A beginner's guide to panning photography

First published:
May 4, 2023
Updated:
January 31, 2024

A beginner's guide to panning photography

First published:
May 4, 2023
Updated:
January 31, 2024

Tuk-tuk in Bangkok by Christian Müller

Top tips for moving your camera to capture motion in a fast-moving subject

How do you capture a subject that's moving quickly? There are two ways to approach action photography. One is to use a very fast shutter speed to freeze your subject, thereby capturing a fleeting moment in time. Another way is to use a slower shutter speed while following a moving subject along its plane of motion. The result of the latter is an image that shows motion. Welcome to panning photography, the art of keeping a subject sharp while blurring the background. However, the exact effect will depend on the settings you use, your equipment, where you position yourself and how well you execute the shot.

Here are some of our top tips to get you started…

1 What is panning photography? 

Snow Goose Motion Blur. Photo by Raymond Hennessy - f/20 | ISO 50 | 1/20s

Panning photography is a type of action shot. In essence, it’s a kind of motion blur photography. It’s when the photographer uses a relatively slow shutter speed to capture a moving subject. The end result is a sharp subject and a blurred background. It’s a useful technique to know if you want to isolate a subject and make them stand out from the background. It’s also a simple way of showing motion in a still image. It’s a good way to blur-out a background that’s uninteresting or distracting.

Author tip:

Panning photography is typically used to capture the motion of cars, cyclists and skateboarders, but also horses, birds and anything else that moves fast. It’s a great technique for using at motor racing events – and it’s something you can practice from any seat in the grandstand. 

2 Equipment you’ll need

Bicycle rider in NYC. Photo by Christian Müller - f/7.1 | ISO 100 | 1/8s

The two most important pieces of equipment to try panning photography are a manual camera and a zoom lens. Any camera that allows you to change the shutter speed will do, and while a fully manual mode is handy, you can easily try panning photography just by using the shutter priority mode. Some cameras even have a panning mode built-in.

Just as important as your camera is the lenses. All lenses will give a different effect, but you don't need to go full telephoto for this technique. A mid-range zoom – sometimes called a travel zoom – that reaches around 105 mm is ideal for panning photography. However, you can use much larger lense. If you’re planning to be in the grandstand of a sports event, do bear in mind how far you will be from your subject – and perhaps take a longer zoom lens than you would normally consider for panning photography. Just as important as how long your lenses are is how quickly they focus. Although it’s not necessary for the basic technique, using a flash to illuminate a close subject can help you freeze it and get extra sharpness.

Author tip:

Since you have to physically move yourself and your camera, as you take a panning photography shot, there's no need to pack a tripod or a shutter release cable. However, a monopod can be useful to keep a long zoom lens more steady while panning. It’s only worth using a monopod if you know your subject’s exact trajectory. A monopod is useful for taking images of Formula One cars that travel on a predictable trajectory, for example, but it's not very useful for capturing wildlife. 

3 Understanding the settings

Hot pursuit. Photo by Kieran O Mahony

The easiest way to begin panning photography is to either use the built-in panning mode on your camera or put your camera into shutter priority mode. Sometimes called ’S’ or ‘Tv’ (time value), shutter priority mode lets you fiddle with the setting for shutter speed only. You pick the shutter speed you think suits your subject (as a ballpark figure try between 1/10 of a second to 1/80 of a second), and the camera will take care of the rest – in this case, the ISO and the aperture. Make a mental note of the ISO and aperture your camera uses in different scenarios and, once you're confident in what you're doing, you can move onto full manual mode. That will give you more control over what the background looks like.

Author tip:

Always shoot in raw mode when doing panning photography. It will give you images that have a lot more information than in a compressed JPEG file. Raw images are therefore hugely useful when post-processing your images. For panning photography shots you're likely to want to boost the saturation, the contrast and experiment with different colour temperatures.

4 Get into position

Panning shot of a cyclist. Photo by Roi Brooks - f/18 | ISO 100 | 1/13s

Getting good at panning photography is as much about you as it is about your camera. In fact, while you may be experimenting with shutter speed for different subjects that move at different speeds, how you position yourself and how you move as you take the shot is just as important. Get into a position where your subject will move perpendicular to you. As your subject moves across the scene in front of you, you’ll need to pan the camera to follow its movement. The technique can be broken down into four separate steps. The first is all about timing – you need to know exactly when your subject is about to move through the scene in front of you. The second step is to look at your subject through the viewfinder and focus by lightly pressing the shutter button on your camera. Step number three is to pan the camera to follow your subject’s movement. Try short pans at first, then longer pans. Finally, you need to press the shutter down fully on your camera to take the shots at the all-important moment you want to freeze.

Author tip:

Panning photography is a physical shot and you need to be relatively agile. You need to be as stable as possible to keep a smooth movement. That means cradling your camera and its lens with your hands while keeping your elbows close to your body. That will reduce any residual movement, which in turn will reduce blur on your subject. It's also important to think about your hips. If your subject is going to move from left to right in front of you, for example, try facing towards the right then swivel on your hips to face left. That way, you can focus on your subject while slightly twisted and then return to a normal stance as it arrives in front of you. You can then take the shot without being in an uncomfortable position. 

5 Experiment with blur

Tuk-tuk and blurred light. Photo by TTStock - f/4 | ISO 200 | 1/2s

Panning photography is as much about blurring a background as it is about keeping your subject in focus. As you pan to keep your subject in focus the background is moving as seen by your camera. However, there are different kinds of blur you can create while panning. In a nutshell, the slower the shutter speed, the more blurred your background will be. It's also important to understand that the closer you are to your subject the more you have to pan, and the more you have to pan the blurrier your background will be. Other critical factors include the speed your subject is moving, and how far zoomed-in your lens is. As well as making sure your subject is sharp, try making it slightly blurry to create a more abstract look.

Author tip:

Although a long lens is very useful in a lot of scenarios, you can, of course, simply move closer to your subject. If this is possible then you could also try panning photography with a smartphone. Any manual camera app that lets you adjust the shutter speed will work, with well-known and reliable examples including Camera+, ProCamera and Halide Mark II.
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