Get panning for better motion

Panning is a funny old technique but when you get it right it’s worth the effort because a good panned shot is guaranteed to make a non-photographer ask ‘how the hell did you do that?’, writes Andrew James. If you aren’t aware of what panning is then I’ll attempt a basic definition. It is simply the horizontal movement of the camera as it follows a moving subject, while using a slow shutter speed so you inject some sense of motion into the photo. This is quite a narrow definition and, if you’ve also read my article on ‘vertical’ panning then you’ll know that we can broaden this out to being up and down movement and static subjects but for this article let’s concentrate on a narrower and certainly more frequently used definition of the technique.

Essentially, a moving subjects passes across you – left to right or right to left. You lock onto that subject with your camera, track it through its journey and at some point within your field of view take a photo of it!

That’s all pretty straightforward but of course, as photographers we like to mix it up a bit, make the shot more creative and basically push the boundaries of our photography so the term ‘panning’ has become more synonymous with the idea of using a slower shutter speed with a fast-moving object, so that the subject remains sharp but the background and possible foreground blurs or streaks.

On the mean streets of Havana, a bit of panning goes down a treat with the classic old cars.

The golden rules of panning

Shutter speed: When it comes to panning, getting the shutter speed right for your subject is critical. But what is the right shutter speed? I can’t really answer this because no two situations are the same and it’s up to you to take an educated guess. Try it, and adjust if necessary! You’ll see various shutter speeds bandied about for different subjects, such as 1/20sec for panning with someone running, 1/50sec for a slow moving car and so on. While broadly speaking these might work, they really are guesswork unless you are out there doing it. A lot depends on the panning effect you want, how good your actual technique is (we’ll cover this later) and of course the speed and general type of movement of your subject. Broadly speaking you can surmise that a slower subject requires a slower shutter speed – that bit everyone gets. But you should also remember that with a very fast moving subject, you can choose a much faster shutter speed and still create the look you want.

When this lady in a bright pink sari walked across me, I just wanted to inject a small amount of movement to convey the sense of her hurrying. I didn't need streaking backgrounds, just a slight sense of movement so I used a shutter speed of 1/20sec and a small amount of panning. No great sweeping arc of the camera, just a short but smooth pan.

Aperture choice: I ‘overheard’ a conversation (that’s if you can overhear a Facebook conversation) between some of our Foto-Buzzers discussing aperture choice for panning! Some of them had in their heads that you required a wide aperture, like f/4, to keep backgrounds less distracting. This makes utter sense in the non-panning world but in the panning world if the background is going to streak anyway, you don’t need to worry about such things. I almost always pan with an aperture of f/8, f/11, even f/16 which gives the added advantage of a little bit of leeway on the sharpness of your main moving subject. Having a smaller aperture also helps you achieve those slower shutter speeds on brighter days and if on these occasions you still want the faster shutter speed, just ratchet the ISO up a stop or two.

Shot at f/11 to slow the shutter speed down to 1/50sec on a bright day. A little tilt of the camera and lens (35mm) added some extra dynamism to the shot.

Focusing: There is no great secret to focusing with panning. I simply try to use a single AF or small group with the camera in AI Servo (continuous mode). In other words, I lock onto the moving subject with the focus point and try to keep it locked as it moves across my position. That’s it! The reason for using a small group or a single AF point is really about accuracy of focus. If you struggle, then activate more AF points and make sure the aperture is at least f/11 so you have that bit of leeway I mentioned earlier. However, remember that the more AF points you have active, the more chance they have of locking onto the background!

Panning with a fast-moving subject requires faster shutter speeds. This image was taken 1/200sec at f/11.

Be a smooth operator: Whatever shutter speed, aperture or AF point you use, everything is going to stand and fall on your panning technique. That’s you acting like a tank’s turret and turning in an arc as if you are blasting the hell out of the enemy. You need to be in a stable standing or kneeling position (as Sandy has in the image below) with elbows tucked in and camera and lens suitably supported. If you are using a heavy lens then a monopod can be used or if you have a pan and tilt head then it’s possible to use a tripod too in some circumstances. Wherever possible, for freedom of movement, I prefer to be ‘pod’ free.

Make sure your movement is flowing. Start your movement long before you take the shot and, as you take the shot by squeezing the shutter button, keep moving through the exaggerated arc as your follow the subject. Overdo the process a bit for a smoother execution. If you wobble up and down or are a bit stop-start with your panning then this will show in the images.

A stable panning position for Sandy in Central Havana.

I also think we all have a natural bias to either left-to-right panning or right-to-left. One will feel more natural to use and therefore you’ll be able to pan more smoothly this way. Work out which bias you have then practice the other one to be sure you can pan effectively in either direction as the moving objects you encounter won’t always be going in the way you favour.

When taking panning shots expect a fairly high failure rate while you find your feet. Even after you find your feet you’re still not going to nail every shot. However, it’s worth persevering with the technique because when you get it right, it can be very, very good.

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