layers below to show through.  You can try changing the Blend Mode of one of the layers (again it doesn’t matter which one) to Soft Light.  This will darken the overall result slightly and give some additional shadow contrast.

Once all the layers have been copied, select the Move tool (keyboard shortcut V) and begin moving each layer where you want it in relation to the others.  You can do this with your mouse or using the arrow keys on your keyboard.  When all the layers are where you want them, either Merge or Flatten all the layers.  You need to do this step in order to do any Cloning or Healing.  If you don’t, then these edits won’t apply properly.  With the layers merged or flattened, make whatever adjustments or edits you feel are necessary to come up with a result you’re happy with.

Another way to do this with layers is by adjusting the layer Opacity.  I don’t personally like this method as well, but have a go with it because you may like what it does for you.

The general rule of thumb is that each layer above the Background should have the Opacity set to 100% divided by the layer number.  So the first layer above the Background (2nd total layer) would be set to 50%, the second layer above the Background to 33% and so on.  When you get 15 or 16 layers stacked on top of each other the opacities of the layers at the top of the stack are pretty low but that’s OK.
A third way to create these digitally is with HDR software.  HDR stands for High Dynamic Range.  The software is typically used to automatically blend images with different exposure settings to create a result that has a greater brightness range than the sensor can capture naturally.

I decided to try using the software to create impressionistic images because these programs are purpose-built to merge a number of exposures together.  For my own purposes, I like a software called Dynamic Photo HDR from a company called MediaChance (they’re a Canadian company too so supporting a ‘local’ business is an added bonus).  The reason I prefer it is that it allows you to manually adjust the placement of each layer before the merge is done.  Other HDR software doesn’t give you this option.  Photoshop CS2 and CS3 have HDR capabilities built into them but the functionality isn’t useful for non-aligned image layers.

Using DPHDR, I load my camera exposures into the software.  The software will take the exposure settings from the EXIF data.  Because the software is designed to work with images at different exposure settings, you have to set the exposure for each image manually.  I typically set each at .01.  With that done, the next step is alignment.  The software will attempt to aling the layers automatically and after doing so you have the opportunity to adjust the alignment manually.  This is where I move each layer around to place all of them where I want them.  The software only allows you to see one layer in relation to the base layer at a time so it takes some trial and error to get the alignment of all the layers where you want it.  After doing a few, you’ll get a sense of where the layers are in relation to each other.  Once that’s complete, you can let the software do the merge and output the HDR file.

HDR files are 32 bit.  To make these useable for other purposes they have to go through a process called tonemapping which redistributes and compresses the 32 bit brightness and colour information into a 16 or 8 bit space (whichever you choose).  DPHDR has tonemapping capabilities.  What I normally do is save the generated HDR file, open it in Photoshop and do the tonemapping there.  I just like the result I get doing it this way but there’s nothing wrong with the tonemapping functions of DPHDR, so try both and see what you like best.

With the HDR file converted to a 16 bit TIFF, I can then do whatever other editing and adjusting necessary to create the final result.

Single Exposures

Impressionistic photos can also be created with film or digital using single exposures.

With a single exposure you’ll need longish shutter speeds.  The longer shutter speeds allow you to move the camera while the shutter is open to create the impressionistic effect.  A number of the shots in the Galleries have been created using this effect.

Shutter speeds in the 1/3 second to 1.5 second range work well.  There are any number of ways you can move the camera.  Longer, smoother, more sweeping movements create softer, more flowing images.  Shorter, more compact movements create a more staggered, less smooth look.  Moving the camera in longer, vertical motions with trees, for example, has the effect of elongating the scene elements.  If you’re using a zoom lens, try rotating the camera while holding the zoom ring during the exposure.  This can create some very pleasing swirl effects.  Also try rotating the camera and lens.  This creates a different type of swirl effect that also can create some interesting photos.

As I experiment with this technique more, I’m really beginning to like it.  It’s the closest I’ve been able to come so far to replicating what I could do on film with multiple exposures.

New Life for Old Film Scans

Several years ago, I was commissioned to do a series of still life images of Calla Lilies.  I still have the film scans on my hard drive and recently decided to see what I could come up with using HDR software and multiple copies of the scan files.  Two of the originals are below.  The impressionistic images are further down.

Old Film Scans (click for larger version)

I made 15 copies of each original (16 in all), loaded the copies into DPHDR, set the exposures, manually moved the layers and then created the HDR file.  Next I opened the HDR file in Photoshop and tonemapped it to a 16 bit TIFF.  After doing this, the edges of the various misaligned layers were visble as you can see in the intermediate shot below.

Layered Image (click for larger version)

I created a Gaussian Blur layer mask set to Hide All then painted the blur layer back in along the edges of the flowers.  The two photos below re the end results of the two originals above.

Final Result (click for larger version)

I like the effect of the result.  It’s a softer, more painterly look.  The softness and added volume around the edges gives an enhanced sense of dimensionality and there seems to be a greater sense of flow than in the originals.



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