Panning: be a mover not a shaker

Speed and Motion

When you’re a kid, you’re told to keep the camera as still as possible. Good advice – usually. However, if you want to get the most impressive action shots then you’ll need to be nimble. This article describes how to use the panning technique.

Panning bicycle

A girl passing by by bicycle in Bologna. Photo by Contrasto_gp
Photo taken with an Olympus Olympus E-300, F11, 55mm, 1/10seconds, ISO 100


The Panning technique

Panning means following a fast-moving subject with your camera. Instead of standing rock steady when you depress the shutter – just like your mama told you – you keep the subject in the same position in the frame and move the camera at the speed that your subject moves. The background often becomes a blur, but that only enhances the suggestion of speed and motion in the main focus of the frame.

The technique is often used in sports photography, especially in motor sports, where a fast shutter speed can be used to capture the high speed of the vehicle. It can also be used to great effect to ‘freeze’ running animals and children. Don’t you wish you could do that in real life?

Leaping Dolphin

Leaping Dolphin, southern California. Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8.Photo taken by the photographer Giorgio Trucco from the bow of a boat that was following a group of dolphins.

It is not easy to achieve the crystal-sharp focus that you will want for your subject, but persistence and practice will lead to your goal. Trial and error are your friends. If you allow your Recycle Bin to take the strain, eventually you will find some treasures in amongst the trash.


Camera Settings

Shutter priority is what you need. A good shutter speed to begin your experiments with is 1/30s, but you may need faster or slower according to the speed of your subject. A longer shutter speed will produce a more dramatic blurred effect in the background, but you will find it more difficult to keep the subject sharp. The aperture is not hugely important since the background will be blurred anyway; depth of field is not a concern.

A tourist sledging in NorwayA funny way of moving in an icy country: sledging in Norway; photo taken by Davide Vadalà
Pentax K7, Pentax smc DA 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 AL WR, 23mm, ISO 100, 1/30s, f/4

After shutter speed you need to think about focus. You have two choices: either use automatic focus (but only if “Continuous Focus” is available), or manual focus. For the latter to work, the distance between yourself and your subject needs to be known in advance and adjusted for accordingly.


Final Tips

1) Make sure your background has reasonable contrast. For example, an aeroplane against a blue sky will not give an idea of movement because a blurred sky will still look blue.

2) Improve your chances of getting at least one good shot by using burst / continuous shooting mode.

3) Get your timing right. Start to follow your subject before taking the shot and continue until just after the shutter has been released.


Spinning flower panningPhoto by Margiebean
Photo taken with a Nikon D80, F22, 1/20s, ISO100, 40mm

4) You don’t always need a tripod. A good effect can often be achieved just by holding the camera in your hand.

5) Check your angle. It’s easier to capture the motion of a subject from the side (perpendicular to the direction of speed) than it is from head-on, or as it moves away.

6) Consider using slow-synch flash. This can achieve an even more dramatic freeze-frame effect.


Flamingos in CamargueFlamingos in Camargue. Photo by Davide Vadalà
Pentax K7, Pentax SMC DA 50-200mm f/4-5.6 ED WR, 200mm, ISO 400, 1/250s, f/8


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