What is panning and how to do it
Photography is about capturing a moment in time. Click! Snap! Pop! Bang! There’s your image. But it does mean that action shots can sometimes appear a bit flat or static. There are, however, techniques that we can use to create a sense of motion and energy. One of those is panning. Here, we look at what panning is, why it works, and how to do it.
Table of contents
- What do we mean by panning in photography?
- When do you use panning?
- Choosing your location for panning shots
- Equipment for panning
- Settings for panning
- Panning technique
- Mixing things up
- Wrap up
What do we mean by panning in photography?
Panning is a photography technique that shows motion. You do it by using a relatively slow shutter speed and tracking your moving subject with your camera. This results in a subject that’s crisp and clear against a blurred background. It’s the blurred background that suggests the sense of movement. Panning shots look great and the principle is simple, but they do need a bit of practice.
When do you use panning?
Panning photography is perfect for capturing relatively fast-moving subjects that are crossing in front of your camera, left-to-right or right-to-left. Good subjects for panning photos include:
- Bicycles whizzing up the street
- Dogs playing in the park or at the beach
- Cars driving up the road
- Horses galloping in a paddock.
There are other types of panning shots, for example vertical, but we’ll get to those later. For now, concentrate on subjects moving across you.
Birds in flight, runners, skaters, rollercoasters, and bumper-cars all make excellent panning subjects.
Choosing your location for panning shots
Once you have identified the subject for your panning photos, you need to select the right location for shooting. Panning means photographing objects moving perpendicular to you, at speed. This means you need to be close enough to get the shot, but also not too close.
First, if you are too close your camera will not be able to lock focus on your subject. Not only will the background be blurred, but your subject, too.
Second, if your subject is relatively large it will be difficult to fit all of it into your frame. You don’t want bits of your subject missing from your shot.
Third, if you are too close to your subject you might cause a distraction or put yourself in harm’s way. Be mindful of where you position yourself. Don’t cause an obstruction or hindrance for members of the general public, either, who might be using or passing through your location.
When you are selecting your location, ensure that you have an attractive background for your shots. It’s going to play an important role in the look of your photo. Layers of colour look great in the background of a panning shot. And if you can, introduce some colour contrast, too.
Finally, the distance between your subject and the background will alter how blurred the background looks. The shorter the distance between subject and background, the more intense the blur will be, and therefore the greater the sense of speed.
Equipment for panning
You don’t need a lot of equipment for panning. A camera that has controllable shutter speed, a lens, and ideally a tripod or monopod. You might want to try a flash, but it isn’t a necessity and in some instances could even be dangerous.
Tripod or monopod
When you’re photographing something that’s moving at a predictable speed in a given direction, you don’t need to have a stabilisation device, but it will make your life easier. It doesn’t matter how steadily you move your camera in time with your subject, camera shake will creep into your photos. In this case, up-and-down camera movement will prevent your subject from looking sharp in image. The stability of a tripod or monopod can help enormously.
Make sure that if you do use a tripod that its head is designed for easy motion.
If you’re photographing something that moves unpredictably, or at varying speeds, a tripod might not be so useful. In which case, stick to hand-held.
Best lens for panning
Lenses with shorter focal lengths do not show up camera shake as much as longer lenses. So opt for a shorter focal length if you are shooting hand-held.
Some lenses come with image stabilisation. Unless it is the kind of image stabilisation designed to assist with panning–Mode 2 IS in Canon or VR in Nikon–it’s best to switch it off.
If the circumstances are right, using a flash can help to freeze your subject in the frame. However, you don’t want your flash to frighten a horse or distract a driver, cyclist, or other athlete, so do use it cautiously.
Settings for panning
When you start out panning, you want to make your life as easy as possible and give yourself the best chance of capturing a sharp subject against a blurred background. To do this, try:
- Shutter priority mode (Tv or S mode), rather than fully manual mode
- Burst or continuous shooting mode
- Continuous focus mode (AF-C or AI-Servo)
Shutter priority and shutter speed
The key setting for panning is your shutter speed. You can shoot in manual mode, but at least start with S or Tv mode so you do not have to control too many variables. Let the camera determine the aperture and ISO to give you the best chance of getting it right when everything is new to you.
As for the shutter speed you need? It can alter depending on what you’re photographing and how fast it is moving. As a rough guide, try 1/60 seconds for a car and 1/30 for a cyclist. Remember:
- Faster subjects need faster shutter speeds.
- If your background isn’t blurred enough, use a slower shutter speed.
- If your subject is blurred, you need a faster shutter speed.
Continuous shooting or burst mode
The more shots you take, the more likely one is to work out. By switching to burst or continuous shooting mode, you only have to depress the shutter button once to take multiple shots.
Continuous focusing mode
Using manual focus will give you far too much to think about when you’re panning. Make use of your camera’s autofocus mode. But not just any autofocus, select a continuous focusing mode that works with moving subjects. Focus on your subject when it is still some way off from you, and keep the red dot of the central focusing point trained on it as it moves past you.
To pan hand-held, hold your camera steady by squeezing your elbows into your waist. Focus on your subject when it is still quite some distance from you. Lock your focus onto it and follow it at the same speed as it moves. Keep it in the centre of your frame. Before it reaches you, depress the shutter button and, still keeping it in the centre of the frame, track it all the way past you. Only then let go of the shutter button and stop shooting. Take a look at your LCD screen and see if you need to make any adjustments to your shutter speed. Then go again!
It’s a similar technique when you use a tripod or monopod, you just don’t have to worry so much about keeping your camera steady as you move your upper body to follow your subject.
Mixing things up
When you’ve got a handle on your panning technique, you might want to try something a bit different. How about vertical panning? This works for children jumping up and down or bouncing on a trampoline, or people diving. And if you want to make sure that you freeze your subject in the frame, try adding flash. If you fire a speedlight as your subject moves past you, the flash will freeze its movement, but the ambient light will ensure the background still looks blurred. This only works if the subject is fairly close to you, or the flash will not have any effect. Just be very careful not to startle anyone or anything if you try this.
Panning is a brilliant way to capture motion and inject a sense of drama into your still photography. It does take practice, but there’s absolutely nothing to be afraid of with panning. Choose a subject, pick a spot, and head out and shoot. Take lots (and lots) of photos and adjust your settings as you need to. And don’t be too proud to make your life easy with shutter priority mode, burst mode, and continuous focusing.
Panning is a photography technique that captures subjects in motion. It uses a slow shutter speed to freeze the subject against a blurred background.
Your subject should be sharp and the background blurred. A background that contrasts with the subject works best.
Anything that is moving across your frame, at speed, makes a good panning photo. Runners, cyclists, birds, dogs, horses, scooters and motorcycles, and cars are all examples of good panning subjects.
Shutter priority mode (S or Tv) is best for panning.
You need a slow shutter speed for panning. The slower the subject moves, the slower your shutter speed needs to be. Try 1/30 second for runners or cyclists and 1/60 second for cars.
Use continuous focusing for panning, so AI-servo or AF-C.
Yes! You want to take a lot of shots in quick succession, so burst mode is best.
Daniela Bowker is a writer and editor based in the UK. Since 2010 she has focused on the photography sector. In this time, she has written three books and contributed to many more, served as the editor for two websites, written thousands of articles for numerous publications, both in print and online, and runs the Photocritic Photography School.