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Slow Shutter Art: Turn a Shot into an Abstract Watercolour Painting

Finding a new way to shoot a familiar place can be challenging, but with a little out-of-the-box thinking, the solution might be simpler than you expect. Landscape photographer Toshiki Nakanishi shares the details of how he created the watercolour brushstroke-like effects in this shot, preserving the beautiful blue-green colours of the famous Blue Pond in Hokkaido. (Reported by: Toshiki Nakanishi, Digital Camera Magazine)

Abstract image of Blue Pond in Hokkaido shot with a slow shutter

EOS 5D Mark IV/ EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM/ FL: 400mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/16, 1.3 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight

The Blue Pond in Biei, Hokkaido has become rather popular with tourists in recent years. When we take photos of places like this, we usually do so to preserve and showcase details of their charm. However, when you have shot the same place a few times, you can’t help but want your next shot to be a bit more out of the ordinary. 

Here’s how another photographer achieved a shot of the Blue Pond in winter:
2 Picturesque Winter Scenes in Biei, Hokkaido (with Composition Tips)

The first step—Cast away any preconceived notions

I set out to create a shot of the Blue Pond that had character and also conveyed its vibrant blue colour. 

As landscape photographers, we usually aim to capture scenes in sharp detail. This unspoken “rule” was the first thing that I tried to break.  Instead, I decided to focus on filling my frame with colour.

I still wanted my shot to convey some details of the landscape, but just enough to suggest the context to viewers.

With these concepts in mind, I moved my camera while using a slow shutter. The result was this shot that blends the blue of the pond waters with the colours of the trees into an abstract, watercolour painting-like effect.

Tip: It took some trial and error of different shutter speeds and motion blur directions before I got the effect that I wanted.


The finer points

Gear and setup

Illustration of shooting position and technique

Lens: A telephoto zoom lens as I wanted to fill my entire frame with the colours of the pond.

Shooting position and angle: I set up my gear on the banks of the pond so that the lens was pointing down at the water surface. The main shot was taken by moving the camera up and down.

Why use a tripod?: I wanted the motion blur I created to be in one direction, and the tripod helped to keep the axis of movement steady.

Tip: A three-way tripod head or ball-type tripod head will let you move the camera easily. If you are using a ball-head tripod, it might be harder to move in a perfectly straight line, but that could give you rather interesting results too. 

You might also be interested in:
Getting Started in Landscape Photography: 5 Things to Know


Technique: Experiment with different shutter speeds; emphasise the colours but leave in a bit of detail

Along with the colours, I also wanted the shot to show a sense of movement. That is why it was necessary to move the camera and create motion blur during the exposure.

I tried shooting with various shutter speeds, and found that the shots taken at around 1 second were the closest to my creative vision. They achieve the balance between reality and the imaginary, that I wanted my shot to express. A slower shutter speed blended the colours too much for viewers to get an idea of the actual scene.

However, a different shutter speed might work for a different scene. The key is to experiment with different speeds and directions of movement.


Know this: Even a few milliseconds’ difference in shutter speed matters!

Close up of slow shutter shot

Slow shutter shot taken at 1.6 seconds, 1.3 seconds

A few milliseconds’ difference in shutter speed and a change in the direction of camera movement can lead to a huge difference in the final shot. In the 1.6-second shot above, the more intense motion blur has caused the brown of the trees to muddy the clear, vibrant blues and greens.


Tip: If it’s too bright, use an ND filter

Using a slow shutter speed in bright daylight can cause your shot to become overexposed. It’s good to have an ND filter on hand for such situations. A 3-stop ND filter (ND8 filter) should be enough for most basic scenes. If that makes the shutter speed too slow, increase your ISO speed to compensate.


New to slow shutter photography? Here are some basics:
Camera Settings to Use for Awesome Slow Shutter Shots!

Learn about other creative slow shutter techniques in:
Slow Shutter Art: Using Zoom Burst to Transform Stars in the Sky into a Meteor Shower
Slow Shutter Art: Creating Surreal, Spinning Radial Blurs
Slow Shutter Art: 3 Brilliant Tips for Photographing Light Paintings


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Toshiki Nakanishi

Toshiki Nakanishi

Born in 1971 in Osaka. After learning photography on his own, Nakanishi moved the base for his photography activities to the town of Biei located in Kamikawa-gun of Hokkaido. While capturing landscapes that focus on light, he also produces works that bring out the figurative beauty of nature. Head of PHOTO OFFICE atelier nipek.