For many novice photographers, capturing motion in a still image might sound like something that is beyond their capabilities. Professional examples of panning photography, where the subject is sharp and the background shows motion blur, are everywhere. From bicycles to birds in flight, and race cars to runners, anything that moves can be tracked with a camera.
What beginners might not realize, however, is that while achieving these results takes practice, the theory itself is not at all difficult. If you know how to set your shutter speed, I’m confident that after reading this you’ll be able to take your camera to a sidewalk and, given time, patience and a hundred deleted shots, come back with a few panning shots that you can be proud of.
The car analogy
I want you to imagine you’re in a moving car and you take a photograph of a fellow passenger. How would it turn out? Even with a slow shutter speed, probably fine. Inside the car, you’re both moving along at the same speed and on the same trajectory; thinking purely in relation to one another, your camera and your subject are not actually moving at all.
Now, put yourself by the side of a road. A car drives past. If you follow it with your camera at the same speed and trajectory and take a shot, even at a slower shutter speed, the car will be sharp.
This is panning. While the theory isn’t too difficult, there are a few things you need to know before you get out there and try it for yourself.
All about speed
Speed is the most important aspect of good panning shots. We’ve already seen how your panning speed needs to match that of your subject, but there is another speed we need to speak more about: shutter speed.
Finding which shutter speed you require depends on the speed of your subject, and is always about finding a balance. Too fast, and the background won’t be blurred; too slow, and you’ll struggle to get the subject in focus.
With experience, you’ll come to know what kind of speed is needed for which subject. As a guide for the beginner though, a bicycle traveling at a normal rate should require a speed of somewhere between 1/60 – 1/250.
Your shutter speed depends entirely on the speed of your subject. Faster subjects will need faster shutter speeds. With experience, you’ll learn to estimate this quickly by assessing the situation. Until then, test shots will be your best friend. Don’t wait until your perfect subject is in front of you before seeing if your shutter speed is okay; test it out first on other subjects moving at a similar speed.
As you should probably have an idea of the speed your subject will be traveling at, with experience it’s possible even to take a test shot with no subject and judge if it’s suitable based on how blurred the background is.
Now we understand the sort of shutter speed you should be aiming for, what about the aperture? What sort of f-value should you be looking for?
Ideally, we want good depth of field to help us catch our subject in focus. Somewhere between f5.6 – f11 would be fine, and should even give us somewhere near our required shutter speed too if the ISO is set correctly.
For the focus mode, you can choose between your regular single shot focus (One-Shot for Canon, AF-S for Nikon) and continuous focus (AI-Servo for Canon, AF-C for Nikon) depending on your preference. Read about each in your user manual, then experiment with both to see which you prefer.
Alternatively, if you find yourself struggling with using autofocus to capture a moving subject, switching to manual focus can simplify things. With our aperture at somewhere between f5.6 – f11, we can easily pre-focus on the patch of ground your subject will be moving along and be confident the depth of field will be enough to capture your subject.
Composition and technique
If using an autofocus option, focusing on a small, important part of your subject will help you to achieve great shots. Focus on a cyclist’s face, rather than his body in general. Set your autofocus to flexible spot and place this where in the shot you want the subject to be when you take the picture.
Generally speaking, the best panning photographs show the space in front of the subject, rather than the space behind it. Seeing where it is going instead of where it has come from gives a much more pleasing composition, as does seeing the face of someone coming towards you instead of the back of someone going away from you.
This means a subject moving left to right should be to the left of your shot, and to the right when moving right to left. Achieving this adds a little more difficulty as you have to be quicker, but it is worth the effort. Cropping can help too with subjects captured in the middle of a shot.
When deliberately using slow shutter speeds, keeping yourself steady is paramount, and panning requires a technique that achieves this while smoothly following your subject.
Standing with your body facing where your subject will be when directly in front of you, your elbows should be tucked into your ribs. Your feet are kept planted as you use your hips to swivel and track your subject until it’s gone, even after shooting.
Just like a golf swing doesn’t end when the ball is struck, follow through after shooting to help maintain a smooth panning action.
Try it for yourself
I really believe you can. Set your camera to the appropriate shutter speed for your subject, experiment a little with single, continuous or manual focus, and practice the technique. If this is new to you, don’t worry too much about the composition for now. Become proficient at freezing motion first, and move on to that later.