This article will take you through everything you need to know to use panning in photography.
[ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something we make a little bit of money. Need more info? See how it all works here.]
Panning to Show Movement
It isn’t always easy to show movement in an image. The panning method is one of the easiest ways to capture a sense of movement, but panning can be tricky and time-consuming.
The idea is that you capture a moving object while moving your camera along with it, preferably at the same speed.
What is panning in photography can be described really easily – Moving your camera at the same speed as a subject while keeping the subject as the main focus.
For example, a cyclist riding along the street can be captured by camera panning the camera and capturing the image mid-flow.
If you manage to match the speed, then the result should be a static, in-focus image of the cyclist with a blurred background.
How to Use Panning
To create the panning in photography effect, you need a slow shutter speed, such as 1/30th. I usually find that anywhere between 1/15 and 1/200 of a second can work, it all depends on what you’re capturing.
Be careful not to go too slow though, or you’ll ruin the effect altogether. If you use a high shutter speed, such as 1/4000th, then both the subject and background will be completely static.
Here, the shutter speed is too fast, and it will capture a fraction of a second, showing no movement.
There are two ways you can focus for panning photography. One is using “AI Servo” (“AF-C” for Nikon) which keeps refocusing on a subject if it moves out of the original focal point.
This is great, as your camera will focus for you. However, this can be tricky to get right, as the fast-moving subject needs to stay in the focus area of your camera to work.
The other way to try a panning shot is using a manual focus, using something (car/cyclist/friend) to pre-set the focus on where your subjects are going to be.
This works for me, as once it is set-up, I don’t need to think about it. I have had more success with this panning technique, as I know from practice where I will be taking the image.
The idea is that you set up your image by composing and framing as if there was a car/bike/person in the scene. You then wait to see something moving towards your focal area.
As the subject gets closer, you allow it to enter your frame as you move with it. You need to match its speed, and then photograph the subject in the flow of your moving camera.
One more panning photography tip, which I found very useful was to use a strap. You want a fluid movement in your pan, so I use a camera strap around my neck, to stop the camera moving up and down too much.
Keep the strap taught, and you will find the side-to-side movement less bumpy.
Hold your camera correctly, and track the movement of your subject. You need a smooth, fluid motion for this photo to work. If you’re moving too fast, or too slow, then the whole photo is going to come out as a blur.
The reason this panning technique works is because your camera is moving at the same pace as the subject. This means they’re effectively still in the frame, while everything else around them is moving.
This really isn’t as hard as it sounds. A lot of it comes down to your choice in shutter speed.
Tip: When you take the panning shot, keep your camera moving. An abrupt stop could affect your image and blurriness, making you think that the problem is with your movement or speed.
Like I said, the success of your photo is likely going to come down to the speed of your exposure.
When your subject is nice and close to you, it will take them much further across the frame than if they were 100 feet away. This means that you need a faster shutter speed for subjects that are closer to you.
Generally speaking, that’s it.
You see, objects that are further away are often those very large or very fast subjects. Think of planes, trains, and automobiles.
This photo below was taken at 1/160 of a second, because I was also in a moving vehicle, moving at roughly the same pace.
There’s no reason why you’ve can’t add a flash to your photo. You can implement some of the slow sync flash techniques that I go into detail about here.
You set off the flash at the beginning of the exposure to freeze the motion, and then you carry on as you would with any other camera panning photo.
Using a flash can really help if you’ve only just started learning this technique because you can adjust your shutter speed using bulb mode.
If you put your camera into manual, go all the way past 30 seconds, you will reach bulb mode. This means that for as long as you hold down the shutter, the exposure will continue.
You simply set the exposure for the flash, and you can vary the length of shutter speed, depending on how fast your subject is moving.
How I Captured My Image
From the get-go, I knew I wanted to use a slow shutter speed. I set my camera to manual mode, WB to daylight, focus mode to One Shot, ISO 100 and shutter speed to 1/15th.
This gave me an aperture of f/8, which I thought was adequate. I focused on a car that was in the place where I aimed to photograph.
If you are using auto-focus, or haven’t yet made the switch to back-button focusing, make sure your shutter release doesn’t re-focus the shot when you come to take the picture.
This was my first camera panning photography image.
1/15 – f/8 – ISO 100
As you can see, I am far from the intended capture. I believed the problem to be the shutter speed. As it was so slow, it really picked up the movement of my camera going up and down, not just right-to-left.
I increased my shutter speed to 1/30th, which meant my aperture had to drop to f/5.6, to keep the ISO at 100.
This was my second camera panning photography image.
1/30 – f/5.6 – ISO 100
Still not perfect, but the image is less affected by the camera moving up and down. I thought that the subject I was trying to capture was too close to the camera. So I stepped away from the edge of the sidewalk about two/three steps (2 metres).
I also noted that the exposure was a little dark, so I compensated for that by widening the f/stop from f/5.6 to f/4.5.
This was my third camera panning image.
1/40 – f/4.5 – ISO 100
As you can see, I added more exposure by widening the f/stop. I also used a slower shutter speed from 1/30th to 1/40th to minimise the blur.
Here, I feel like I nailed the panning shot. The background could have been better, but my idea was to capture the bike first. As a panning photography definition, this image works well.
Below was my fourth camera panning shot attempt.
1/40 – f/4.5 – ISO 100
The cyclist isn’t entirely in focus, and if you look closely, he isn’t in focus at all. He stands out because the background is so blurry.
Bikes are easier to photograph as they are slower than cars. This means it isn’t as difficult to match their speed. Bikers are also more interesting subjects than drivers.
I wanted to challenge myself with a car, so I started panning cars.
1/40 – f/5.6 – ISO 100
I found that matching the speed of cars was tricky, as they can gradually got faster or slower. They often moved too fast through my small viewfinder to give me enough time to match the speed and capture.
Here, I realised I was capturing the cars too slowly, and instead of a side view, I wanted more of an angled composition.
TIP: Use the Live View mode on your camera so you can see the situation in front of you.
1/40 – f/5.6 – ISO 100
I prefer the angled view as it gives a stronger sense of movement, as if the car is rushing to exit the frame on the right.
This time, I wanted to see if I could frame the image better. I like a challenge. I saw two trees that could serve as a natural frame.
The speed and the location of the car were perfect, only the natural frame is downplayed by the movement and blurriness.
1/40 – f/5.6 – ISO 100
The last panning challenge was photographing the tram. It is so clear you can see the driver and the people inside. The last few images had the same camera settings.
I found these worked best and continued to use them as the light situation was the same. Later on in the day, the light would have become brighter, forcing me to reevaluate my settings.
1/40 – f/5.6 – ISO 100
After a little practise, I found it easy to capture images via panning. You can create some very powerful motion photography with this technique, but it might take a while to get there.
I realised afterwards that I could have used Shutter Priority Mode on my camera, so I can quickly change that setting. However, by using manual, I felt no need to change it quickly nor drastically.
What helped me the most was standing farther back from the subject. Standing closer means the cars or bikes are moving faster relative to you, making it harder to track. Think about your background first, and wait there to capture the moving subjects.
A wider camera lens will work better for panning than any lens above standard (50mm). I used my 24-70mm zoom, keeping it wide at 24mm for every shot.
Another variation to this panning photography is to photograph from a moving object. Being inside a car or any form of public transport can also create an interesting reverse technique. Give it a go.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
Thank you for reading...
CLICK HERE if you want to capture breathtaking images, without the frustration of a complicated camera.
It's my training video that will walk you how to use your camera's functions in just 10 minutes - for free!
I also offer video courses and ebooks covering the following subjects: