Panning is a creative photography technique which involves physically tracking a subject in motion by moving your camera at the same speed.
The goal is a sharp subject, against a streaky background.
Our subject is kept sharp when our camera moves with them at the same pace, which effectively counteracts their movement.
Conversely, we achieve a streaky backdrop because the background is not in motion, but we create blur through the combination of intentional camera movement and a slow shutter speed.
I won’t lie, it’s a tricky technique to master! But… it’s also fun and when you nail it, the results can be absolutely gorgeous. For that reason, it can be addictive!!
Create a good streaky effect by choosing backgrounds with contrasting colours or good texture. It’s difficult to create a strong effect with a solid plain background such as a flat wall in one solid colour.
It’s a balance. If your shutter speed is too slow, your subject can be out of focus. If it’s too fast, your background won’t be streaky enough because your subject won’t have had enough time to advance very far.
So you’ll need a slow shutter speed to blur the background sufficiently, but not so slow that you record camera shake. Start with around 1/25 and take some test shots.
Using such slow shutter speeds outdoors, there’s a likelihood your shot will be overexposed unless you’re shooting in very low light. So I suggest starting with ISO set to 100, and whatever aperture is needed to balance your exposure.
You don’t need a tripod or monopod but it will definitely make smooth tracking easier and therefore give you more chance of capturing your subject in sharp focus.
If you don’t have either, anchor your feet firmly, lock your elbows in, and move your camera to follow your subject in as steady a motion as you can manage. Try to keep your camera on the same focal plane and the same height at all times.
If your subject has motion blur and it’s not caused by camera shake, you may need to increase your shutter speed or slow your panning.
If your background is not blurred enough but your subject is sharp, reduce your shutter speed.
Whilst the aim is a sharp subject, a little motion blur is ok if it’s purposeful, and adds to the sense of movement, as in the image below.
Set your focus drive mode to continuous. If you’re canon, that’s AI-Servo. If you’re Nikon, that’s AS-C. If you shoot with anything else, check focus drive modes in your user guide to determine which is the drive mode for moving subject.
Set your shooting mode to continuous so that you can hold the button down and just keep taking shots.
Alternatively, take just one shot at the point you want to capture, but be sure to keep panning until the shutter closes.
You could choose the one point you know will be over your subject at all times. Or you could play it safer and enable multiple points to give you a better chance of focusing where it counts.
Choose a subject that will pass you from side to side. Tracking subjects moving toward you or away from you is problematic in terms of focus, panning, and creating a streaky background.
Don’t expect perfect results immediately. As I said it is a tricky technique, so if you find yourself getting frustrated or even disheartened, cut yourself some slack!
The settings you need to nail your shots will vary depending on the speed with which your subject is moving, and the ambient light. Also, getting the hang of tracking your subject at the same pace, with a steady hand, and focusing on it at the same pace takes practice. A lot!
So approach it with a willingness to experiment, and an acceptance that you won’t get awesome results first time. And if you do get awesome results first time, go you!