A Quick Guide to Panning to Get Great Photographic Compositions


Photography is all about freezing the moment. The thing is, the way we freeze that moment can convey so much information about the image we are looking at. A locked off static landscape with great depth of field gives us a sense of tranquility and stillness. On the other hand a shot of a racing car hurting around sharp corner conveys both action and motion. The latter is sometimes quite difficult to achieve well. When it is done well it often uses a technique called panning. Today we are going to take a look at what panning is and how to do it.

What is Panning?

Panning is a photographic technique where we follow a moving subject with our camera and lens rather than keeping the camera static. It is used in combination with a suitable shutter speed to convert a sense of motion or to freeze a moving subject.

Let's return to the racing car we mentioned above as it hurtles around a corner. Assume we stood at the apex of that corner and shot with the camera locked off on a tripod. We would have to use a fast shutter speed to “freeze” the motion of the car. Problem is that the locked off camera would also cause the background to be completely frozen. The end result is a beautiful looking race car whose only clues to speed are the motion blur in the wheels.

Photo by Isengardt

If the camera remains static a moving object will be blurred.

Now what if we take that same camera off the tripod and follow the motion of the car as it passes us. If we use the same shutter speed as on the tripod, we will get a similar looking result. But if we lower our shutter speed and match the movement of the car with our camera, something magical happens. The car still looks frozen, but the background will look like it's whizzing past the camera at high speed. The end result is a shot that looks like a racing car driving at high speed.

Photo by Michael Elleray

If we pan with our subject, we can freeze it. By Michael Elleray

Of course the technique is not limited to racing cars, nor is it limited to very fast moving objects. A bicycle passing at a more sedate pace could also be given the feeling of motion. The keys are tracking the subject at the right speed and setting a suitable shutter speed. The best subjects for panning tend to be ones that that are coming at a slightly angle to the camera rather than perpendicular. Autofocus in particular tracks these types of subjects better.

Photo by Alex Wong

Panning is not limited to fast objects. By Pixel Addict

How do I Successfully Pan?

Good panning is a combination of several factors. Your body stance and camera hold, your shutter speed and your focusing technique. Your body stance should be relaxed, feet slightly apart, elbows tucked gently into your sides. As you follow the motion of your subject you turn your upper torso to track it keeping your arms gently tucked in. The key is a smooth relaxed rotation of the upper torso.

Keep your hands and wrists relaxed as they move through the pan.

Shutter speed is often a matter of experimentation and entirely dependant of how fast your subject is moving. Using shutter priority allows you to concentrate on dialling in the best shutter speed and not worrying about the exposure. For very fast subjects you might still be using shutter speeds of 1000th of a second or more. More more pedestrian subjects you might be down to 1/30th.

Focus is another crucial element. Modern cameras have some incredible autofocus systems so it's worth using them first. Set your autofocus to continuous and focus mode to tracking and see how this works. If it is not keeping up, you can use manual focus. To focus manually, you preset the focus on a point where the height of action will be then just follow the subject as it tracks across. Depending on your focal length/aperture you will find one or more shots to be in focus.

Lastly you need to set your drive mode to continuous high speed. If you find you are filling the buffer to quickly, use Jpeg only or use a slower continuous drive speed.

Photo by Jason Row Photography

With this shot, I panned with the bus and not the moped.

Panning is a technique that can bring huge benefits to your motion based subjects. You can convert a sense of speed or action to even relatively slow moving subjects. It's relatively simple technique to learn but one that takes practice and experimentation to perfect.

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *