How to Master Panning

August 24, 2010 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | 15 Comments | |
How to Master Panning Image

Main Image: The procession of monks at dawn through the town to collect gifts of food, Luang Prabang, Laos

We'd been waiting for two hours, intermittently bombarded by promotional material hurled from passing cars, shifting and crouching on the verge, waiting, waiting as the excitement built. Helicopters overhead suggested they were approaching. More cars, more gendarmes on motorcycles, but still no riders. Another photographer walked by and gave me a look that could kill at 50 metres. Sigh. The study of the body language of photographers working the same patch could occupy psychologists for years.

Finally, behind a phalanx of cars, the leader of the stage burst into sight. Colour, speed, action; the next ten minutes passed in a blur, literally, as I panned relentlessly as the peloton surged towards Revel. I don't remember actually seeing the Tour de France pass; it was just a fleeting blur in the eyepiece. Pick up a rider and lock on to him, expose as he draws level, check the monitor to check the blur factor, adjust the shutter speed and pick another rider, start panning and thwack! I've just been struck by a flying half full water bottle, discarded by one of the lycra clad riders as he forged past.  And then they were gone, and that was it. Did I manage anything worthwhile? I was just getting into the swing of it. Can't we do it all again?

How to Master PanningThe Tour de France passes through nr Revel, Midi-Pyrenees, Languedoc-Roussillon, France.

Stills photography is by definition, well, still; a frozen moment in time. I could have shot these speeding cyclists with a fast shutter speed to freeze their movement, its one approach. But I was gobsmacked by the pace of these guys, when you consider just how far they'd rode in the last month the Tour really is a staggering feat of endurance. Conveying just how fast these super fit riders were pedalling through the Lauragais paysage was the challenge, and to do that I needed to get my camera on the move. Panning is a basic photographic skill used to convey speed and motion, one that's well worth understanding, practising and experimenting with. Life is a blur anyway, we might as well convey that in our photography.

How to Master Panning Tour de France.

Quite simply panning involves moving the camera during an exposure to keep pace with a passing object. The resultant picture records the moving subject as sharp whilst all around is a streaky motion blur. Used to convey speed it is an essential skill for the likes of sports photographers. Mark Webber's Red Bull flat out and powering through Eau Rouge at 190mph shot with a shutter speed of 1/2000 sec looks as if it could be parked. All is sharp, crisp but sterile; there is no impression of speed. Slow the shutter speed to 1/125th sec whilst panning and the resultant streaky background gives some idea of his velocity. But it's not easy; these are the skills with which pro photographers earn their bread and butter.

How to Master PanningMichael Schumacher at speed in his Ferrari, Australian Grand Prix 2000, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Let's not get fixated on speeding sweaty sports people though; panning can be used to convey motion in all sorts of situations. And beyond the notion of speed it's a creative technique that can add an almost impressionistic feel to compositions where the subject is ambling along at no more than a sedentary Sunday afternoon stroll pace. From the streets of Hanoi to the Bolivian altiplano and the alleyways of Morocco I have used panning to convey bustle and activity. It's fun, do it for the first time and a whole new world opens up. So let's look at the essentials a photographer needs to consider when panning; speed, technique and backgrounds.

How to Master PanningPeople passing by, street scenes in the blue walled town of Chefchaouen, Morocco.

Entry Tags

sports, David Noton, speed, motion, blur, movement, blurring, fast, panning, blurred, moving, pann, pan

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15 Comments | Newest Oldest First | Post a Comment

#1 mane

I haven’t seen such an interesting article for months.

8:22 am - Tuesday, August 24, 2010

#2 Sebastian

Sorry,those photos are crappy!

10:47 am - Tuesday, August 24, 2010

#3 zebarnabe

The only one truly good is the one from grand prix…. the others ... well… i’ve done better with my mobile phone…

However the article is about panning technics (not about the sample photos taken)... it’s interesting to apply it, but it is not an easy one (as the photos provided prove), making the subject sharp while motion blurred the background… looks awesome when well applied :)

11:54 am - Tuesday, August 24, 2010

#4 Jon Jenkins

Nice reading but I know what you mean about the photos!

11:54 am - Tuesday, August 24, 2010

#5 Grace

I like the picture of the monks’ feet.  The picture of the cyclists though is a little too blurry for my taste but the second picture is preferable.  Love the grand prix shot and that was probably the hardest technically to achieve.

5:17 pm - Tuesday, August 24, 2010

#6 1SnapMusic!

I don’t think any of them are particularly ‘bad’ shots; I’d just post-process to extremes to make them more interesting, which is a matter of taste.

6:26 pm - Tuesday, August 24, 2010

#7 Pag

Panning can give some really nice results, but they’re really challenging shots. A lot of the photos here are nice, but in my opinion become too blurry and become almost abstract. A good balance between exposure time and how stable you can keep your shots is essential. I like the racing car, the Hanoi scene and the zebras because they keep the subject much sharper than the others.

A good trick to have sharp subjects is to use a bit of rear-curtain flash while panning. The flash light will freeze your subject in place, but will keep the background blurred if you didn’t use too much power.

Here are some shots I took in a bike race. I found that at 1/50 of a second, I could have a nice effect of speed while being stable enough to have sharp subjects.

6:32 pm - Tuesday, August 24, 2010

#8 Courtney

good information on panning techniques. Thanks.

11:53 pm - Tuesday, August 24, 2010

#9 Lee

Sorry Mr. Noton, your sample pics don’t match the title of your article. These are all poor samples of panning with the exception of the F1.

I’m not saying the pics are bad but it’s definitely not the right pics to be used for How to Master Panning. More suitable for abstract or arty-fatsy shots. Sorry.

3:27 am - Wednesday, August 25, 2010

#10 gerry

I personaly think most of the pictures are great! I really mean it. It shows the sense of motion with a defined subject. Although some are too abstract for my taste.
The street scene in Vietnam for instance, I can ‘feel’ the busy scene it must’ve been. The monks are great! Yes, the F1 has the most well defined subject, and I like it too.
All in all, a really good article.

11:30 am - Friday, August 27, 2010

#11 Olivier_G

Excellent Pictures for a very interesting article. They go well beyond the usual (boring?) sharpness often seen in panning, and show real creativity. Thank you.

9:29 pm - Sunday, August 29, 2010

#12 Colourscape Photography Backgrounds

Such a good article, like most other people, I have always thought that the idea of panning is to freeze the movement. The results that you have achieved are so much more interesting. Gonna give it a try as soon as I can. Thanks !!

10:31 pm - Sunday, September 19, 2010

#13 Vrinda

Great article! I actually think the shots were really good. In fact, the shot of the cyclists gives a stronger feel of motion than the f1 photo. It’s the speed you want to convey, so, for slow movements, the subject being more sharp makes is fine, but, when it’s fast…I think blurred gives a better sense. (so, I think the zebra shots is great but, for a bishop walking..the bishop could have been more in focus). These are just my thoughts, and I’m no where near a, I may be wrong.. But, amazing information and thanks!!

7:21 am - Tuesday, February 15, 2011

#14 Studio Lighting

I like the F1 racing one. I tried several times on a bicycle racing but the results are not good. The main part of the photo is so blurred.

10:57 pm - Monday, October 31, 2011

#15 Clipping Path

Give your photo for editing _

5:29 pm - Friday, November 6, 2015