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11 Panning Tips For Beginners

When perfected, panning can produce some rather brilliant shots so for those new to it, here are some tips.

|  Sports and Action
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Photo by David Clapp -

The Basics

Panning is a technique that can help you produce amazing action shots as long as you get your technique right and have some basic knowledge of shutter speeds.

By combining panning with the use of slower shutter speeds you can move your camera in time with your subject and if done right, you should end up with an image that has a blurry background but your main subject is still sharp enough to remain the point of focus

Do remember it's important not to give up if your first few attempts don't work as it's a technique that can take a while to get right.

What Should I Photograph?

It's a technique that can be used to create a sense of movement in any action shot but obvious subject choices include racing cars and cyclists. Do try this technique when capturing pets or people running or even someone on a swing. Passing traffic on busy roads is another good choice, particularly if you're just starting out, as you probably won't run out of subjects!

What Can Go Wrong?

  • Subjects can appear static if a shutter speed is too fast or if you go too slow you can end up with a blurry subject.
  • Shutter delay can mean you miss your subject all together.
  • Sudden acceleration by your subject can lead them to appear blurred.
  • If you don't take a good look around the frame before taking your shot, you can find other objects getting in the way or bright objects, such as high-vis vests worn by officials at race tracks, in the back of shots can end up distracting the viewer even if blurred out of focus.

Do I Need A Tripod?

Some photographers find it easier to use a tripod or monopod to help them capture the perfect pan but you can work hand-held if you wish, it's really down to personal preference. Monopods can move with the turn of your body while if you choose to use a tripod, a pan or ball head will make the task easier. Vanguard's GH-300T pistol grip ball head is ideal for pursuing and capturing fast-moving subjects, plus it features a built-in remote shutter release on the handle so you don't need to move your hands off the head to fire the shutter.  You can learn more about the GH-300T in Vanguard's video.
Vanguard tripod and pistol grip

What Shutter Speeds Should I Use?

If you select a shutter speed that's faster than the subject's speed you're likely to stop it in its tracks which will result in a static image that lacks impact and doesn't show movement. Instead, it's best to pick a slower shutter speed. What shutter speed will work depends on the amount of light and the speed your subject is moving at so a bit of trial and error can be involved. Although if you practise your technique before heading for the race track, playing field etc. you'll get a rough idea of what shutter speeds work and what don't. Do be careful if you're working hand-held as if you go towards the slower end of the shutter speed list you can end up with shake creeping into your shots.

Where Should I Set Up?

Setting up parallel to your chosen subject will make it easier to capture a great pan and try to avoid areas with messy backgrounds or where your subject will be obstructed by other things. As mentioned above, distracting colours and bright spots, even when blurred, will pull focus away from your main subject so do check the back of your frame to ensure it's free of these elements.

How Should I Hold My Camera When Working Hand-Held?

To improve the fluidity of your pan and to stop any unwanted movement you want to wedge the camera into your body as close as you can without becoming uncomfortable. When you know at what point of the track etc. you want to take your shot of, face this direction with your feet shoulder width apart so you have a sturdy base. You're then ready to begin taking your shots.

How Do I Pan?

You then need to twist from your waist until facing the point where your subject will be coming from. As they come into frame, follow them, keeping pace and twisting from your waist. Continue to pan evenly and keep it smooth, paying close attention to make sure your subject is  in the same part of the frame while you complete your pan. Continue the pan even after the exposure is complete to ensure the blur is smooth. Don't hit the trigger button too hard either as this can cause shake which will blur your image.


Why Have I Missed The Subject?

If you're stood at part of a track where cars / bikes suddenly accelerate you may find it begins to move quicker than you're panning and as a result they'll be blurred or could have moved out of frame. As a result, it's probably better to move to a location where they don't accelerate as quickly or you could try using a slightly quicker shutter speed but remember you don't want to freeze your subject's movement completely.

Another problem some older cameras have is shutter lag. This is where there's a slight delay between you pressing the shutter and when the photo is actually captured. Panning well after you've pressed the shutter should help combat this problem and learning to anticipate when you need to take the shot will also help.

To increase your chances of capturing your subject switch to burst mode / continuous shooting and begin shooting before your subject is parallel to you and then continue to take your shots once it has passed.

Will Auto Focus Work?

Having a camera with a quick auto focus system will help you capture moving objects but if your camera struggles to keep up, try pre-focusing your camera on a spot you know your subject will move through. You'll probably need to switch to manual focus as auto can sometimes decide to change its focus when you hit the shutter. Lock your focus once you're happy and hit the shutter button just before your subject moves into frame.

Why Would I Want To Use Flash?

If your subject is close enough for your flash to impact the shot then you can have a go at another technique called 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.  As before you need to perfect your panning speed as if you go too slow your subject and background can end up merging together. Too fast and everything will be frozen still. Do test various flash strength levels to find one that helps creates the shot you're trying to capture. 

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alistairfarrugia 8 164 88 Malta
22 Mar 2013 11:43AM
The thing I found hard when panning to capture shots of low-flying aircraft is that when your eye is against the viewfinder, the second you hit the shutter button all you see is black (the mirror goes up). A certain "knowledge" of where the subject is going to be moving into is thus essential so you can accurately "guess" the extent of panning to do. It's something I have to get accustomed to with more practice as I don't get to shoot fast stuff often.

Thanks for this article. Enjoyed reading it!
27 Mar 2013 8:23PM
I am fairly new to photography. I own a NikonD7000 with an 18-300 lens.
I am going to my first F1 Grand Prix in Barcelona in May. I'm hoping to get some good panned shots. All help would be very welcome

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