Panning in motorsport photography

Learn panning techniques for motorsport photography with Dom Romney.

|  Sports and Action
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The pan is a very basic shot that is pretty tricky to do well. The basic principle of the pan is to frame the car up as it comes towards you, start taking photographs as it becomes parallel and keep the same framing as it travels away from you. Sounds simple and once you understand it, it is. However, there are multiple factors that can affect how sharp your pan is.

Keep it Smooth!
Panning techniqueThis is making sure that the horizontal path the camera takes is the same as the one the object takes. The more undulations, changes in direction or speed that one of the paths has which isn't replicated in the other will result in a softer image.

Let's say a race car is accelerating away from a corner. As you start panning, keep the car in the middle of the frame  by keeping your speed of panning the same. You press the trigger and continue to pan at the same rate however the car has accelerated so it is now moving faster than you are panning and is effectively moving out of the frame and will cause the car to be blurred.

Ways that you could overcome the issue of the car moving out of the frame would be to:
  • Pay close attention to your panning motion to ensure you're keeping the car in the same part of the frame for the entire time.
  • Use a faster shutter speed so the image is exposed for less time. This will mean the car will not move as far across the frame during the exposure and thus reduce the amount that it's blurred.
  • Change your location to a section of track where the rate of acceleration isn't so extreme.

How to hold the camera
To improve the fluidity of your pan, the best thing you can do is wedge the camera into your body (having a DSLR or large compact really helps at this point), grip the lens in your left hand with your arm pointing down so your elbow is bent 180 degrees and is pointing at the floor. Now, pull your arm into your body, press the camera into your face, not so hard that your disfigure your nose, but hard enough so that it cannot wobble around. With your right hand (trigger hand) you want to keep the angle as parallel to the floor as you can.

Panning techniqueDecide at what point you wish to take the photo and stand facing in that direction with your feet shoulder width apart. Twist from your waist until you are framing the point where the car will be coming from. As the car comes into frame follow it through twisting from the waist to ensure you pan at a constant height (what if the path of the car is not at a constant height?)

Guide the camera with your trigger hand but let your body do the twisting. Many beginners make the mistake of stabbing at the trigger button but this can cause the camera to jar and possibly blur the image. It's much better to gently squeeze the button.

Another handy hint is to shoot in bursts. Most modern cameras have a high-speed shutter (motordrive) setting that will allow a couple of frames a second. If you start shooting before the car is parallel to you and then carry on shooting once it has passed you, you can stop the effect of pressing the shutter from interfering with the quality of the pictures.

Panning technique
Panning technique
Panning for high speed movement.
Parallax shift

Without getting into physics, parallax shift is caused by the difference in relative movement of points that are nearer to you from points that are further away. For example, hold your thumb 10 centimeters from your eye. Move it 10 centimeters from side to side. Notice the difference in angle between the extremes of the movement. Now extend your arm fully and repeat. The angle between the extremes will be less than half what it was when your thumb was close to your eye. As the car moves, the points further from your eye (or the lens of the camera) will move at a different rate to those nearer. This relative speed difference can cause blurring.

The rate of parallax decreases the closer to the parallel the two objects become. The illustration to the right explains what is happening in parallax shift.

Thankfully, there is a simple fix. Always ensure that you press the trigger as the object becomes parallel to you, minimising the effect. Also ensure that your shutter speed isn't too slow (the smallest number is best e.g. 1/200sec is better than 1/20sec) otherwise you will find that the car will travel pass the "sweet spot" and start to move off the parallel inducing the dreaded parallax shift.

How to set your camera up
The best way to set your camera up for this sort of work is to select shutter priority mode. I would start panning at around 1/500sec of a second keep checking the display and start dropping the shutter speed until you start to push your limits then it's a case of just practicing.

The three key things to remember are
  • As soon as the car becomes visible, start tracking its movement
  • Continue to track its movement even after you have taken the photo
  • Make sure you have a stable base to work off

To see more of Dom's work, visit his website here:

Dom Romney

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VicBarnes 10 49 2 England
Great tutorial. Can I add that... start shooting just before the subject reaches the position you want to capture it at. It is amazing how much further past the point you planned to photograph the subject that it can be. With experience you will learn to anticipate this.
Good shooting!

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