If you enjoy sports and other fast-moving things, then you've probably spent some time marveling at the amazing photos some photographers manage to capture of fast-moving subjects. You know the ones I mean: a sharp subject against a streaky, blurred background. A photo that says "speed."
You may even have tried to capture a similar image. And unless you tried again ... and again ... and again ... you probably came away from the experience frustrated and disappointed.
That's because this technique, which has the deceptively simple name "panning," is extremely difficult to master. And even photographers who have mastered it still get it wrong some of the time--maybe even most of the time, depending on how challenging the subject is. But I'll show you the tricks to give yourself a better-than-even chance!
[ Top image Liftoff! by Flickr user jrodmanjr]
Sadly, this is one of those techniques that's far simpler to describe than it is to master. You can start by learning the technical stuff--camera settings, equipment etc.--and after that it's just practice.
The technical stuff
First up, you will want to use a slowish shutter speed. 1/30 is a good baseline to begin with, but if you choose a shutter speed that's slower than that you can potentially get more dramatic results. Very fast moving subjects such as race cars don't need much less than 1/125; air show jets may require as much as 1/500. Slower moving subjects, on the other hand, will require slower shutter speeds. Remember of course that the slower the shutter speed, the more difficult it will be to avoid camera shake - which is the kind of motion blur that you don't want (unless you want an arty effect). And the slower the subject, the more difficult it will be for you to pan smoothly with them as they move.
Some photographers can pan while hand-holding their camera, but you need a very steady hand to pull this off. If you want a better chance at success, you will need to use a very sturdy tripod or a monopod. For smooth panning, you could even attach a rubber band to the handle of your tripod and use that to follow your subject with your camera.
Grand Prix of Long Beach by Flickr user szeke
Subject is important--so is trajectory
Not every moving subject is a good candidate for panning. You need to choose a subject that is moving in a straight line, which will allow you to predict where he is going and where he will end up. Subjects that are moving erratically are not good for this type of shot because the motion blur itself will be equally erratic--and what you want is nice, smooth lines that suggest speed, not crazy, messy lines that suggest crazy messiness.
Determination - Barrel Racing - Parada del Sol Rodeo by Flickr user Al_HikesAZ
Ideally, you also want your subject to be moving parallel to your position. The goal is to keep the subject in focus, and a subject who is moving towards you or away from you--even at a slight angle--will give you some focusing challenges. It is also more difficult to follow a subject who is moving at an angle away or towards you. A camera with a good auto-focus tracking system can help, but even good auto-focus tracking systems have their limitations and don't always produce perfect results. With practice, you'll be able to master panning subjects that are moving at an angle towards or away from your position, but you'll probably want to start with parallel subjects and then move on from there.
Since you typically want your subject to be sharp at the end of the exposure rather than the beginning, you can make a judgment call about where your subject is going to be at that point and then pre-focus on that spot. But in your learning stages you may find that you get much better results if you stick with subjects that are moving from left to right, or vice versa.
Don't neglect your background
For most beginners, background is one of the most neglected parts of a photograph. Background is important because a bad or busy background can distract from your subject. When you're panning, this becomes even truer. While in a typical photograph a busy background can be blurred out with a large aperture, in a panned shot a busy background can create streaks and colors that are big and overwhelming and will therefore distract from your subject. As in any other type of photography, try to situate yourself so the background is free of large, distracting objects and multiple bright colors.
Taking the shot
When you have a good idea of where you're going to take the shot, set up your camera (preferably on a tripod and with a remote release). If you need to prefocus, do so well in advance of your subject's arrival. As your subject approaches, try to get a good sense of his or her speed. Release the shutter with as light a hand as possible (the remote release will help) and pan smoothly with your subject. Follow through even after the shutter has opened and closed--this will ensure that the blur is even across the entire frame. And finally--and I know this will be tricky if you are using a remote release and a rubber band--keep looking through the viewfinder. Your subject should remain in the same position in the viewfinder through the entire shot.
panning jeep by Flickr user wvs
Don't expect perfection
Not every shot is going to be perfect. Even the good ones may not be perfect. It is extremely difficult to get a perfectly sharp subject when you're panning, so don't throw out an otherwise great shot just because the focus is imperfect.
Practice, practice, practice
You're not going to get this right the first time. You're just not. So if you're a beginner at this stuff, don't spend a bunch of money on that auto racing event and then take nothing but panning shots, because you'll probably be disappointed by your results. Instead, find a nice, unimportant free event and practice panning there. Be thrilled if you get one good shot out of every 100 you try. Be ecstatic if you get one good shot out of 25. Not only does panning take practice, it also takes luck. So waste those digital frames (they're free!) and practice, practice, practice. That one good shot out of 100 will make it completely worth the effort.
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