Panning. Emphasising movement and speed
Panning is a great technique to really get across that feeling of movement and speed in an image. It is very easy in theory, but in practice it’s much harder. Not because the technique is hard, but because it’s hard to get just right.
The idea is that you use a slower shutter speed and move your camera in the same direction as your moving subject while it’s taking the photo.
This may seem a strange notion, because to freeze motion, or to take a sharp photo, we’d normally use a super fast shutter speed and keep our cameras super steady and completely still.
But if the camera is moving at the same speed and in the same direction as its subject, then the subject’s motion will be frozen, and the background will be blurred out.
Let’s take a look at how to do it.
Setting Up Your Camera
Continuous Auto Focus
First, if you have the option, you want to set your camera to a continuous auto focusing mode.
Canon: AI Servo
Nikon: AF-C (Continuous)
Sony: AF-C (Continuous)
Normally, your camera will auto focus just the once when you press the shutter button half way down, and it won’t attempt to refocus until you release that button. A continuous auto focus mode, however, means the camera will keep on refocusing until the picture is finally taken.
This allows you to track your moving subject in the frame, and, no matter if they’re coming towards you or heading away from you, your camera will keep adjusting its focus to keep them sharp. Keep in mind, however, that this will only work well if your camera is pretty quick at adjusting focus relative to the speed of your subject.
If your camera doesn’t have these options, it is possible to pan using your normal single focusing mode, but believe me it can be harder to get the shot right.
Continuous Shooting Mode
It’s not essential to be in continuous shooting mode, but taking a burst of about 3-5 images rather than just a single shot may help you to get good results faster.
Shutter Priority Mode
You want control of your shutter speed to get this effect, so either switch to Shutter Priority (Tv or T) or Full Manual, depending on what you’re comfortable with.
What shutter speed is best varies depending on how fast your subject is moving. A speeding car may allow you to use a shutter speed as fast as 1/200, but a bicycle might need something like 1/15. Of course, this also varies depending on your aperture, ISO, and how much light is present in the scene.
It will take a bit of trial and error to get this setting just right. The trick is in finding the shutter speed that will give you a decent amount of motion blur in the background, while allowing you to keep your moving subject sharp. You don’t want to go too slow, because the longer you have to track your moving subject, the harder it is to keep them in the same place in your frame, and hence the harder it is to keep them sharp. Slower shutter speeds also risk introducing camera shake if you’re shooting handheld.
I’d suggest starting at something like 1/40, and adjusting accordingly depending on your results.
There’s no rule for what aperture to use when you’re panning, but my recommendation would be to have it set to something mid-range or higher. Using a shallow aperture (smaller number) will require your camera to refocus more often, and you may end up missing focus completely or not getting enough of your subject sharp. A shallow aperture can work (the image above uses 2.8) but an aperture of around 8.0 or higher (depending on your lens) will give you less room for error.
Not to mention, if you’re shooting on a bright day and your ISO is already at 100, or the lowest it can go, your aperture setting will need to increase (to a larger number) to allow your shutter speed to be slow enough to create the motion blur effect. If you’re in Shutter Priority mode, your camera will take care of this for you.
A tripod is not essential, and not always practical, but you may find it easier to use one for subjects that are moving predictably and in a straight line. This will also reduce any camera shake if your shutter speed is particularly slow.
Setting Up Your Shot
The first several times you try this, you’ll want to pick an easy subject to practice on. What’s an easy subject? One that is not too fast, will come past repeatedly (so you get multiple tries), is moving at a steady speed, and will take a predictable path. Slower traffic, public transport, or cyclists riding on a road are all great subjects to start with.
Pick a road or path that is not too busy, and where your subject is going to be moving in a straight line horizontally across your frame. Not only will this make it easier to track them with your camera and keep them sharp, it will give a smoother and more uniform motion blur for your background.
You don’t want a plain background, but you also don’t want a background that is too brightly lit or colourful. Even though the background will be blurred, bright lights and bright colours can still be distracting elements in your scene.
Rather than being up close and personal, stand a bit further back and zoom in. A subject that is further away from you will appear to be travelling more slowly, which will make it much easier to track their movement with your camera.
Generally, with subjects travelling across your frame, you want to position them a little off centre to get a feel for where they’re going. Our eyes naturally look in the same direction they are facing, and you want your viewer to be drawn into your image rather than sending their eyes out of it.
With moving subjects, and especially with panning, it can be difficult to get the framing just right. So if you find it easier to track your subject when they’re in the centre of the frame, simply shoot wider such that you get a lot more of the background in the frame, and crop your image down later.
Taking the Shot
Here are the steps for taking the shot:
- Choose your position
Choose where you want to take your shot, and position yourself so you are directly facing it. Have an idea of where you want your subject to be in your final image. Use a reference point in the background if there is one. This way, you’ll know that when your subject reaches that point, that’s exactly when you need to release the shutter. For the purposes of making these instructions easier to follow, let’s say that point is in the centre of your frame.
If your camera doesn’t allow for continuous focusing, or if it doesn’t auto focus fast enough, you need to pre-focus on the place where you think your moving subject will be when you want to release the shutter. Lock focus in either by keeping the shutter button pressed half down, or switching to manual focus, or by using the focus lock button on the back of your camera if you have one.
3. Rotate to your starting point
You want to start tracking your subject’s movement well before you release the shutter, so keep your feet in place and rotate to the right or left, whichever side your subject will be coming from. If not on a tripod, rotating from the hips will give you the smoothest panning motion.
4. Focus continuously
If you haven’t pre-focused, once your subject reaches the centre of your frame, now is the time to get your continuous focus going. Use a central focus point and keep it trained on your subject.
5. Track your subject and follow through
Track your subject as they move, keeping them in the centre of your frame. Once you’ve rotated back to your original position (facing forward) press the shutter button all the way down to take the photo. But don’t stop your movement. It’s important to follow through with your rotation and continue panning until your camera is done. This is the best way to ensure you have that consistent, smooth motion blur effect.
If your subject is too blurry, use a slightly faster shutter speed. If the background is not blurred enough, use a slower shutter speed. Keep adjusting until you get something you like.
If you review your shot on the back of your camera, make sure to zoom in as far as you can to see if your subject is sharp and in focus. More often than not, you won’t be able to properly tell until you load your images up on your computer, so make sure to get more than one that looks okay.
Keep in mind that, depending on your subject, not everything about them will necessarily be sharp, and this is okay! For example, a cyclist should be pretty sharp in their upper body, but their legs will still have motion blur if they’re peddling. Ideally, you always want at least the face to be as sharp as possible.
The Easy WayIf you’re finding panning incredibly difficult, to the point of wanting to rage quit, the easiest way of getting the motion blurred background effect is for you to be on the same moving platform as your subject. For example, as the passenger in a vehicle, or on the same merry-go-round as your child.
This allows you to keep your camera still, and to just take a shot like normal, allowing your subject’s own movement to do the blurring of the background for you.
Accomplishing this shot might not be quite as challenging as doing it the hard way, but it is still very cool none-the-less.
Moving your camera while you take a photo is counter-intuitive for most people and takes a fair bit of getting used to. Perfectly tracking a moving subject is not easy either, so don’t be disheartened if you don’t get it right in the first shot. Or even in the next twenty shots. Or the next fifty. It can take a lot of practice (or luck), but it can be very rewarding once you start getting the hang of it.
Share your experiences with panning and add a link to your panning shots in the comments below.