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How to Use Panning to Make Your Photography Come Alive

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How to Use Panning to Make Your Photography Come Alive

How to Use Panning to Make Your Photography Come Alive

As photographers, we are always looks for new techniques to improve our work and make our images stand out.  As I was starting out in photography this often lead me to additional purchases of lenses, software and accessories.

But there is something you can do to add the WOW factor to your photos without a trip to the camera shop – panning.    It allows you to isolate and focus a moving object while blurring the background.   Panning brings life, motion and emotion to what could be an otherwise dull photograph.

Have a look at this cyclist I shot at 1/350 of a second as he raced by me at 20mph.   Can you feel the speed, the wind, the excitement? No! This shot lacks movement.  He could be going fast or slow, but you cannot tell…

Now let’s look at another cyclist in the same location that I captured while panning him as he raced by.    Can you feel the speed, the wind, the excitement?  You bet!

Many people are intimidated by panning but it is a relatively easy technique to master.   All it requires is practice, a little patience and the right location.  Let’s start with getting the right settings on your camera.  Your primary concern is getting your shutter speed slowed down to the point where you can get your subject sharp as you pan them while blurring their background.

How to do panning…

  • Camera Settings {Shutter Speed}: While I typically advocate shooting in manually mode for most photography, I recommend Shutter Priority for panning.   Shutter Priority will allow your camera to adjust the Aperture value if your subject moves into a different lighting condition such as under the shade of a tree or the shadow of a building.    I recommend setting your ISO as low as possible to reduce the potential of any digital noise. I have seen recommendations on shutter speeds anything from 1/60 of a second down to 1 second.   Experiment and see what works best for you.  I have found that 1/20 of a second is perfect for me.   What works for you will be a combination of how steady you can hold your camera, how steady you can pan, and how heavy your camera set up is.
  • Camera Settings {Focus Mode}: Make sure your focus mode is set to AI Servo so your camera continually focuses as you pan your subject. Lastly make sure your shooting mode is continuous so you can continue to fire off shots as you pan your subject as it passes you.
  • Location: Find a spot where you can have a subject crossing in front of you and where you have a good line of sight to them.
  • Body Positioning: If your subject is approaching you from the left, plant your feet squarely in front of you as if you were looking ahead and then then the upper half of your body to the left to start tracking your subject.
  • Technique: Think of your waist as a spring that is being wound up as you turn left and unwound as you snap right tracking your subject.  Be as smooth and steady as possible.  Try to avoid speeding up or slowing down if your subject is moving at a consistent speed and continue shooting a few shots after the subject has finished passing right in front of you.   This help you from jerking the camera to a stop on your last photo and missing your shot but you might also get a few extra keepers that you didn’t expect.  Have a look at some of the results that you can achieve with this technique;

Give panning a try and you will find an excellent new tool for your camera bag.   I hope you find this a useful technique.

About Dave:

Dave Powell is a photographer based in Tokyo, Japan.   He publishes www.shoottokyo.com. an urban photography blog about photography, technology and life in Japan.

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  1. December 28, 2010 at 8:13 am —

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! my husband is a triathlete and I am constantly trying to improve the pictures I take at his racing events. This post is perfect for what I need! And the pics you’ve taken are fabulous!

  2. December 28, 2010 at 8:21 am —

    Great article, never really tried panning , but you inspired me to try it out. Thanks.

  3. Dusty Dawson
    December 28, 2010 at 8:57 am —

    Love your explaination of this technique! I’m gonna try it out at the horse race track. Once again you inspire me to go out and try something outside of my comfort zone. THANKS!

  4. December 28, 2010 at 9:16 am —

    These images are great and I want to try my hand at this. I do have a question and it may be a “dumb blonde” question, but I’m not clear about something. So when you have turned to the left and are following the subject, do you do rapid fire as in keep clicking the shutter? Follow the subject as they move across you and keep clicking the shutter to keep capturing images? Then…to get the blurred background do you merge the images or what? Or when you start clicking, will each image have the subject clear and the background blurred? I guess I’m not exactly following how you achive this and I want to learn how! 🙂 Thank you so much for your help with this!

  5. Jordann
    December 28, 2010 at 11:00 am —

    Awesome. Thanks! I just tried this out at my desk… with a waterbottle flying across my workspace. Haha. I couldn’t resist! Love all your blogs, thanks for the constant advice and awesome resources. Much appreciated.

  6. December 28, 2010 at 7:16 pm —

    Hi Becky. This is all done in one picture so not photoshop. What you do is keep the subject in focus by ‘panning’ along with them at a steady speed. Because of the slow shutter speed you are blurring the background as us are moving while it is still taking the picture. If you have your timing correct with the subject you are panning they will be reasonably sharp. I would recommend putting your camera on burst mode so you can capture a few as you will probably only get 1 keeper. Feel free to ping me if you have additional questions.

    Thanks for the comments everyone else, glad you like it.

  7. Cho
    December 29, 2010 at 3:31 am —

    The hardest thing I found with panning is to keep the subject “sharp”. Even tho, my subject is still clearer than the blurry background, it is not quite intact and has its own tail from shaky hands during panning or different panning speed from the moving speed. Any suggestion to resolve this? Or just practice more?

  8. Jen R
    December 29, 2010 at 12:22 pm —

    WOW! What a difference the panning makes. Thank you SO much for all the tips and techniques. I love photography, but I am a newbie – and need all the help I can get. THANK YOU!! 🙂

  9. Erin Lenore
    December 30, 2010 at 11:13 am —

    Right now it’s the Canon T1i, my 50mm 1.4, and 2 kit lenses. Hoping to get the 5d Mark II and 35mm 1.4 very very soon!!

  10. January 2, 2011 at 10:22 pm —

    Dave, thanks so much for this informative tutorial. I had never tried panning before and just tried the technique by photographing my son as he rode his bike around the backyard.

  11. January 4, 2011 at 10:51 am —

    Thank you so much for sharing this technique with us! I have always wanted to try it out and now that I know how I am excited to practice some more!

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How to Use Panning to Make Your Photography Come Alive