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Step-by-Step Guide to Creating Great Panning Images

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Step-by-Step Guide to Creating Great Panning Images

Busy cities, whether it’s Paris or London, Bangkok or New Delhi, provide lots of opportunities to create dynamic images. However, how can a photographer show fast motion in a still image? Here is where a photographic technique called panning comes into play. In essence, panning means moving the camera with the main subject while the shutter is open. This creates the sense of movement in the image with a blurred background and a relatively sharp subject. With practice you’ll be able to photograph moving cars, cyclists, running horses or anything moving! Try these seven easy steps to create great panning images:

1. Position yourself

Since the idea of panning is to capture motion, a busy street is just the place you need. Make sure to choose a safe spot on a sidewalk and watch out for traffic and passers-by. Find a good background that will create a colourful blur in the image. Also make sure your subject will not be obstructed by anything (posts, buses, other cars, etc.) while it moves in front of you. Position yourself parallel to the street, feet slightly apart to ensure stability. The panning movement will come from your torso (right to left or left to right) to get the best results.

2. Set the shutter speed to 1/30 seconds

Panning is all about the movement, so set your camera on Shutter Speed priority mode and choose a shutter speed of 1/30 sec as a starting point. This might need to be adjusted slightly according to the ambient light and the speed of your subject. Experiment and find the right shutter speed for the situation, keeping in mind that if the shutter is too slow, you will start to get camera shake as well as the panning effect, which won't give the best results.

3. Bring down your ISO

Since we are using a slow shutter speed, the camera will record quite a bit of light. Using a low ISO (around 100) will help minimize the risk of overexposing the photo. If you have a neutral density filter available, use it. This will help bring the light level down and prevent the image from being overexposed.

Panning photography technique

4. Choose Continuous shooting mode 

Setting your camera on Continuous Shooting mode (or Burst mode) will increase your chances of getting the right image. In this mode, your camera is taking multiple photos while you keep the shutter button pressed and makes it easier to have successful panning results. The camera will take 4 or 5 frames each time you press the release and you will be able to pick the best image of the series.

5. Set the Auto Focus mode on Continuous Focus

The Continuous Focus mode helps to achieve a sharp image of a moving subject: the camera focusing system will track the subject in the frame and refocus continuously while you are following it in the viewfinder. Use AI SERVO mode (Canon users) or AF-C mode (Nikon users).

6. Bring the exposure compensation down by -1/3

Slowing the shutter speed may result in washed out colors in your image. Bringing the exposure compensation down by -1/3 or -2/3 will help to keep your photos more contrasted with brighter colors.

Panning photography technique

7. All set? Let the fun begin

After selecting all the above settings, you’re ready to start! Now to put it in action: while standing parallel to the street, turn your torso and anticipate your subject approaching from your right (or from your left depending on the situation). Focus on the subject by looking through the viewfinder. Once focused, press the shutter release button gently to minimize camera shake and follow your subject as it moves past you. Keep your finger on the release button for multiple images, while following the subject at the same time. Follow your moving subject smoothly AND AT THE SAME PACE they are moving by you. This is really important to ensure proper sharpness on the subject. Continue the panning movement even after you have removed your finger for the shutter release as this will ensure a smooth motion blur movement. Review, assess what you need to adjust and try again!

Finally, here are some extra tips:

  • Panning works best with subjects that are moving past you, not towards you;
  • If you have a compact camera with a delay between the moment you press and the actual shutter release, you will need to anticipate a bit more, press the release a little earlier, and definitely continue the panning movement after you hear the clicking;
  • Be patient with your efforts. It might take a few attempts for you to “feel” the speed and the movement. Pactice makes perfect!

Panning can be a lot of fun and once you start to have good results, you will be able to experiment with variations, shooting from a lower position or from a slight angle for example to create different results. Happy panning and share your best panning images with us!

About the Author

Nadia Gric

Nadia Gric

Nadia is passionate about the visual aspect of life and the personalities she meets along the way. Living in the heart of Paris, Nadia never stops exploring the City of Light through her camera and readily shares her knowledge and love for photography.