digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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Panning: How to Add a Sense of Motion to Your Shots

Panning is a technique you can use to add a sense of motion and drama to your images. If you are like most new photographers you probably struggle with getting images sharp, and eliminating problematic blur issues. In this method you get to blur on purpose, and it's fun! So here are a few panning photography tips to help you create “moving” (sorry for the pun, couldn't help myself) images.

Let's look at two examples – one image frozen and sharp, compared to a panned and blurred image

Examples of panning

panning photo classic car Havana Cuba
Panning example: ISO 100, f/16, 1/30th
panning photo classic car Havana Cuba
Frozen, sharp example – ISO 400, f/4.5, 1/800th

The images above were both taken on the same street next to the famous Malecón in Havana, Cuba. You can see they are both good images but they have different feelings. The sharp one is more like a moment in time – frozen – even the man walking is frozen mid stride. It's almost relaxed in way, a feeling of calm which is enhanced by the soft colors in the fading evening light. The panned and blurred one has more of a sense of movement, motion and speed. You get a feeling of life rushing by, of being in a hurry, of a busy bustling city.

Which is right?

The answer is – they are both right! There is no right or wrong here, it's all about knowing what you intend with your  image. Think about what mood and message you want your image to send to the viewers. Then choose the appropriate method.

panning photography classic car Havana Cuba
ISO100, f/14, 1/30th

How do you do panning?

Here's a simple way to set up your camera to start trying some panning shots:

Choose your ISO
If you are shooting in the bright sun you'll want a low number like ISO 100, or you could even pop it into Auto ISO and let the camera choose that for you. If there is plenty of light it will be low so you shouldn't have any issues with noise. If it's evening then the ISO might get cranked up quite high but you'll need that in order to even get a good exposure in dim light.
Set your camera mode to Shutter Priority
(Tv on Canon, S on Nikon and most other brands)
Set the shutter speed to about 1/30th of a second
This is just a starting point. If you are shooting race cars you may have to increase that to 1/125 or even faster or they'll just be a blob. You'll need to experiment to find the right shutter speed but start there and increase it (to 1/60th or faster) if you have a fast moving target and decrease (to 1/15th or slower, but be careful there is a point there it's just “too slow” to get anything) it for a slow moving one.
Set your camera on burst mode
Or continuous shooting so that when you press the shutter and hold it, the camera takes multiple shots in rapid fire.
Set your focus dot or zone
If your camera has zones set it to the center but larger than one single point. This will allow the camera to find focus on the moving car as you pan. If you have single dots only set it so the camera chooses which one to focus on (all dots activated). Just make sure nothing gets in front of the object you are shooting because the camera will focus on the closest thing.
panning photography classic car Havana Cuba
ISO 400, f/4, 1/160 – on tripod
panning photography classic car Havana Cuba
ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/25th – this was dim evening light so I need the higher ISO here just to get enough light to make a good exposure

Panning technique

Once you have your camera set up you're ready to start panning. Find yourself a moving target that is moving across your field of view. Ones moving towards or away from you will NOT work. Look in the direction the subjects are coming from and wait (i.e., if the cars are moving right to left like the red one above start facing to the right). Make sure you look through viewfinder (eye piece) not the LCD screen on the back of the camera.

When the right subject approaches, start shooting as soon as it reaches the range between ten and two o'clock (a 30 degree window).  Keep shooting through that full range. Follow the subject to keep it in the viewfinder the whole time, so you will be rotating to match the speed of the moving object.

NOTE: this is like golf or baseball – follow through is everything! Stop shooting too soon and you'll lose the effect of blurring the background. In fact even after you stop pressing the shutter keep rotating to follow the object all the way out of view.

Summary: shoot between 10-2 o'clock. Rotate between 9-3 o'clock.

Practice, practice, practice – patience, patience, patience

This is not something that you can nail on the first try, so go easy on yourself if at first you don't succeed. Even once you get the hang of it, you still may need to shoot a lot of frames just to get one usable one. For most of the images above I shot 10 or more of each, just to get one good one. Sometimes I shoot a lot more than that. The red car above, shot as dusk in Viñales, Cuba, I took almost 30 images of different cars going by until I literally ran out of light.

So panning is an exercise in practice makes perfect, but patience is also important. Wait for just the right subject to go by. Move to the other side of the street if the light isn't just right. Or come back at another time of day if it's simply to bright to work effectively.

In the series of images below, I just stumbled upon some sort of bicycle race. My Spanish is limited but I was able to figure out that I was actually at the finish line and they were moments away. So I waited and panned as the winner crossed the line. In the fourth and fifth images you can see the guy with the checkered flag. Notice there are five images in the series, these are all the ones I shot in sequence as the bikes sped past me – this will give you an idea of the range or motion you need to have as you shoot. Special thanks to the nice lady in front of me that saw my camera and let me go right in front of the crowd.

panning example of cyclists in Trinidad Cuba

bicylists in Trinidad Cuba are shown as an example of panning

subjects in photo are frozen sharp while the background is blurred

panning photography Cuba

panning photography Cuba

For comparison sake, I've included this last image where I changed my settings and froze the cyclists. To me it doesn't have the same sense of speed and excitement even. It just looks stiff, static, like they are statues not athletes.

panning photography Cuba

Action plan

Okay now it's your turn. Have you got some good panning examples, please share them in the comments below. If you haven't tried it before, get out and give it a go. I'm pretty sure you'll find it a lot of fun and you'll be hooked. This is really a simple technique that can be used to wow your family and friends with images they couldn't image or do themselves.

For more reading on using on this topic try: Using Shutter Speed to Freeze or Blur Motion


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  • shrutes

    How do you keep your camera steady while doing this? Or are you using a tripod?

    • No generally not when panning. Your motion and speed needs to match that of the moving target to get it, or part of it sharp. The background will blur by as you rotate. You could try it with a tripod but it would probably be too cumbersome.

      • shrutes

        So you keep your camera up, where it would be if you were looking through the viewfinder? I guess that makes sense, since you have to frame it!

  • Very cool have to shoot off road vehicles on Sat will try then and send images

  • I don’t get the idea: “shoot between 10-2 o’clock. Rotate between 9-3 o’clock”

    • so imagine the space around you is like the hands on a clock. 10 o’clock being in front of you and slightly to the left – imagine you are the center of the clock. Does that help?

      • Yep, now it’s fine. Thanks.

      • alex comaya

        thank you for the explanation ( i was about to ask the same)… great tips! thanks a lot!

        • so many people don’t use a regular clock any more, that used to be a common reference point, now with digital LED clocks I guess I’ll have to use other ways to explain it

          • Michael Owens

            Ha! this comment made me giggle… but its so true! ‘Driving with hands at 10PM-2PM’ – kids today look at me as if I’ve lost a few marbles.

  • Adi

    Here is another from the inaugural F1 race in New Delhi, India. This photo was amongst my first ever with a DSLR. My friend showed me how to pan, and this turned out quite nice

    • this one didn’t save the photo?

    • Adi

      Take 2!!

      • Michael Owens

        The focus is a little off, would love to see this car in more detail! Nice try though! 🙂

  • nice job!

  • nice and cool idea on the overlaid image – open to a suggestion to make it even more cool? On the layer you added as overlay add a mask and paint out that layer where the car is – so the car shows at 100% no overlay. Does that make sense?

  • ColininOz

    Have had a lot of fun with panning. What focal length of lens would you recommend ? – I usually use a 55-300mm kit zoom Nikkor which gives me latitude in how far I stand back from the ‘action’ and a nice shallow depth of field to make the target stand out better even at, say, f13, Like this one

    • well depth of field doesn’t really play in other than to get the whole subject in focus. The background is going to be so blurred regardless of aperture it doesn’t matter. F13 isn’t shallow DOF and won’t make your subject stand out “normally” but it works with panning.

      As for focal length, any lens will work as long as you can give the subject a little bit of space.

  • Rinda Koban

    Thank you very much for the post. You explained this in such a way that makes us beginners, at least for me, really understand it fully, completly 🙂
    Can’t wait to go outside and try it.

  • Moet

    My very first attempt at panning! We have a wonderful view of a bridge from our apartment and it provides a great background for practicing panning.
    I look forward to your comments.

  • John Juby

    Here’s one for you, Darlene. When in the Air Force with no money, went to a Can AM race at Riverside Raceway in California. I taped my Kodak Instamatic to the eyepiece of a good set of binoculars for zoom. From the bleachers, about 150 feet from the track, I used this rig to pan the cars speeding by, very fast. If I can find this old print, I’ll scan it and send. With nothing but blur in the background, the clear part is the “passenger” window and enough of the blue race car. The driver’s helmeted face is clearly visible in the side view mirror.

    Thanks for re-introducing me to panning. Can’t wait to try it with my 7D!

    • John did you mean to attach an image? It didn’t show up for us, try it again

  • Here’s my best panning effort thus far:

    • how’d you get so close?

      • Hi Darlene, in case you didn’t get notified about it, see my comment above. For some reason Disqus seemed to be having an issue with comments the last couple days and I was unable to reply directly to you.

    • Hi Darlene, I saw your reply here, but when I actually log in to respond, it disappears, really weird. Anyway, I was not as close here as you might think. I was using my 100-400mm lens at full length. A good arm workout when you’re practicing panning shots 🙂

  • Jeffrey Wardell

    hi how do i get my picture’s up on here for you Darlene ive been doing some panning and like you have a look and tell me what you think jeff

    • when you click “reply” and the box opens, in the bottom left hand corner is a little “photo icon”, click it to add a photo directly into the comment

  • alex comaya

    hi! i took the shot yesterday; just now i read your column here and glad to know it’s the current topic. 😉 thanks!

  • David Corito

    Good article but nothing new for me but it was nice seeing my old cars

  • Michael Owens

    How did I miss this article? I love panning, and need to do more of it – had ONE good result with a race-car (stock car really), but lost the memory card!

    You have explained it very well, clearly and concisely. Appreciate it!

  • Saurav Dhyani

    hi all… I am a bit late to comment on this article.. liked few critical things that were explained here in such a simple language… Attaching my snap here for everyone… Hope you all like it…

  • Cynthia Kirk

    I’ve wanted to capture my husband at the track with the panning technique for a long time and never knew how. Thank you so much for your article on panning! I was able to capture it finally.

  • Guest

    Hi Darlene,

    Thanks for the article. Just joined the course and I am sure that it will help me to improve myself.

    Here is a panning photo I took sometime ago. I will try to make some using your tips.

  • Guest

    Thanks for the article. Just joined the course and I am sure that it will help me to improve myself.

    Here is a panning photo I took sometime ago. I will try to make some using your tips.

  • Jen Packard

    Great article! Do you ever use a tripod when panning?

    • Nope, I find it to cumbersome and usually don’t have one when I’m walking around doing street photography.

  • Joseph Briar

    A very informative article. Thank you for your hard work and plentiful insights. I just wanted to ask for more information about other ways to shoot subjects in motion. I found this article: and wanted to know a bit more. Thanks!

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