Imply Motion in Photographs With Panning

Photos that capture a moving subject in sharp focus while letting the background blur to show motion utilize a technique called panning. Panning refers to the way the photographer smoothly moves his or her camera along with the subject to take the picture. Learn how to use panning to imply motion in your photographs by making the following considerations.

Panning Photographs

That’s quacktastic by Nicoal Price
Settings: 1/60, f/8, ISO 200, 50mm

Subjects

Subjects that move at a fairly constant speed and follow a predictable trajectory are good candidates for panning photos. Try using cars, cyclists, athletes, skateboarders, running animals, or birds in flight.

Panning Photographs

Panning around by Damianos Chronakis

Freezing a taxi in a busy city environment seems to stop the chaos while still showing motion.

Background

For panning to work effectively, you need to choose a varied background that will look blurry. If you shoot against a solid color, like a wall or a cloudless sky, the motion will be less obvious; your subject will just appear frozen against a solid background.

Shutter Speed

Use manual mode if you’re comfortable with camera settings or shutter priority mode if you’re new to camera controls. Slower shutter speeds are the key to capturing motion with panning. In general, a slower speed of around 1/30 of a second will result in more blur in both your subject and your background. A faster speed of 1/60 to 1/100 of a second will usually better freeze your subject but will also result in less obvious background blur. Keep in mind that how shutter speed works with panning depends on several factors, including the speed of your subject. Start with a slow shutter speed and increase it to find the sweet spot that makes your images match your visualization.

Panning Photographs

Zoom… by Yogendra Joshi
Settings: 1/10, f/22, ISO 100, 70mm

Stabilization

While a tripod with a panning head can be useful for panning photos, it’s not necessary. To pan without a tripod, keep your feet in one spot and pivot from your torso. Tuck your elbows into your body to add a bit of stability, and hold the camera close against your face.

Follow-Through

One of the most crucial parts of panning is the follow-through. Keep moving at the same speed as your subject even after you gently press the shutter button. This way, your background lines will be smooth and even. Stopping your panning too soon results in a blurred subject, since an important aspect of panning is to move at the same speed as the subject.

Panning Photographs

Panning by Dan Freeman

 The blurred background has smooth even lines while the subject remains in focus.

Focusing

Another important aspect of the panning technique is to keep the focus on your subject. If your camera’s autofocus is fast enough, you can try using AI Servo mode, which attempts to track a moving subject. I’ve had better luck using manual focus, since it lets you micro-adjust as you pan. Another trick is to use a smaller aperture so that there is a wider depth of field in which to keep your subject in focus.

Panning Photographs

Leaving Terminus by Brett Weinstein
Settings: 1/10, f/3.3, ISO 200, 7mm

Framing

Compositions of moving subjects often work best when you leave them room to move into the frame. For example, if the subject is speeding in from the right, freezing motion as the subject is on the right side of the frame gives a visual space for the implied motion; the subject has somewhere to go.

To help with keeping the subject where you want him or her in the frame, choose a focal point in your camera’s viewfinder, and keep that point on the same spot on the subject as you pan.

Knowing the right settings and techniques to use for panning will help you create images that capture tack sharp subjects against softly blurred backgrounds. Panning is a fun alternative to simply changing shutter speeds. Go find some moving subjects and practice implying motion in your photos.

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Profile photo of Nicoal Price About Nicoal Price

​Nicoal is a New England photographer with a penchant for learning. Her work ranges from nature-inspired portraiture to outdoor product photography. Visit nicoalprice.com for more info.

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