One of the easy techniques to master and yet panning is rarely used by even the accomplished photographers. Panning when used properly can show motion in a very convincing way. Simply put, it is tracking the movement of a moving subject with the camera and capturing the moment. The result – a sharp subject and a blurred background with streaks showing movement.
(Horse driven carriage speeding by – Nikon D200 with Nikkor 18-35mm lens, f/8, 1/10 sec)
Panning was initially a forced technique on photographers which has now transformed into an art-form. In the earlier days of photography, the films were slow. To let in enough light with even moderately fast lenses, the shutter speed had to be kept low. This made it difficult to freeze the motion of a moving object. Photographers came up with the idea of swinging the camera along with the movement of the subject. This reduced the movement of the subject in relation to the frame, permitting photographers to capture sharp images of the subject at low shutter speeds. This perfect movement of the camera in sync with the subject movement is the key concept behind panning. Purpose is to keep the subject in the same location in the image frame while following the movement.
If you flip through old sports magazines, most of the images of fast moving racing cars and bikes, footballers running around, skiers going down the slope or even athletes doing that short 100 meter dash…. all were captured using panning.
Now with cameras with super-sensitive sensors, the ISOs can really be pushed up. Armed with this capability, photographers end up using high shutter speeds to freeze the motion. I recently came across a website where the author gave a list of recommended shutter speeds to freeze the motion. Now that is taking it too far. Forget the rules, get out of monotony of frozen moments and start showing motion.
Get ready for panning-
- Shift to shutter priority mode for ease of use.
- Switch to AF-C (autofocus tracking) to keep the subject in focus while tracking.
- Use the camera in horizontal orientation. It is easier to pan when the frame is ‘horizontal’ even if your camera has vertical grip.
- Use the optical view-finder and not the live-view.
- If the subject is going to be moving fast, use continuous shooting or burst mode.
- Try panning with normal lens initially. Do not start with long lenses or wideangle.
Go to a place where there are moving subjects. It can be a place where there are birds flying, children cycling around or even a road with some traffic. There is no correct shutter speed for good panning. For a starting point start with a safe shutter speed of ‘1/focal length’. If your lens features vibration reduction of optical stabilization than switch that on and then you can try a little lower shutter speeds too initially. Some companies have optical stabilization that can be adjusted to work either only horizontally or both horizontally and vertically. I have used these lenses and found no difference while panning. without using any monopods or tripods. After initial few pictures, play around with shutter speed. With the option to preview images, the shutter speed can be easily tweaked for the desired results after examining the already captured frames.
Coming to the subject itself. There are different speeds at which movement occurs. A moving car may require a moderate shutter speed to freeze it but the turning wheels will require a much higher shutter speed to freeze them while panning. The wheels are turning around and so the relative speed is not reduced with panning. Similarly while tracking a flying bird, the bird’s relative speed to the frame can be very low but the vertical movement of the wings will not be affected. It is a subjective matter as to how much of a subject to freeze. I personally prefer images where some fast moving parts of the subject are also blurred. This conveys motion beautifully.
For successful panning, it is useful to practice turning the camera around and pressing the shutter release smoothly. Everyone who does panning has tips for body movement. I never gave it a thought till today. Trying to emulate the panning movement made me realize that I turn my upper part of the body from the waist and also my neck. It just happens naturally. It is not golf after all. So, track the subject in whatever way comes naturally to you.
Using a monopod or a tripod can be helpful in places where the movement is repeated and is also confined to a boundary. Think of a football game! For everything else I prefer holding the camera in hand, even if it happens to be a 500mm lens for birding.
(This picture was also clicked while panning but due to shallow depth of field and nondescript background, the streaks are not visible. Notice the tips of the wings which are blurred to convey movement. More about photographing birds – Photographing Birds)
Once you have mastered the basic panning technique, try these tips for further improvement –
- Try to keep the subject position fixed in the frame. I do so by making use of focusing marks.
- Think of the background too. Even though it is going to be blurred, background can make or break your photograph. Have some subject matter than can create the beautiful streaks but do not have anything in the background that may stand out like a sore thumb even when blurred.
- Experiment with the shutter speeds.
- Use hyperfocal distance and manually focus. Use manual mode to set the shutter speed and aperture. Auto-ISO can be helpful. This is a useful method if the subject is going to be at almost the same distance from the camera.
- Start experimenting with subjects moving diagonally (with both vertical and horizontal movements) and subjects moving towards you.
- Do not use tripods or monopods. Reserve them only for predictable and repetitive motions like cars in a grand-Prix.
- Keep space around the subject. With the present pixel counts and sensor performances, a little bit of cropping can be done while post-processing.
- Each camera has AF sensors with varying levels of capabilities. Find out about your camera’s sensors and use the ones which have all the focusing capabilities while using AF-C mode. When in doubt, use the central most focusing point.
(Bird in flight captured with panning. The ripples in the water have created streaks. Interestingly the reflection of the bird in the water is also visible since the reflection was also relatively stationary in the frame. Nikon D200 with Sigma 150-500mm, 1/250 sec, f/6.3 with optical stabilization switched on)
More than anything else, I frequently use this technique to capture images of children running around. Nothing better to portray their energy and movement than panning.