5 pointers that help you with panning

Cyclist turning a corner in central London, a shot I took during class to demonstrate the technique of panning to my students.

Cyclist turning a corner in central London, a shot I took during class to demonstrate the technique of panning to my students.

You’ve mastered motion blur and you’ve achieved some nice effects, but you now want to take a shot where the image looks sharp and the background gives a nice whizzy impression of speed.
You already know how to think about the settings and that what you need to think about first is the shutter speed. You also know how to get an image that’s a sharp snapshot in time, where moving object and background are frozen. (If you’re coming to this post new, check out how to think about camera settings,getting the light right, and motion blur).

To get the panning effect, use the same settings as you did for motion blur and follow your subject while matching its speed. It takes a bit of practice and the sharpness of your subject is dependent on how well you manage to match the speed but it’s really that simple.

Here are some techniques to make it easier:

1. Set up your shot.

Find a good place for your panning and organise your settings before your subject arrives. I’ll be posting more about this later.

2. Start following the subject before you take the shot.

This helps you keep your motion smooth. If you try to do too much at once you’ll jerk the camera and spoil the effect.

3. Carry on following the subject after you take the shot.

Like point 2, this helps you keep your motion smooth. It’s like the carry-through on a golf swing or tennis shot.

4. Consider using a tripod,

This isn’t vital but will help keep the motion smooth. It works better in some environments than others.

5. Find an imaginary scenario that will help you track and anticipate your subject.

Maybe you’re a master photographer in a seriously well-paid shoot, maybe your camera is the subject’s shadow, or you are dancing with your subject. Maybe you are a predator and your subject is your prey, or you are a spy, anticipating and tracking your subject through rifle sights. The idea here is to put yourself in a mind set that keeps you as in-synch with your subject’s motion as possible, so if it suits you better, use mindfulness or meditation instead.

Find your sweet spot

Experiment and you will find out that there is a range of shutter speeds and exposures that make visual sense. Within the range that falls between sharp and indistinguishably blurry, your panning will look more impressive the longer the shutter is open. Since it is harder to track the object smoothly for longer shutter speeds, the amount of time you leave the shutter open – your particular sweet spot – must be up to you.




Every Wednesday I post something that will help my students. Each blog post is the synthesis of my experience as a pro-phtoographer and years of teaching photography to adults, children and teenagers. To attend a group course find me at City Academy or for flexible one-to-one tuition and portfolio building contact me directly.

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