ICM (or Intentional Camera Movement) is a creative shooting style wherein movement is introduced to an exposure whilst the shutter is open to create abstract pieces or to add a bit of movement to an otherwise flat & lifeless scene. It’s a really fun technique to experiment with & the results can be jaw dropping once you know what you are looking for in an exposure.
Expressionism, as an art form, is a style that has always kind of obsessed me. During a visit to the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh as a wee boy I found a piece that depicted a foggy Edinburgh by night, illuminated by unseen streetlights. I never found out who made the piece, nor have I ever seen it again - but it seared an impression into my young mind.
I’ve never really followed the style as I like the idea of seeing a piece for the first time, without any greater understanding of the techniques involved & not knowing who the artists are. This creates an aura of mystery & wonder for me that in turn, stokes my appreciation for the style. On a personal level, ICM allows me to engage with my obsession with Expressionism without the risk of embarrassing myself with a paintbrush!
In this article, I wanted to break down the key elements of ICM Photography & offer some insight from my experiences thus far - so that you can experiment & enjoy the experience too. If you’ve got any further questions or would like to book a workshop, please get in touch.
To see more examples of my ICM work, click HERE
Generally speaking, you don’t want an exposure time that is too short or too long as the final exposures can become too brittle or too soft respectively. I’ve found that the best results often come from shutter speeds between 1/4th of a second & 2 seconds, with 1.6 seconds often quoted to be the ‘sweet spot’ - the whole point in ICM is experimentation though, so don’t take my word as gospel!
I tend to use shorter shutter speeds when definition is not a factor within the final piece; I use a two second timer, with the camera already in motion, before the shutter actually opens. I use a longer shutter speed when I want to create an abstract image with a small amount of form remaining. In this case, I’ll open the shutter & hold the position for a brief moment before introducing movement, creating an initial impression upon the exposure. ICM photographs can be made whilst handholding or whilst the camera is mounted on a tripod/monopod, though the latter can tend to produce more linear effects.
To achieve a shutter speed within this range it may be necessary to stop down your aperture to its lowest value (though this will highlight any dust within your lens or dirt upon the camera sensor) or use an ND filter to reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor. Filters are generally best in this situation, as they give you more flexibility. I prefer screw-ins as they generally prevent any light leakage & are less likely to come flying off when violently shaking the camera!
The way that you move the camera whilst the shutter is open determines the results of the final exposure. Shape & form become the brush strokes upon the canvas & the corporeal becomes translucent, creating a whole new perspective, whether its a touch of contrast within an otherwise bright scene, slight movement to enhance an otherwise flat location or an ethereal, timeless impression within a heady, swirling canvas. Creatively, ICM offers the photographer a new opportunity to create unique work full of depth & emotion.
Below are the general movements that I use, though these are a natural reaction to a scene rather than techniques carved in stone. Remember; the whole point is experimentation.
Left & right (horizontal) movements are generally best suited to horizontally biased compositions such as open spaces or seascapes. Moving in this way can produce clean lines, aesthetically pleasing drag, subject/scene extension & other such effects.
Up & down (vertical) movements are generally best suited to (you guessed it), vertically biased compositions or subjects, such as structures, woodlands, people etc with effects similar to that of horizontal movements.
In ‘shivering’ the camera (either vertically or horizontally), it is possible to create truly ethereal, ghostly effects. This works particularly well in flat conditions with a distant subject such as a lone tree or a single structure.
Focal Pulling or Zoom effects are possible with a zoom lens such as a 24mm-70mm or 70mm-200mm, simply use the zoom to create a heady effect that draws the viewer in. This is quite a linear effect & can easily be overdone. Effective with single source locations, built up areas & woodland. For best results, frame your subject in the exact centre of the composition; generally, pulling away from the subject (zooming out) is aesthetically more pleasing.
Free movement includes flipping the camera, following curves in the landscape & other movements that can produce some very interesting results. The results will be random, so be ready for failure, but once you achieve an exposure you like you’ll fall in love!
Note; Be aware of any specular highlights such as street lights, gaps in trees etc as these will produce light-painting style effects. This can ruin an exposure & it’s worth being vigilant.
Focus & Definition
The assumption would be that focus & aperture values may be irrelevant within a creative style that is defined by blurry effects & extended shutter speeds, however, both elements can be utilised creatively as tools within the ICM process. For example; if your subject is a structure or has a strong visual form, you may choose to defocus this element for a smoother rendition or employ sharp focus for deeper contrast upon the canvas. The same applies to aperture; if your subject is very close to you, with a distant background, you may opt to use depth of field to help it stand out within the ICM exposure.
Some subjects simply beg to be photographed with obvious shape & form, ruins of an old castle for example. Others, such as a seascape at sundown or a misty panoramic view across the countryside, are better suited to more abstract compositions lacking in any definition, so it’s worthwhile considering your subject prior to shooting for the best possible results.
Shooting Conditions & Composition
Photography, in general, is dependent on shooting conditions. Elements such as weather, available light, composition & subject matter are amongst the list of situational components that actually define the photograph as a memento of time & place.
In ICM though, time of day & weather conditions are no longer limitations to or within the photographic process; they become rich tonal palettes to be utilised instead. The same rule applies to white balance; WB modes that were previously untouched now become useful tonal filters that can be used to add colour & depth to your abstracts.
Whilst searching for compositions, colour, then, becomes the main focal point. Consider the scene with your eyes blurred; how do the tones of the sky work with the tones on the ground? Will ‘bleed’ create drama or will it hinder the final image? Are there sections of light that can be used to enhance the scene? The same process applies to the subject matter, for example; how would that rocky outcrop look when blended with the sea? How would that linear road look superimposed across a row of houses?
Below, I’ll list some basic reference points for common shooting conditions;
Dawn/Dusk; Offers deep contrast, a warmer tonal palette & more striking colouration
Blue Hour; Offers softer contrast, a cooler tonal palette, vibrant & more pastél colouration
Daylight - Overcast; Offers a more balanced exposure & allows for moodier exposures
Daylight - Blue Skies/light cloud; Offers stark contrast & a more ‘uplifting’ tonal palette.
Daylight - Rain; Offers a dark & moody tonal palette, suited to monochromatic edits
Fog / Mist - Offers an ultra ethereal atmosphere, well suited to monochromatic edits
Note; Highlights will always dominate darker elements within the frame. Keep this in mind when shooting photographs that include the sky, the sea or any reflective surfaces. A polariser can be used to add further depth as it allows you to control the amount of reflected light.
Editing & Processing
In editing successful ICM exposures, I’ve found that the best results often come from allowing the scene to inform the process; that is, an approach which focuses more on the shape & form of the piece, the definition of light & shadow & the interweaving colour palettes. In editing such photographs, I tend to use broad brush strokes to dodge & burn, apply differing types of blur to soften sections which don’t add to the final composition, use localised saturation/vibrancy control any ‘hot spots’ of colour & apply a layer of noise for a pleasant ‘organic’ feel. I’ve seen other photographers who will effectively clone sections of exposures or blend two exposures for a double-exposure effect, but personally I prefer single exposures as this allows me to visualise the end results in the field.
Compositionally, the common ‘rules’ can be ignored without risking the integrity of a piece, thus freeing you to experiment with position, shape & form. Personally, I like to shoot ICM photographs in a square format, though you may prefer an aspect ratio or crop that is completely different.
Processing, as the final stage in the process, is entirely subjective & depends on your personal taste & creative flair, so mess around, experiment & discover a new paradigm of artistic freedom & personal expression; show us the world how you see it!