Panning Shots: Tips and Tricks

"Happiness in Motion" by D. Travis North

“Happiness in Motion” by D. Travis North

Panning is one of my favorite techniques for implying motion in a photograph.  Done well, panning shots will be among the most dramatic in your photographic portfolio.  It is, however, a tricky technique.  So here are a few pointers to get you shooting your own panning shots.

  • Avoid your Tripod – Yeah, I said it.  The tripod rotates around a point on your sensor plate – not your head.  You need to pan around your eye to get the timing right.  If you shoot with a tripod, the center portion of your path will have an exaggerated speed and your subject will blur.
  • Use your Hips, not your Neck/Shoulders – Keep your arms, elbows, shoulders, head and camera locked in position on your torso and rotate at the hip.  This limits the up-and-down motion and makes for a smoother rotation.
  • Shutter Speed Matters – Obviously, you want to use Shutter Priority or Manual mode to lock in your shutter speed.  You want a relatively slow shutter speed, but not too slow.  Depending on the anticipated speed of your subject, I find that speeds between  1/20 or 1/40 works well.  Any slower, and things really get difficult – but possible with practice.
  • Margin for Error – You’ll want to give yourself a small enough aperture to get a depth of field that you can work in.  Shutter Speed takes first priority, but do what you can to give yourself some depth with the smallest aperture you can afford – even if it means a higher ISO.
  • Lead Time – Try to start the panning early.  Pan with the subject for as long as possible before pressing the shutter button.  This will help you get your pacing correctly.  Pacing is important as the viewfinder will go black during the exposure, and you’ll need to continue panning.
  • Give Yourself Space – Until you get really good at panning, I recommend that you zoom out a little bit.  First and foremost, the shorter focal length means your unwanted motion will be less exaggerated.  Plus you’ll have more space to keep the subject in-frame.  You can always crop in post.
  • Background Location – The effect will be much more dramatic the closer the background is to the subject.  If you have any control, try to direct your subject closer to landscaping or structures that will blur.
  • Squeeze, don’t pull – Those who learned to shoot rifle/pistol have heard this phrase before.  It applies to photography as well.  you want your wrist, arm and hand position to remain unchanged through the shot.  The only thing that should move is your finger.  So visualize squeezing that button into the palm of your hand.  People have a tenancy to introduce wrist action – but that much force isn’t necessary and it introduces unwanted movement.
  • Don’t Worry About Edges – The goal is to retain as much definition as possible, but don’t fret the little stuff.  Blurry edges, or even duplication, is common with panning shots.  It helps to add to the effect, and most viewers won’t mind.
  • Practice – Like any technique, panning takes practice.  Practice every opportunity that you have, even if you have no intent on keeping the photo.

About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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