Capture motion with panning

Not too long ago I shared some pictures of the Giro d’Italia and ten tips on how to capture your pets. A technique that is useable both in sports and pet photography is called panning. Panning is a method used in photography to capture (quickly) moving subjects. In this blog I’ll discuss how to apply panning in your pictures.

Giro d'Italia

Sprinting very quickly for team Lampre – Merida. I used a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second to remain sharpness on the cyclists face, yet blur out the background due to camera movement.

One of the challenges of photography is that (most of the time) you try to capture a moment or situation that you witnessed. You try to tell a story using only one single frame. And here is the challenge: there is no room for motion in one single frame. If you want to capture movement you need a series of frames, a movie, or a motion picture as it was called long ago. Still, when movement matters for a story, there is a method to capture it in one single frame.

You could decide to freeze motion with a quick shutter speed. Fast moving subjects will be frozen and every detail is wonderfully visible. However, to make a picture more “dynamic” you also have the choice to use a slower shutter speed and blur parts of the photo to emphasise motion. The trick is to use a shutter speed slow enough to blur the background and keep your subject sharp, providing that your camera is moving in the same direction as your subject. The technique used for this is called panning. By panning you follow the moving subject with the lens while taking pictures.

Giro d'Italia

Tom Dumoulin frozen in position by using a fast shutter speed (1/800th of a second).

Choosing the right settings
There are a few settings you’ll need to tweak when you’re taking pictures of a moving subject. First, because your subject is moving setting your camera body or lens to autofocus is a good thing to do. Another setting you’ll need to use is Continuous Focus (AF-C), or AI Servo as Canon calls it. AF-C or AI Servo means that your camera will continue to refocus on your subject as it moves, opposed to Single Focus (AF-S) or One Shot which focusses once when the shutter release button is pressed. If possible also try to use one focus point. You will use this one focus point to track the target.

When shooting with a lens that supports Vibration Reduction (VR), or Image Stabilisation on Canon lenses (IS), it is important to turn it off. Vibration Reduction is used to cancel out unintentional camera shake. Very useful to get sharper images in low light conditions. But since you are intentionally moving your gear along with the subject, this might lead to misunderstandings in your camera and result in bad images.

Also, if your camera supports it, set it to burst mode, or continuous shooting. Check your camera’s manual how to do this on your particular camera. Using burst mode your camera will take pictures as long as you press the shutter (and the memory buffer of your camera isn’t full).

Finally, set the shutter speed. Setting your camera to Shutter priority (the S on the mode dial) will help you keeping a constant exposure (you only set the shutter speed and the camera takes care of the ISO and Aperture). Selecting the right shutter speed is always a little trial on error. There are some “rules of thump” online about which shutter speed to use. But the necessary speed depends on the speed at which the subject is moving, the distance between you and the subject and the focal length of the lens. My advise would be to start at 1/25th or 1/30th of a second for walking people and move up or down from there. Is the image blurred? Choose a faster speed.

To capture cyclists you could start at 1/100th of a second and move up or down from there. For really fast moving subjects, like race cars, you might even start at 1/200th of a second. If you use a longer lens (like 200mm for example) you might go for faster speeds, as the distance between you and the target is optically reduced.

Panning

Panning while the BMX biker is going for a stunt. A shutter speed of 1/125th of second is used using a 35mm lens (at f4).

Taking panning photos
Right, you have finally set your camera. Let’s go for some action shots! First, find a place where there are no other objects between you and the target that could ruin the shot (like a tree). Make sure that there are no people too close to you, as you don’t want to knockout people by panning your camera to into their heads.

With your camera ready to go, start looking through the view finder as the subject approaches and keep following it. This following motion is called panning. Already try to get the target in focus by pressing the shutter release button halfway. By pressing it halfway the autofocus will start working without taking a picture. This will prepare you for when the subject is within shooting range. Do this regularly, until the subject is close and you are ready to take the shots.

Get ready to take the shots when the subject is almost in position. You want to start taking pictures just before the moment you want to capture. This should be a short moment before, as most cameras are only able to take between 4 and 7 pictures before the buffer is full (except for the new Nikon D500 which is incredibly fast). You can also expect a little delay during shooting as your camera needs to process the pictures.

Check the first results. Make sure the subject is sharp. If a human is involved, it is important that the face is sharp. Blurred body parts won’t matter too much if it adds to the dynamic feel of the picture. In case the subject is not sharp enough, choose a quicker shutter speed. If you end up with a completely frozen image (no movement visible) go for a slower shutter speed and retry your shots.

In the situation that your camera is not working as fast as advertised, I suggest you use the following settings to avoid your camera from processing too much and improve the speed of burst mode:

  • Turn off Distortion Control
  • Don’t shoot JPEG, only RAW (not both, this slows down your camera as it has to generate JPG files during the shoot)
  • Turn off Noise Reduction for Long Exposure

For me, turning these settings off on my Nikon D7100 resulted in a speed increase from 3 image to 6 images in a second prior to a full buffer. Also, make sure you have the fastest memory card that your body supports.

The process of panning is visualized below.

Panning 1

Look through the viewfinder and follow the approaching target.

Panning 2

Initiate the auto focus as the target gets closer. This can be done by pressing the shutter release button halfway.

Panning 3

Keep the target in focus by keeping the shutter release button pressed halfway.

Panning 4

Start taking pictures just before the subject gets at the point where you want it to be.

Panning 5

Keep shooting!

Panning 6

Still shooting!

Panning 7

If your camera is still able to take pictures, keep on going! The buffer might be full by now and the camera will definitely slow down.

Panning 8

After taking your photos continue the following motion to complete the last shot. You are done now! These awesome diagrams are made possible by Lighting Diagrams.

Feel free to ask any questions in the comment section!

Kind regards,
Tieme

2 Comments

  1. Reply

    Excellent article! This is what makes me dislike digital cameras that have everything auto, it is much harder to get the settings just right for elaborate shots like these. Thanks for writing!

    • Reply

      Hi Aaron!

      Thank you for dropping a note! Oh yeah, I too prefer manual settings, however I find myself shooting in “A” (aperture priority) mode quite often too 😉

      Have a great day!

      Tieme

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