Updated July 2013.
Whether it's your baby that's just learnt how to walk, a horse galloping along in a field or a car hurtling around a track - you can improve your chances of getting a sharp shot if you grasp a simple technique known as panning.
However, if you try to photograph any moving subject without a little knowledge of shutter speeds, chances are you'll get disappointing results. They will either be blurred with an unrecognisable subject or the picture will be absent of the subject as it raced out of the frame when the shutter release was pressed. But these common problems in the world of action photography can be avoided if you follow our few simple tips.
Camera - Any DSLR can be used for this type of photography. Take a look at Pentax' cashback offers if you're considering purchasing a new DSLR or DSLR & Lens combo.
Tripod - Not essential but the extra support a tripod gives can help you create a smoother pan. If you're going to be working at a venue where you'll be moving around you may want to consider taking a monopod along instead. A monopod will give you that extra bit of support you need but are easier to move with.
All cameras adjust the amount of light reaching the CCD using shutter speed and aperture controls. It's the shutter speed we will use to perfect our panning technique. The shutter speed is measured in fractions of seconds. A slow speed may be 1/15 second or slower and a fast speed is anything above 1/125 second. To take pictures of moving subjects you have several options.
The most obvious is to select a fast shutter speed to freeze the subject. If the selected shutter speed is faster than the subject speed you're likely to stop it in its tracks, but that's a disadvantage. If you stop a moving car in its tracks it will look static and lack impact. A better technique is to select a slower speed and follow the subject as you take the photograph. This is panning.
Panning is a great technique for action and, once perfected, the main subject will be sharp against a blurred background. The idea is to follow the subject as it passes in front of you and continue to follow it as you press the shutter and even after the shot is taken.
If you pan at the same speed as the subject it will appear sharp against a streaking blurred background. To ensure smooth results keep your feet still and rotate the top half of your body as you track your subject. Prefocus your camera at a point where your subject will pass to ensure the picture is sharp. Also ensure the background isn't too light and doesn't have shapes as this can create ghostlike effects or streaks in the image. A darker background is better. Make sure you press the shutter when the subject reaches a mid point along your panning track to ensure it's in the best position and try to follow without moving up or down to prevent subject blur.
Don't be tempted to use the LCD screen when taking your panning shots as the scene may appear jerky when tracking at such speeds, making it difficult to follow the subject accurately.
What can go wrong?
Use a shutter speed that's too fast and you can end up with a static looking shot or you could miss the shot all together if you don't take shutter delay into account. Go too slow with your shutter speed and you'll just end up with blur while not checking your background before you hit the shutter button will result in a messy looking shot.
Slow Sync Flash
Another technique to try is slow sync flash where you use a slow shutter speed and flash. The flash freezes the subject in motion as it fires and the long shutter speed ensures the background is blurred. Again the technique is to get the panning speed correct. For example, shoot too slow and you'll see the bike trail and it'll merge/blur into the background. Too fast and everything freezes.
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