Panning Photography Tips featured image

Panning shots is an interesting way to capture motion blur in photography. It uses movement itself to convey a sense of speed in a still photo.

If you’ve read our article our beginner’s guide to shutter speed, you know that conveying motion is one of the powerful ways to tell a story.

What is Panning in Photography?

The idea of panning in photography is to keep your subject sharp while most (if not all) the surrounding elements filled with motion blur.

Most of the time, take images that are sharp through and through. ​​​Not with panning photography. With it, we creatively use motion blurs to capture interesting shots that convey speed and motion.

Black and white panning photography shot of a Volkswagen on the road.
Photo Taken by Matthias Meyer.

Basically, you use your camera to follow a moving subject while taking the shot. All this while using slow shutter speed and focusing at the right point (your subject).

This will keep your subject sharp while introducing motion blurs around it.

Most of the time, this makes it look like it’s moving way faster than it actually does. It also gives the impression of movement within a still shot.

The execution is pretty simple but it’s just one of those things that takes a lot of practice to master.

When should you use the panning technique?

Panning shot of side car race with lots of motion blur while keeping the subject nice and sharp.
Photo taken by Christine Sponchia.

Panning photography is all about motion but not every kind of action shots can be panned.

It works well for action scenes such as skateboarding, biking and racing, just to name a few.

But to be more specific, panning is only good if the subject is moving from left to right or right to left.

It is not quite as effective if the subject is moving toward or away from your camera.

4 Important Camera Settings When Doing Panning Shots:

Photo of a motocross rider with awesome motion blur.

Before we go gaga into taking panning shots, there are a few things we want to set to ensure a good quality pan shot.

1. Setting up the shutter speed settings:

Since our goal is to convey motion, we want to set our shutter speed at a slow setting.

How slow?

Well, it depends on how fast your subject is moving in your frame. You also want to consider how blurred you want the surrounding elements in your frame.

For example, you will use entirely different settings when photographing a fast-moving car than someone riding a bicycle.

Using too slow of a shutter speed might render everything unsharp if the subject you want to focus on is moving too fast.

You will have to experiment on this to get a better idea of which setting suits best. I find that starting somewhere around 1/15th to 1/30th of a second will be a good starting point.

We created a little e-book that suggests recommended shutter speed, not just for panning, but for pretty much every kind of situation. You can download it here.

2. Setting up the Exposure Mode:

Ideally, we want to be shooting in manual exposure mode. This will give us complete control over the amount of light hitting our camera.

However, using the shutter priority mode is also not a bad option. That’s the “Tv” mode in Canon and “S” mode for Nikon, and pretty much every other camera.

In this mode, you’ll be able to select your preferred shutter speed settings while leaving the ISO and aperture on automatic. Take note though that this might lead to an extremely high ISO if you do not have enough available light in your scene.

3. Setting up the Focus Mode:

We want to set our focus mode on continuous focus mode.

Since we’ll be moving your camera to follow the movement of our subject, it would be tough to get sharp subjects without it.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to do it without the continuous autofocus.

In fact, if you do not have a camera with a fast and reliable continuous focus system, you would be better off timing your shots on a pre-focused part of your frame. More on this on the tips below.

4. Setting up the Shooting Mode:

We need to set our camera in continuous shooting (burst mode).

Since we’re dealing with fast-moving subjects, it’s not uncommon to miss your focus and the best moment of the action most of the time.

That’s why it is very important to set your camera in continuous shooting or burst mode.

To be more specific, we want to set it at continuous low shooting mode. A high burst mode might introduce unnecessary camera shake especially when you are doing this handheld. 3-5 shots in a single pan should do the trick.

This will give us some wiggle room to choose the best shots in that single movement in terms of sharpness and composition.

11 Best Practices Tips for Panning Shots:

Photo of a dirt biker moving through the tracks using the panning technique.
Photo taken by Ronald Plett.

Now that we got the settings out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the best practice when doing panning shots.

1. Shoot with a tripod/monopod whenever possible.

This will eliminate micro jitters and camera shake in your image.

Keep in mind though that a tripod or monopod can sometimes hinder your panning if the subject is moving in unpredictable motion.

Like panning shots of motocross for example. Rather than just left to right, your subject might be moving on an unpredictable motion

So for circumstances like that, you are better off shooting handheld.

2. Pivot with your legs.

When shooting handheld, pivot with your hips and legs and not with your hands.

Keep your hands as steady as possible and let your lower body follow the motion.

You are essentially your camera’s stabilization. So the easiest way to avoid camera shake is to avoid abrupt movements with the hand supporting the camera.

3. Pan at the same speed as your subject in one fluid motion.

Since you are using slow shutter speed, any callous bumps can introduce camera shake and blurry portions that has nothing to do with motion blur.

Moreover, panning at the same speed as your subject ensures that the actual subject is sharp and not overridden by motion blurs.

4. Use the center autofocus point as a target to track your subject.

Center autofocus is the fastest autofocus point in your camera.

It’s pretty normal to miss the focus when doing panning shots. And tracking your subject this way will reduce the chances of missed focus in your shots.

5. Set the focus where your subject’s position is perpendicular to your position.

If your camera’s continuous autofocus capability is slow, use manual focus.

In manual focus mode, the best time to press that shutter down is if the subject is directly in front of you.

It might take a little more effort on your part but you’d be able to capture more photos that are in focus.

6. Leave a little space in your frame to where your subject is moving.

For example, if your subject is moving to the right, leave a little space on the right.

It gives your viewers a sense of direction for your moving subject. This is one of the basic compositional techniques.

Of course, you can break this rule whenever you want. Photography is all about creativity so don’t restrict yourself to the rules.

7. Leave enough space between you and the subject.

Now we’re talking about your actual physical distance from the subject when shooting.

Leaving a huge enough space between you and the subject will give you the freedom to freely pan across your subject’s movement.

Here’s a little trick to remember:

The farther your subject from the camera, the slower it appears to be moving. Thus, it would be easier to pan along with the movement.

8. Shoot with your 2 eyes open.

I don’t know about you but I usually shut my non-dominant eye when I’m shooting.

In most cases, it wouldn’t matter but in panning photography, it is better to shoot with your 2 eyes open.

This will give you peripheral vision so you can follow along with your subject. The other eye will check if the subject is about to get into your frame, this way, there’d be no surprises when you are about to press that shutter button.

If you are not left-eye dominant, you may want to practice looking into the viewfinder using your right eye. Otherwise, it might be a little difficult to see what’s happening outside your camera.

It may feel a little weird at first but you’ll get used to it.

9. Shoot at the same eye level as your subject.

Shooting at the same level as your subject will keep the motion blur patterns more predictable.

Of course, you can always shoot at a higher or lower eye level as your subject for composition’s sake. But when you’re just starting out, it may be a little difficult to predict the motion blur patterns your panning movement will produce.

This also has something to do with perspective. It can help improve focusing when using the continuous autofocus mode.

10. Use the rear curtain sync or 2nd curtain sync during low light situations.

If you are shooting in a low light environment, using the rear curtain sync or 2nd curtain sync for Canon users can help.

Aside from providing extra light, it will help you get sharper focus and freeze the subject while it is moving without having to use faster shutter speed setting.

11. Fine-tune and experiment with your shutter speed settings.

You’d be surprised how the entire image changes when you dial the shutter speed up or down.

That’s because using lower shutter speed increases the motion blur in your image. Keep in mind though that it also increases the risk of not getting a sharp image of your subject.

Personally, I like to start from 1/30th of a second and work up or down from there.

If everything is too blurry for my liking, I’ll speed up my exposure time. And if there’s not a lot of motion blurs in the background, then I’d slow down the shutter speed.

Conclusion:

Panning is a great technique to have in your arsenal of techniques in photography.

It is not exclusive only for action shots. It can be used in a lot of shots that involve motion. Like wildlife or even abstract shots.

It is certainly one of the fun ways to get creative with your images using motion blurs.

Did this article help you? Let us know in the comments.

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