I am just going to lay this out there right from the get go: panning is not easy! You must be willing to experiment to master this technique. What is panning, you ask? Well, simply put panning is a technique in which you move your camera along in the same direction and speed as the moving object you are photographing. The result is a relatively clear, focused subject with a blurred background. This is different from simply using a slow shutter speed to create motion blur because the subject itself is in focus. Slow shutter speed is key though, so muster up some patience and read on to find out about this cool technique.
The key to panning is a slow shutter speed and a steady hand. Like any motion blur type of photography, slow shutter speed is essential to convey that feeling of motion and speed. How slow depends on what you are photographing. The quicker the subject the quicker the shutter speed - even speeding cars probably require 1/200 or slower. If your subject is considerably slower, like someone running, you will need a much slower shutter speed. You may want to start in the ballpark of 1/30 and adjust from there.
To be successful at panning, keep your camera as still as possible. Try bracing your elbows in by your sides or a similar posture that helps you to keep the camera still as you move it along with your subject. You want your subject to be in focus with only the background blurred. Focus is important, but your subject will not be tack sharp with this technique. The relative sharpness of your subject in contrast to the blurred background is your goal. Try enabling your camera's continuous focus mode which will attempt to track the subject, after you initially choose the focal point, and keep it in focus as it moves.
Choose your shutter speed, focus on your subject, and attempt to follow the motion with your camera as it occurs.
It helps a lot if you move your camera parallel to your subject's path. Having your subject not getting closer to (or further away from) your camera helps a lot with keeping them in focus, and sharp. It's also much easier if they are moving in a relatively straight line. Curved trajectories are very difficult to pan with! After your first few attempts you will likely view your photos to find them a blurry mess. This is normal so don’t throw in the towel yet! Panning definitely requires a lot of practice and a bit of luck to get a good result. I suggest starting with a subject that moves relatively slowly. The faster they move, the more difficult it is to stay with them as you pan.
The first time I tried this was shooting someone riding a motorcycle with some city lights in the background. He was kind enough to ride past about a bazillion times, much to the dismay of the neighbors, but even with lots of attempts I found it very difficult to keep up with him. My results were just a notch above pathetic, but I learned a lot about what not to do. If at first you don’t succeed, control your temper and try, try again! Don’t break in this technique at a NASCAR event. If you can set up somewhere where cars are continually passing by, you can get lots of practice. Slow speed events like foot races may also provide good opportunities. Position yourself near the finish line and shoot away!
Think Outside the Box
Panning is often used to capture the motion of cars, bicyclists, and even runners but there are some less obvious uses of this technique. If you are having trouble moving your camera in time with your subject, try holding your subject at arm’s length and spinning in a slow circle. Obviously, cars and the like are out for this little experiment. Toys, flowers, small pets, and even small children may work. The point is this allows you to travel at the same speed as your subject and get a better result.
Look for opportunities to pan at playgrounds and amusement parks. Merry Go Rounds are few and far between at today's playgrounds, but if you see a similar piece of equipment and feel so inclined to hop on with your child - give it a whirl. Snap away until the dizziness sets in. You can set up similar shots and get a great result by standing near the carousel horse your child is riding on and shooting them with the background blurring past. Remember, for this kind of slow motion you will need to use a slow shutter speed, but not too slow that even your subject is blurry.
Use Shutter Priority Mode and start with 1/50 second. Take an image and change the shutter speed as necessary.
Now that you know the basics it is time to get out and try it. It's definitely is worth the effort and is a fun technique to try in certain situations.
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