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Panning

Blur the background, but keep the subject sharp


Tracking a moving subject with your camera is called
Tracking a moving subject with your camera is called "panning."

Panning is a technique that involves taking a picture while moving the camera. It is almost always used when tracking a moving object, such as a race car, as it travels across the film plane (or the sensor plane if you are using a digital camera). When properly carried out, the object is rendered relatively sharply while the background is blurred. It is an excellent way in which to convey motion with a still image.

A very fast shutter speed will “freeze” motion, even when tracking a quickly-moving object, making it seem inactive. Using a slower shutter speed when tracking an object (panning), you can sharply photograph an object in motion while blurring the surroundings so that it really looks like it is moving.

Panning (using slow shutter speed while tracking a subect in motion) can give a picture a strong sense of motion. Photo by Dave Kent-Rodgman.
Panning (using slow shutter speed while tracking a subect in motion) can give a picture a strong sense of motion. Photo by Dave Kent-Rodgman.

PANNING IS UNPREDICTABLE

The problem with panning is its unpredictability. Objects in motion (an automobile, a runner, a horse, etc.) all move at different rates of speed and some move with a motion that is inconsistent, (accelerating, decelerating or intermittent) so the degree of background blur can vary widely. Depending on the shutter speed, a runner’s torso may be sharp while his or her arms and legs are blurred. This may or may not be the effect you desire.

DISTANCE

The photographer must be far enough away that the field of view is sufficient to properly frame the subject, but not so far that the subject is too tiny in the viewframe or that foreground objects, including spectators that may move into view, can block the scene at the critical moment that you release the shutter. Lens choice is therefore a factor to take into account.

Watch for the possibility that spectators or officials may move into the area where you expect to be taking a panned picture.  Either try to rise above them, or reposition yourself to a more open location. Photo by Dave Kent-Rodgman.
Watch for the possibility that spectators or officials may move into the area where you expect to be taking a panned picture. Either try to rise above them, or reposition yourself to a more open location. Photo by Dave Kent-Rodgman.

LENS CHOICE FOR PANNING

A wide-angle lens requires you to be quite close to the object in motion in order to fill the frame, which means you will have to swivel quickly to keep the subject in view. The background when using a wide-angle lens can become blurred in a curved manner because of the lens’ inherent distortion. This can be an effect you want, but can also detract from an image. Most photographers prefer to use a long lens from a distance, because it permits slower panning, thereby resulting in more accurate framing and a smoother look to the image.

SHUTTER SPEED

Shutter speeds in the range of 1/8 sec to 1/60 sec will generally produce well-panned pictures, however you must be careful to ensure that the shutter is smoothly released. Any jerkiness in tripping it will cause vertical blur as well as horizontal blur, making a strange-looking picture indeed.

Don't be surprised, if you are using an SLR or DSLR, when the viewfinder blacks out for the time it takes to make the exposure. This occurs because the mirror you use to view the scene through the lens has swiveled up, out of the way so it no longer blocks the light form reaching the film or digital sensor. It is normal, and noticeable only because of the slow shutter speeds used in panning.

There will be times when you can't use the slow shutter speeds needed for panning - for example, a bright day when you have a fast film loaded in your camera, or you have selected a high sensitivity setting in your digital camera. In such cases, you may need to either switch to a slower speed film or a lower ISO sensitivity setting (ISO 400 to ISO 100, for example), or attach a neutral density filter to reduce the amount of light reaching the film/sensor in order to achieve slow shutter speeds.

Very slow shutter speeds will render almost everything as a blur when you are panning, giving your images an impressionistic look.
Very slow shutter speeds will render almost everything as a blur when you are panning, giving your images an impressionistic look.

TECHNIQUE

Effective panning requires you to move the camera smoothly, with your body swiveling as you follow the object in motion.

  • You must be stable yourself. Feet must be firmly planted on the ground. Otherwise, you can be seated or prone.
  • Panning using a tripod with the head loosened so it will swivel can be effective, but you need to first determine that the camera will turn in the same direction as the anticipated motion. This can be particularly difficult with a subject that is moving up or down as it passes your camera position (e.g. a car on a hill or a horse going over a jump).
  • Unless you have a fast autofocus lens, you should prefocus on the place where your moving subject will be when you anticipate taking the picture, then aim your lens in the direction where you expect to begin panning.
  • If you are standing, move at the waist with your feet pointed towards the mid-point of the panning arc. Ideally, nothing below your waist should move to ensure smoothness.
  • Release the shutter well before you complete the pan, preferably at the halfway point between start and end of the pan. If you began to pan at the proper point, the subject should be square on in front of you and properly framed when you smoothly trip the shutter.
  • To ensure the smoothest-possible pan, follow through, just like with a golf swing. Complete the arc, even though the picture has already been taken. By stopping abruptly once you’ve tripped the shutter, you risk an image that will show jerking movement of the camera.
  • The shutter must be released using gentle but firm pressure at the precise moment that the subject is properly framed.
  • You can pan slower or faster than the subject’s motion for different results. The subject will be blurred more than in a same-speed pan.

Proper framing can be difficult when panning a fast-moving car. Leave some space in front and behind to be sure the entire subject is in the viewfinder.
Proper framing can be difficult when panning a fast-moving car. Leave some space in front and behind to be sure the entire subject is in the viewfinder.

SHOTS IN SEQUENCE

There will be times when you wish to make several exposures during one pan. A fast motor-drive is almost a necessity for this technique, since manually advancing the film is liable to cause camera jerk and takes up valuable time. Smooth, steady movement of the camera and complete follow-through are essential to ensure consistency among frames.

BACKGROUND

Depending on shutter speed and panning speed, the background will either be slightly or grossly blurred. But, in any event, it is important to select a background that will complement your subject when it is blurred. Generally, the more neutral the background is, the better, allowing your viewer to concentrate his or her attention on the moving subject. In some cases, though, a brightly-lit and colorful crowd that is blurred, for example, can add life to the picture.

The slightest jerk in camera movement can ruin a panned picture, making everything blurry.
The slightest jerk in camera movement can ruin a panned picture, making everything blurry.

PERFECTION COMES WITH PRACTICE

Even though the exact outcome of panning is always uncertain, practice - and refining your technique after checking the results - will provide you with a degree of certainty as to how your panned images will turn out. When practicing, use shutter speeds ranging between 1/4 sec and 1/30 sec. Try different focal length lenses with a relatively-consistent subject - highway traffic, for example.

Once you are able to produce fairly predictable images, switch to subjects that travel at different rates of speed, have varying types of motion and move in differing directions. Through trial-and-error, you will soon become proficient at the technique.

 
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Shutter speed guide

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Film speed

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