Welcome to the world of Intentional Camera Movement (ICM) photography—a fascinating and beautiful world where the camera and the photographer’s movements combine to become a mechanical paintbrush—transforming photographic capture into something completely unique and otherwise invisible to the naked eye. In a photographic world generally obsessed with image sharpness, there are photographic artists amongst us who give little thought to everything we’ve ever been taught about photography to create spectacular images by intentionally moving their cameras during capture.
Above image © Laura Zimmerman
What is ICM and what are some tips for creating compelling ICM images? For this three-part series of articles, I spoke to 28 different ICM artists from eight different countries to record their thoughts on this genre of photography and share their tips about how other photographers might best explore the unique world of ICM.
Introduction to ICM
In the simplest terms, ICM can be defined as photographic capture while intentionally moving the camera during the exposure.
If you’ve been taking photos for more than a few minutes of your life, you know that the idea of moving the camera during the exposure is the polar opposite of what you are “supposed” to do—in fact, there is an entire tripod industry built upon three stable legs to prevent camera movement.
For photographers who immerse themselves in ICM, it becomes much more than an accident or experiment—it becomes an entirely new world of photography to explore, practice, and perfect. Photographer Charlotte Bellamy (@charlottebellamyholland), based in Angerlo, Netherlands, starts our journey saying that, “ICM is a creative process, not just a camera technique.”
One glance at an ICM image and the sight evokes a visual that was once only seen in the realm of paint and canvas. Finnish photographer Kaisa Sirén (@kaisasirenphotography) says, “The technique enables us to achieve many kinds of results but often the images resemble paintings—particularly watercolor, early impressionism, or abstract impressionism.” She adds, “ICM photography is not a random or accidental movement of the camera but controlled moves in order to create the desired image and atmosphere.”
Very few have mastered the art of impressionistic ICM as much as UK-based photographer Andrew Gray (@andrewsgray) who gets his ICM inspiration directly from paintings from masters of the art. “I’ve spent years studying the works of JMW Turner and that influence has been noticed by many, both in subject matter and color tones. Other influences come from some of the impressionists such as Monet and latterly as I’ve worked on more abstract pieces, the strong colors and forms of Rothko have come to mind,” he says.
North Carolina’s Robert Beauchene (@camerasongs) says, “Although many photographers are using ICM to bring an Impressionist sensibility to their images by 'blurring' the natural/manmade world to create a mood—while retaining the recognizable form of the subject—I am more in tune with the Abstract Expressionist mindset of using color fields like Rothko, movement/action like Pollock, and composition to create images that are instantly pleasing to the eye but intentionally ambiguous and potentially evocative of more meaningful reactions.”
A Different Kind of Photography
If you are new to capturing or viewing ICM images, you’ll notice that you are entering an alien world when compared to traditional photography. Beth Buelow (@bethbuelowphoto) of Muskegon, Michigan, says, “Be ready for friends and family to be a bit confused by your images. Most of us have been conditioned (consciously or not) that photographs document, rather than reimagine or interpret, the world. So when faced with what looks like a blurry, abstract image that you label ‘photograph,’ they might not know what to make of it!”
Andrew Gray adds, “If you are new to the technique, you might struggle to fully let go of everything you’ve learned about photography previously. I see that many people find it hard to lay down their tripods, their sharpness, their latest and greatest gear acquisitions, and their properly exposed captures. Also, having the kind of eye and mind that can spot potential in a streak of light or a blob of color helps; the kind of eye that sees recognizable shapes in clouds, etc. Whether it is one of those things you are born with or you develop it over time—I’m not sure about. It will take time, hard work, and experimentation both in the field and in post-processing to get below the surface of it all.”
Athens, Greece-based photographer Julia Anna Gospodarou (@juliaannagospodarou) says, “The goal of ICM is to create only an impression of the subject and not necessarily to render all the details or communicate clear information about the subject. It is a technique that leaves space for the viewer's imagination to fill in the blanks and interpret what they see in front of them in the image. This is why, in ICM, sometimes it is better to offer less information rather than more.”
Adding to that sentiment, Jan Beesley (@jan.beesley), photographing from Sussex, England, says, “Photography is a way of ‘painting with light’ and this is very much how I feel about ICM. We can never truly represent a three-dimensional world via a two-dimensional image, but we can try to capture the essence of how we respond to the world around us, our impressions, and expressions of our feelings. We don’t see the world in HDR clarity, we don’t see every leaf on the tree, but we respond to the colors and movement of the leaves, the arch of the trunk, and the patterns of the branches. Techniques such as ICM can help us to portray our response in a different way.”
And, last, Robert Beauchene adds to the conversation, saying, “Although there have always been ‘abstract’ photographs, they often perpetuate the stifling perspective of using form, light, and shadow as the only variables. It seems to me that these [ICM] pictures ‘aren’t for everyone.’ But, for those who gravitate to abstract forms of visual art, they are an exciting new way to see and experience the real world. That's part of what I find exciting about this process—it captures an actual reality. Unlike painting, where the paint is applied to another medium and ends up expressing the artist’s intentions, photographs capture something.”
The Mental Side of ICM
Like many genres of photography, there is a learning curve for ICM. And, like other types of photography—be it night photography, macro, street, or portraiture—there is not only a technique that needs to be learned, but there is a mental side to the photographic capture, as well. Very few photographers come away with a “keeper” on the first try in the world of ICM.
For photographers embarking on an ICM journey and its learning curve, UK-based Morag Paterson (@mog_pat) suggests, “Learn to love the process. A lot of people have unrealistic expectations of how many decent shots they are likely to achieve over a day/week/month/year and beat themselves up or get disappointed if every outing doesn’t produce something they love. The ‘keepers’ come at intervals, and it’s one reason to get to love the process of taking photos rather than basing satisfaction on end results.”
Jan Beesley adds, “Shooting using these sorts of techniques can be frustrating as the ‘success’ rate is very low. You need to be prepared to take a lot of shots and maybe not get anything that you actually want to keep. On the other hand, you may set out with one intention and end up with something completely different. The joy of using techniques such as ICM are the happy accidents which can occur. Be patient and open minded. Embrace the fact that you have limited control over the output.”
Thoughts on Subjects
In my Introduction to Photography class I say that “Anything can be the subject of a photograph.”
ICM accepts that statement with a twist (or a shake). Beth Buelow says, “I differentiate between the ‘subject’ and ‘object’ of an ICM image. The subject in ICM is often the visual texture or pattern that resulted from the movement I made, the mood or atmosphere, the color, shapes, or patterns. The object is the physical inspiration for the image. Whenever someone asks me, ‘What was your subject?’ I almost don’t want to answer, because I know they really mean the object, and sharing what it was removes some of the mystery and surprise that I find so intriguing about ICM. It’s largely an abstract technique, so you decide what you want to reveal about it versus letting the viewer decide what they see in it.”
Photographer and Lensbaby ambassador Ceri Herd (@ceriherdphoto) of Hampshire, UK, says, “My number one tip for creating successful ICM is to be inspired by your subject: the tones, textures, form, and atmosphere. Use ICM to accentuate the tone and form of your subject. When I’m inspired to create an image using ICM, it is because I am drawn to the tones, textures, or emotion of the view or subject in front of me, rather than wanting to capture it authentically. For example, I might want to highlight the vertical lines in a forest, the wind in the trees, the sense of calm and pastel colors of the sea at sunset, or the gentle curves of a rich green hosta leaf. I am looking for specific details or feelings, and I use movement to accentuate them.”
Founder and creator of ICM Photography Magazine, Stephanie Johnson (@stephjohnphoto) says, “Have fun, be playful, experiment, and explore continuously. Having an open and curious mind is essential with ICM because it is all about seeing things differently. With ICM, you can capture the essence of a subject. Being open and curious enables you to see the possibilities and potentialities of a subject in ways other, more documentary, styles of photography don’t necessarily always allow. Subjects can be completely transformed with ICM.”
“Seeing” is the cornerstone to all creative photography and it is evident in the photographs accompanying this series of articles that “seeing” in the world of ICM is different than in other genres of photography. Kaisa Sirén says, “With ICM you first have to train the eye to see what works as a subject and what not. And then once it is found you can stay with it for a considerably longer time than you would with a traditional image. Since each image is different, you can shoot over and over until you reach satisfactory results. In my case I tend to forget the space and time and go into some sort of state of mind where the outside world is ‘left behind.’ It is very relaxing and revitalizing when you can concentrate in only one thing for a long time and be fully present in the moment and in what you see and experience. I also pay attention to different things than when doing traditional photos. With ICM I look strongly for contrasts and geometric shapes, whereas with traditional photography, I may look more for action and light.”
Successful ICM photography is rarely spontaneous. There are accidental successes, but UK-based photographer Neil Broadway says, “Know what you are trying to create before pressing the shutter. To many, ICM photography can, at first sight, appear to be a random process relying on ‘luck’ to create the image. However, just as with ‘conventional’ photography, images needed to be created with care, thought, and planning. I find it important to have in mind the image(s) that I want to create before picking up my camera—I try to create images that capture the emotions, feelings, and impressions that the scene before me elicits. I then try to create images that reflect that ‘feeling’—using the technique(s) that I know, from experience, will create the appropriate image.”
Seattle-based motorsport and aviation photographer Camden Thrasher (@camdenthrasher) says, “I try to get what’s in my head with the camera. I previsualize the streaks of the cars and lights and then try to impart that camera movement. The more complicated the goal, the more images it takes.”
South Bend, Indiana, photographer Evan Cobb (@evan_cobb) adds, “Be deliberate. Deliberateness often elevates imagery. Find the location, wait for the high-quality light, and then dial-in the settings. With ICM it can be hard to envision the impact of time and motion on the image, but you are setting yourself up for high-quality imagery by being deliberate and putting yourself in a scene with interesting colors, lines, elements, and that allows for a longer exposure time.”
Rules of ICM
“The first rule is: there are no rules. It’s up to you. Enjoy the freedom to play,” says Jan Beesley.
Stephanie Johnson adds, “There is no right or wrong with ICM. If it works for you, then it is right for you. Too often photographers get too wrapped up in the idea of feeling like they need to know ‘how’ to do ICM. Or they ask questions about whether they are doing it right. But there really is no right or wrong way to do ICM, and the ‘how’ of it is as unique as each individual doing it.” She says, “I always encourage photographers to think more about the ‘why’ of it rather than the ‘how’ of it—to make more meaningful connections to their creativity and artistry, as opposed to thinking only in terms of technique and craft.”
Experiment & Practice
While some photographers can master a new technique with little to no effort, for many of us, practice is what helps us achieve images we are proud to share. ICM is certainly no exception to the “practice makes perfect” mantra. Charlotte Bellamy says, “Just like anything else, when you first start with ICM, you need to give yourself the time to play, experiment and explore. Don't expect your first ICM images to resemble anything!” She adds, “With time, practice, and asking yourself what you like and don't like about the images you create, you will develop movement you like for the subject you are shooting. Sometimes you just need to go out with your camera and play with no expectations. This can often result in some wonderful results, as you remove any expectations and relax more into what you are doing.”
Beth Buelow says, “ICM is an exercise in breaking rules and pushing boundaries. Experiment with a wide range of movement: panning up and down, side to side, moving the camera in a circular or arc motion, swooping, jiggling, rotating, zooming. Try small movements and big movements, faster and slower shutter speeds, starting your movement before pressing the shutter, and using continuous shooting mode. The ‘right’ way to do it is whatever way gets you results that reflect your vision or delight and surprise you.”
Finishing this section, and segueing into our next article, Julia Anna Gospodarou says, “Experimentation will also help you get familiar with what kind of results you can get when you use certain shutter speeds and movements. This way you can choose those that can express your artistic vision best and you can create a recognizable personal style by using a certain combination of exposure length and movement.” She continues, “ICM is all about imagination and thinking out of the box. It is one of the best techniques to use to let your imagination roam free. ICM is arguably the photography genre where you have the most freedom of creation and where artistic creativity has the most significance. Even if you need to be technically prepared to do good ICM photography, just as in any genre of photography, creativity plays a much bigger role than technique and the good news is that you don’t even need specialized or very expensive gear to create ICM photographs.”
Please click here for Part 2 of this series of ICM articles.