Moving your camera to follow the path of a moving subject is a skill that takes time to master. I started to build my skills panning with racing cars on track, shooting on film.
Panning practice is much cheaper with digital, and you should learn the basic skills a little faster thanks to the option to review your photos right after taking them.
Why do you need panning skills?
When a subject is fast moving there are two possibilities, you can freeze it with a fast shutter speed, or you can show it’s motion by creating a photo where the static parts of the frame a blurred and the subject is sharp.
Below is a head on shot taken with an 800mm lens, the frame tilted for a dynamic angle, or the shot will look less interesting. It’s not possible to pan with a car heading towards you like this, you need a fast enough shutter speed, so that the car moves as little as possible while the shutter is open.
Panning with a big lens takes time and practice, a monopod is helpful. The car below was panned with an 800mm lens on a monopod. Due to the distance between the camera, the car and the background a fast shutter speed – and a skilled pan – creates the sharp car and the blurred foreground and background.
It helps to pick up the subject before it is directly in front of you. This allows the AF to lock on, and the Image Stabiliser in your lens to work out how much you are moving the lens.Make sure to set the lens to IS Mode 2 for panning.
In the picture below the car has been captured too early, the front is sharp but the rear is not as sharp. However this picture also shows that I regularly pick up the subject before it arrives at the ideal spot for the photo. I find this gives the camera time to get focussing on the subject.
I find that it is best for me to position myself so that the subject is moving at 90 degrees to me when when I am not twisted to the left or right. Then I can twist to pick up the subject and start moving the camera to try and keep the subject in the same part of the frame.
If you have a longer lens, use the lens collar to mount the lens and camera to your monopod. This allows you to preset a tilted composition for a different viewpoint, or as in this case, to fit the car in the frame.
With shorter lenses and close subjects, you need to move the camera very quickly. The historic Mini below was captured with a 50mm focal length and the shutter speed was 1/100s.
If you pan too fast then the subject starts to move backwards in the sequence of frames, and if you are too slow the subject moves forwards across the frame.
Lastly, you can pan with all kinds of subjects – not just for cars and sports. This vehicle was captured in the streets of Florence, Italy and panned with 1/20s as it is moving much slower than the racing cars above.
Select the right shutter speed for panning
This is the first decision you need to make. I would advice shutter priority (Tv) or manual exposure for panned pictures. I also suggest using AI Servo focus and continuous high speed drive. You don’t need loads of shots in the sequence, three or four is sufficient, so time the release of the shutter appropriately.
My own rule of thumb is to estimate the speed of the subject in miles per hour, and use that as the initial shutter speed. So for 100mph subject then try 1/100s. Then take some shots and review your results – zoom in to 100% or check on a laptop or tablet. Then based on your initial results, change the shutter speed to give the panned effect you want. Runners on a track will need a much slower shutter speed than cyclists to give suitable background blur.