The Art of Panning

scott-thomasThe technique of panning to convey a sense of motion is one that takes practice.  Instead of worrying about depth of field as you would for a landscape or a portrait, slow shutter speeds and steady hands are what is needed to get a good panned photo.  For unlike most photography, panning means you move your camera instead keeping it still.

The diagram shown here gives the setup for taking a panning photo.  In the diagram, the subject is moving from left to right.  The subject could be moving in the other direction or up or down.  As long as you can follow it evenly throughout the time it takes to capture the image. 

How fast and how close the moving subject is will determine the shutter speed to use.  I start at 1/60 for people sporting events.  For auto racing events, I use 1/125 which often freezes the cars but shows movement in the wheels.  For your son or daughter on a bicycle, 1/30 or slower may be in order.  I’ve even experimented at 1/15, 1/8 and as low as 1/4 of a second.

The slower the shutter speed, the more pronounced the sense of movement and the harder it will be to keep your camera steady.  Using an image stablized (IS) lens can help.  Most of todays IS lenses detect a panning motion.  Nikon’s version of IS called vibration reduction or VR for short, is what was used in the example photos for this article.

You still need to do the following to give yourself the best possible panning results.  Plant your feet, tuck in your arms into your body, hold the camera firmly and rotate the top half of your body as you track your subject. You want to pan as fast as the subject moves keeping it in the same position in your viewfinder as much as possible.  Press the shutter down as you continue your motion and follow through even after the shutter has closed.  You can use continuous shooting modes if you have time for more than one exposure.

panning1You will want a busy kind of background. For when you pan, the background turns into streaks of color behind the subject. This is what gives the image the feeling of movement. If you pan against a blue sky, for instance, there won’t be anything to leave streaks.

The first example is something I deal with a few times a year, which is a dim sporting arena.  In the picture below, I captured a barrel racer speeding towards the timing beam after rounding her final barrel.  The background of the people and signs in the arena are nicely streaked with the heads of both the horse and rider fairly sharp.  Even the legs of the horse are blurred to show his speed.  In a competition like this, there was over 40 riders I took panned shots of and found a shutter speed of 1/60 gave the best results.

All that practice paid off a couple of weeks ago when walking through town and a New York State Trooper suddenly turned on his siren and lights and came flying by me in his cruiser.  I quickly brought my camera up and took three photos of him whizzing by.  The shutter speed was 1/50 for this one.

Panning is a worthwhile technique to learn.  All you need is to find a place to practice.  A local park where people like to roller blade or bicycle is ideal.  I went to a local drag strip and, after a couple of visits, became very comfortable with panning the cars going down the quarter mile strip of asphalt.  You’ll have to take a lot of photos to get a few great panning ones but the resutls are often stunning and grab a viewer’s attention right away.

panning2 panning3


Ed. note:  Scott Thomas has been an avid photographer for over 30 years and enjoys sharing his knowledge of digital photography.  Scott is a contributor to the All Ear’s Picture This! blog, a frequent poster (as Scottwdw) to the TMIP Message Forums, and the creator of the PS Calculator website. 

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