Have you ever wished that there was a way you could capture the sense of motion in a still picture?
Using just a camera and a special technique you are going to learn just to do just that.
Panning is the art of tracking a subject with your camera, blurring the background while keeping the subject in sharp focus.
I’ll be walking you through the basics. The equipment required, how to choose a subject & location, ensure the background is appropriate, and pan smoothly.
Basic Photography Panning Effect Explained
The idea behind panning is moving your camera along to follow a moving subject. If executed correctly, the result will be our subject (e.g. a biker riding a bicycle) “frozen” and sharp while the background is smeared in the apparent opposite direction, hence creating the illusion of movement.
While not basic to execute, panning is a very fun and fulfilling technique that can be used in a great variety of situations to produce a unique and amazing photo.
Equipment You Will Need To Pull This Off
One of the great things about panning is that it can be achieved using almost any camera. There’s no need for a big and shiny DSLR but this style of camera will offer the best results with a quality picture.
Canon EOS Rebel is a user-friendly and widely supported camera. But even a small compact camera could do the trick as long as it allows you full control over those 3 settings: shutter speed, aperture size, and ISO sensitivity.
It’s also possible to do with a film-based camera like the Canon AE-1. Since panning is a lot of “trial and error” it’s going to take so practice and using film could get expensive. I don’t recommend it until you’ve already mastered this technique.
In addition to a camera, you should also bring along a multifunction tripod. Although a tripod is not a must, it can make your life much easier! For all the pictures in this post, I used a JOBY GorillaPod. The flexibility of the and the things you can while using this tripod are incredible!
Choosing The Right Subject And Location
There is one thing about what you are taking a picture of, it has to be moving. There are many things around us in our everyday lives that move you can practice taking pictures of.
A moving car, a running person, a rider on a bike, walking dogs and even jumping horses. If it moves, it can be panned.
Since panning usually requires lots of trial and error to get it right, a location where the same event repeats itself many times and usually at the same location is advised. i.e. if we want our subject to be a runner, we should try and find one of those running lanes or a promenade that can be found in many parks or by the sea.
Then try and position ourselves in a place where our view of the subject will not be obstructed by anyone or anything else. A very important thing to remember is ensuring that there is enough room to move around and find the best spot.
Choosing The Photo’s Background
Since one of the main goals of panning is for the subject to “pop-out” of the picture, we need to make sure that our background is not distracting from the subject.
Try not to pick backgrounds that are considerably brighter than your subject, as they are likely to be over-exposed. If you can, find a nice plain background, because bright lights and sharp shapes might be distracting when blurred. Try to find a background that contrasts (red-blue, white-brown, blue-yellow, etc.) with your subject, to make him stick out even more.
Setting your camera
Now that we have our desired subject, background and location it is time to get our gear ready. The first we need to change the camera shooting mode to manual.
Then you can play around with the settings until you get a well-balanced exposure (the camera histogram can come in handy here), trying to keep your ISO level around 100-200 and the aperture as close as you can to achieve maximum depth of field in our subject.
When we have a well-balanced picture, we need to estimate the correct shutter speed. This is difficult and depends on two main factors: the speed of the subject and the distance from the subject.
The faster the subject is moving, the faster the shutter speed, and the closer you’re to the subject the slower the shutter speed.
You’ll need to play around with the settings until you get it right. Here are, for reference, average speeds for some objects – start out with these and do your own fine-tuning until you get how you love it:
walking person (1/10)
bicycle rider (1/20)
moving car (1/60)
I recommend starting out shooting faster objects because camera shake becomes a larger issue at a slower speed. This step might be a bit frustrating, but don’t give up until you get it how you want it. Something that may help you is a tripod. They make a huge difference in your pictures and also your arm and hand fatigue.
Now that everything is ready, it’s time to put our photographer hat on and get started. The first step is to plan where exactly you want (and expect) the object to be in the picture. Try and find something that can be used as a mark, a road sign or a tree for instance. It should be easy for you to spot during the action.
If your camera is not equipped with a good tracking auto-focus, you should set your focus on the marker by half-pressing the shutter button.
Now the camera is focused and all that is left to do is take the picture. Identify your object and start tracking it with a steady, smooth motion.
Try gauging speed and adjusting your own accordingly. Remember that the closer it is to you, the faster you’ll have to move your camera.
When your subject reaches the chosen mark, depress the shutter gently (to prevent unwanted camera shake) while still tracking the subject until you’ve heard the shot is complete. The key is to execute the entire movement as steadily as possible, study your subject, notice where it slows down and where it speeds up, and adjust your location if necessary. Done correctly, you should have a good panning blur with a sharp subject.
Some older cameras (or entry-level point & shoot) have what is known as the “shutter lag” problem. Shutter lag is when there is a slight delay between the moment you press the shutter and the moment the camera actually starts taking the picture. If your camera suffers from this problem, you’ll have to anticipate this lag and click the shutter a little earlier than expected.
For an appealing composition, place your subject towards the side of the picture, opposite to the direction of movement. It should look as though the subject has room to move into within the frame.
Being Patient Will Reward You Always
Panning is all about patience as it’s a trial and error process, and can be difficult to perfect. Try shooting as many images as you can until you get it right.
Remember that nothing is set in stone, experimentation is key, and most importantly, have fun with it! Practicing can be as easy as sitting outside on your steps and using everything that drives, petals or runs by.
Taking digital pictures is extremely cost-effective and you can delete or even edit and create something completely different from the pictures.
In this post, I focused on the more “classic” panning technique in which we’re moving our camera in sync with our object. However, there is another way to achieve a similar effect. Instead of moving the camera, we’re going to be the one doing all the movement.
Imagine two cars driving side by side at the same speed if you capture the car right next to you and set the low shutter speed, the same smearing effect will appear in.
This technique is much easier to execute, although there are fewer opportunities where you are moving side by side with your object and at the same speed.
For this shot, you must be a passenger in the vehicle and not driving. Just saying…
All my best! Nicole