7 Tips for Showing Motion with Panning

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I’d say that most of the time we’re inclined to freeze the motion within an image. But what if we want to show motion? Well,  we can slow down the shutter speed to let in some motion blur.

BUT…when the entire subject is moving, slowing down the shutter speed to capture motion blur makes the entire subject blurry.

An entirely blurry subject rarely makes for a strong image. Wouldn’t it be great if we could communicate movement through some motion blur and still have a subject that’s sharp (enough)?

Well you can! As you might’ve guessed, it’s possible with panning.

So what is panning?

Panning is a technique where you move your camera to match the movement of the main subject. Then you throw a slow shutter speed into the mix. And what you’re left with is a sharp (enough) main subject and a motion blurred background. Best of both worlds to reveal, not freeze, a subject in motion!

(ISO 50, f9, 1/30)

Disclaimer:

Panning is difficult. Out of the 100 images I shot to try and illustrate this lesson, really only about 1 dozen turned out well. But that’s widely known as par for the course when it comes to panning.  But if you’re up for a challenge, panning can be a really fun technique to play with and learn.  

Also, these were “real life” shots, which also makes it even more difficult. I didn’t stage the running speed and direction, which would have made it easier. Instead, I just tried to capture some pics of a good ole fashioned kickball game in our cul de sac. Then I tried to get some of Payson riding his bike.

That said, let’s talk tips.

7 tips for great panning shots.

(1) Aim for a shutter speed between 1/8th to 1/60th of a second.

I hear a lot of you saying: “Whoa that’s SLOW!” Indeed it is, but that’s usually what it will take to actually capture some motion blur that’s worthwhile or your everyday life kinda pics.

Put it this way, if you creep up towards 1/125, the background tends to look more like camera shake…or just slightly soft…rather than motion blur. The exception here is when panning with an extremely fast moving subject like a bird or a jet. In this case you might be panning your camera so fast that you can indeed let your shutter speed go far beyond 1/60.

Here’s an image at 1/125th on a rather fast moving bike. And as you can see, it looks pretty normal:

(1/125th is too fast for most panning scenarios, even on a moving bike)
(1/60th shows a bit of motion blur, but not a ton. Drag the shutter more if you can!)

But for your kids running/riding/skating/skipping/jumping by, then start out between 1/8th and 1/60th of a second. As you might already be thinking, this means that panning images are best captured during those low light hours of the day. Otherwise you’ll need to stop down that aperture big time.

(ISO 100, f18, 1/20th gives some motion trails while panning keeps the subject sharp enough!)

Side note – it’s MUCH easier to get a great panning image of a fast moving subject. You might think it’d be harder, but it’s not. Try panning a slow walker vs a fast bike rider. You’ll see. Faster moving images create a more dramatic pan effect.

This point of speed brings me to the next point.

(2) Move your camera at the exact same speed of your subject.

More specifically, keep your subject in the exact portion of your frame for the entire open shutter.

Think about it, if you outpace your subject, or fall behind, there’s going to be some blur involved. If you can match the exact speed of your pan to your subject, then you’ll get a sharper subject all while seeing a motion blurred background.

That brings me to the next point…

(3) Move your camera in the exact direction of your subject.

When we think of panning, we usually think of horizontal movement. And for good reasons. First, most of us humans move horizontally. 😉 Second, it’s the easiest direction by far to execute with a steady camera.

But if your subject is moving in a line up, down, or to some extent diagonally, your pan needs to follow that line.

An extreme example to make a point. If you’re photographing a Blue Angel fighter jet going straight down and you’re panning horizontally…well…fail.

But again, most of us are taking pics of our kids and clients, and so 95% of the time we’ll be panning horizontally. That’s a good thing, because it’s easier to keep the camera steady.

(ISO 100, f18, 1/20th and following the direction of the subject)

That brings us to:

(4) Move your camera with your trunk, not your hands.

Hold your camera steady as you normally do: elbows tucked in tight acting like a bipod. Always employ steady hands.

To pan, just swivel/rotate your core to track the motion of your subject. This will give you far more control in your panning motion while keeping the camera free from camera shake.

As you can imagine, rotating/swiveling side to side is much easier than up/down. But again that covers 95% of our panning shots. For those other 5% when you’re trying to pan vertically, at least you’ll get your ab workout in.

(5) Choose near-ish and/or busy backgrounds.

Usually we try to find clean, un-distracting backgrounds. Usually we love backgrounds with a lot of depth so we can isolate our subject.

For panning, it’s just the opposite.

If the background is completely white (or any other color), there won’t be any panning blur.

When you have busy background with lots of colors and shapes, the panning effect is far more dramatic!

(Usually I’d try for a cleaner background. But with panning, go for messy backgrounds that you can smear with the pan. ISO 100, f16, 1/20th)

Same thing with background depth. If there’s a mountain in the background 20 miles away, that background won’t move much in the frame during a pan. Thus is won’t reveal much movement.

Note: It’ll still work so long as there’s some foreground and midground.

(6) Try longer focal lengths.

Similar to the above point, panning at 24mm gives a bit less drama than panning at 200mm. You have to swing a 200mm far more to pan as opposed to a 24mm. That longer swing makes for more motion. And more motion makes for more dramatic panning.

(7) Don’t trust your tiny LCD screen.

You’ve probably already experienced this many times before: you think an image is sharp, only to get it home to your computer and see that it’s not.

This is magnified a bit more with panning images. You might think your subject is sharp enough, but when you get it on a bigger screen, you trash it.

Just be prepared for this. Expect it. When you do, you’ll think to zoom in on your camera’s LCD screen to check for subject sharpness.

(Totally thought this was sharp enough when I looked at my camera’s screen. But reviewing it back on my computer shows quite a bit of blur. 1/20th shutter speed).

That said, great panning images don’t need to display a perfectly sharp subject. Just sharp enough to where something meaningful is still sharp…again…enough!

(My fav pic of the shoot by far. The face isn’t as sharp as some of the others. But sharp “enough” to capture the story and expression. ❤️ISO 100, f18, 1/15th)

Wrap up

Panning isn’t something many of us go to when it comes to capturing action. But with a bit of practice, you’ll capture images that tell the story of motion. Of course, that’s what it’s all about.  Try something new this summer to capture all of that summer fun.  You might just be surprised with your results!

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