Panning is a great way to produce images full of energy, motion, and even abstract effects. But how does it actually work? What techniques and settings should you use? How can you capture outstanding panning shots?
That’s what this article is all about.
Below, I share everything you need to know about panning, including tips, tricks, and plenty of examples. Once you’re done reading, all you’ll need to do is practice – and with enough perseverance, you’ll create stunning results.
Let’s get started!
What is panning photography?
Panning is a technique where you move the camera as you press the shutter button. The resulting photos feature a beautiful streaked blur:
Side-to-side panning is the most common technique, but you can also pan up and down or even diagonally. Note that panning images generally feature a moving subject, such as a car, a biker, a jogger, or a running animal. That way, the photographer can follow the subject’s movement with the camera, and while the surroundings will blur, the subject itself will remain sharp.
Now, not all camera movement will produce a creative panning effect – and even if you do manage to capture an interesting blur, your subject may not turn out sharp. For the best results, you must combine careful technique with specific camera settings, as I discuss later on in this article.
When should you use panning?
Panning is a great way to capture artistic images of moving subjects. It’s also an excellent way to convey motion, plus it just looks really, really cool. Therefore, I encourage you to try it whenever you’re faced with reasonably fast subjects moving in predictable directions, such as:
- Cars zooming down the road
- Wildlife racing across a field
- Birds flying through the air
- Joggers running across the sidewalk
Panning is especially handy when the light gets low and you struggle to capture sharp images the conventional way. If you’re shooting birds in flight at dusk, you may only be able to boost your shutter speed to 1/80s, which will produce a blurry “standard” image but is the perfect speed to create a stunning panning shot. Make sense?
Now, panning photography does involve a lot of misses – even once you gain experience – so if you only have a single shot at your subject (e.g., a rare bird happens to fly by), it’s often best to capture a normal image and leave the panning for another day.
And because panning produces intensely artistic images, it’s not always ideal for more photojournalistic endeavors (e.g., when you’re photographing a football game for a newspaper).
One more thing: To capture a great panning image, the subject should be moving adjacent to your position, not directly toward or away from you. If the subject runs at your camera, you won’t have any opportunity to move your setup – that is, to use the pan technique – and your subject will just turn out blurry.
How to take panning photos: settings and technique
Panning starts with a moving subject. When you’re just learning, I’d recommend photographing cars; they’re easy to find, they’re predictable, and they move pretty fast (so you’ll get plenty of good practice). Over time, you can graduate to more difficult subjects such as sports players, wildlife, and birds.
So find a location with plenty of subjects, then dial in your settings. Every situation is different – and the results will depend on the speed of your subject – but here are my basic recommendations:
Once your subject is several hundred feet away, look through the viewfinder and follow its movement with your lens. Don’t wait until it’s right beside you. The sooner you begin the pan, the better you’ll be able to gauge the subject’s speed.
As the subject nears your position, fire off several shots. (The more images you capture, the more you increase your chances of getting a great one!) And keep following the subject with your lens even as it moves away. While it may not seem like it, this follow-through is important.
Finally, review the images on your camera’s LCD. Make shutter speed and exposure adjustments as required, then try again!
Panning photography tips
Now that you know the panning photography basics, you’re ready for some more advanced tips and techniques:
1. For the best shot at success, use your camera’s burst mode
Burst mode allows you to capture several shots in a fraction of a second, and it’s incredibly handy for panning photography.
As I emphasized above, the more shots you take, the more likely you are to capture something great. So before you start panning, switch your camera from its single-shot mode to its continuous shooting mode. (If you’re not sure how to do this, check your camera manual!)
Then, when it comes time to shoot, hold down the shutter button – and keep it held down as you pan and until your subject has zoomed away. Your camera will fire off several shots. And you’ll end up with plenty of files to sort through, some of which will (with any luck!) look good.
In addition to increasing the number of chances you get at a good result, your camera’s burst mode will prevent you from needing to tap repeatedly on the shutter button, thus keeping camera shake to a minimum.
2. Experiment with different shutter speeds
Panning depends heavily on your shutter speed. Keep your shutter speed too high, and you’ll end up with a tack-sharp image and zero blur effect. Drop your shutter speed too low, and you’ll end up with a smudgy, blurry subject.
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to selecting a shutter speed. While 1/60s is a good starting point, faster subjects will require faster shutter speeds, while slower subjects will require slower shutter speeds. To get a beautiful panning shot of a racecar, you may want a speed of 1/125s; to get the same effect for a runner, 1/30s is a better choice.
So it’s important that you experiment constantly. And after each series of shots, carefully review the results on the LCD. If your subject is looking too sharp, drop the shutter speed. If your subject is looking too blurry, boost the shutter speed instead.
And whenever you have a success, commit that shutter-subject combination to memory. That way, the next time you face a similar subject, you’ll know what to do.
3. Set your camera to Shutter Priority mode
In a previous section, I mentioned that you should use either Manual mode or Shutter Priority mode when panning. Personally, I’m a big Shutter Priority fan. Here’s why:
Shutter Priority lets you select a shutter speed while your camera chooses an aperture. In other words, it lets you focus on the most important setting – the shutter speed – while leaving the rest up to your equipment.
(You can also choose an ISO, though I generally recommend setting this to 100 and just forgetting about it unless you’re in very dark conditions.)
Shutter Priority is especially useful when photographing in variable lighting conditions. If you’re photographing cars or bikers moving in and out of shadow, Shutter Priority will take care of the exposure while keeping the shutter speed constant.
But if you were to use Manual mode, then you’d need to constantly adjust the aperture to capture a good exposure – and you’d probably miss lots of opportunities in the process.
4. Use a tripod
It’s absolutely possible to pan while handholding, and it’ll sometimes give you great results.
But here’s the thing:
Shooting handheld at a slow shutter speed can introduce a slight camera shake – which will manifest as undesirable blur in your photos. Plus, while panning your camera along with the moving subject, you might also introduce shake via up-and-down body movements.
So to ensure you capture consistently sharp panning shots, I encourage you to mount your camera on a tripod (or monopod).
You’ll want to choose your tripod head carefully; certain heads are specifically designed for smooth panning, while other heads will send your camera in every direction.
(On a related note, think about the lens you’re using. Certain lenses come with image stabilization designed specifically for panning. If you have such an image-stabilized lens, I highly recommend you test it out!)
5. Focus accurately
When panning, your subject will be moving swiftly across the scene – so it’s essential that you lock focus quickly and accurately.
There are two ways you can make the subject appear in sharp focus while the background appears in motion:
- Autofocusing technique: If you are just starting out with panning photography or if you cannot anticipate the subject’s distance from the camera, use autofocus. To make sure you accurately focus on your subject, switch on your camera’s continuous focusing mode (AF-C on Nikon and Sony and AI-Servo on Canon). This will help your camera continuously focus on the subject as it moves across the frame. Begin focusing on your subject when it’s off in the distance, then keep the center focus point trained on the subject’s center mass as you pan along.
- Manual focus technique: If you are sure of the distance at which your subject will pass (e.g., you know your subject will drive down a particular lane of the road), then I recommend focusing manually. Identify where your subject will be, then focus on that point in advance. You won’t have to worry about locking and maintaining focus – when your subject comes by, just pan your camera along and take a series of photos.
And remember: No matter which focusing method you choose, always set your camera to its burst mode and hold down the shutter button as the subject moves by!
6. Position yourself correctly
To give your lens enough space to focus, ensure you keep some distance between your camera and the moving subject.
If you position yourself too close to the subject, your lens may struggle (and fail) to focus, even if you’re using the manual focus technique described above.
(Why? All lenses have a minimum focus distance; once a subject moves inside this distance, focusing becomes impossible.)
Plus, it’s hard to keep the subject in the frame when it’s large and close. So take a step or two back, and make sure you have enough space to capture a great shot.
Also, when you’re selecting your position, choose a nice background. Don’t just stand wherever. Instead, move until you find a background that helps your subject stand out.
Personally, I think panning photos look eye-catching when there is nice subject-background contrast and there are at least two or more background colors. Then the background provides context and helps set the scene:
That said, you can also create beautiful panning shots with a uniform background (e.g., green trees). Just avoid ultra-busy backgrounds; you want the background to complement the subject, not overwhelm it.
How to master panning photography: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should be well-prepared to capture some stunning panning shots.
So go out with your camera. Practice your technique. And have fun!
Now over to you:
Have you tried panning before? Do you have any shots you’re proud of? Share them in the comments below!