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6 Tips to Master Panning Photography

You know those photos where a car or motorcycle appears sharp while the background appears to be out of focus?

panning photography person on a motorcycle

While this may seem like a Photoshop trick, it’s actually not; it’s called panning photography, and it’s a fun effect you can use on moving subjects.

In fact, it’s not even hard to learn. Below, I share six simple tips to help you master the art of panning; all you have to do is keep practicing, and – with enough perseverance – you’ll get consistently great results!

Let’s get started.

6 tips to master panning photography

1. Set your camera to Shutter Priority mode

Before you do anything else, I highly recommend you set your camera’s Mode dial to Shutter Priority.

This lets you select the shutter speed while your camera chooses the aperture. (If you like, you can also force your camera to choose the ISO.)

You see, panning photography is all about the correct choice of shutter speed – the aperture and ISO values don’t play a major role. So while it’s important to choose the shutter speed yourself, the rest can be done by your camera.

This is especially useful when photographing in variable lighting conditions. If you’re photographing cars or bikers moving in and out of shadow, Shutter Priority will take care of the exposure while keeping the shutter speed constant.

camera set to Shutter Priority
This camera is set to Shutter Priority mode (on Canon cameras, it’s labeled as Tv, and on other cameras, it’s S).

2. Choose a slow shutter speed

The panning effect depends heavily on the shutter speed.

Too fast, and you’ll end up with a tack-sharp image and zero blur effect.

Too slow, and you’ll end up with a smudgy, blurry subject.

So to keep your subject sharp and the background blurry, you’ve got to choose your shutter speed carefully.

For perfect panning photos, the ideal shutter speed is anything between 1/30s and 1/125s. Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all shutter speed, because the faster the subject is moving, the faster the shutter speed needs to be. To get a beautiful panning effect on a racecar, you may want a speed of 1/125s; to get the same effect on a runner, 1/30s is a better idea.

Note that the goal here is to give the camera time to register the movement in the photo, while also keeping the subject in sharp focus.

camera set to a 1/30s shutter speed for panning
The shutter speed is set to 1/30s for panning.

3. Move along with the subject

If you want to create beautiful panning photography, you must move your camera in line with the subject.

After all, the whole idea is to shoot a photo of a moving subject while panning your camera along with it.

One note: The speed at which you are panning your camera should match the speed at which the subject is passing through the scene. Start following the subject when it’s off in the distance, follow it as it passes you, and continue to follow even once it’s gone by (you should follow through, like in sports).

And press the shutter release button only when the subject is parallel to your camera. That way, your subject remains in focus, while you get perfect motion blur in the background.

car with motion blur

4. Use a tripod

It’s absolutely possible to pan while handholding. And you’ll sometimes get great results.

But here’s the thing:

If you’re shooting handheld at a slower shutter speed, you might introduce slight camera shake – which manifests as undesirable blur in your photos.

Plus, while panning your camera along with the moving subject, you might also introduce shake via up-and-down body movements.

So to ensure you capture consistently sharp panning shots, mount your camera on a tripod (or monopod).

You’ll want to choose your tripod head carefully; certain heads are specifically designed for smooth panning, while other heads will send your camera in every direction.

(On a related note, think about the lens you’re using. Certain lenses come with image stabilization designed specifically for panning. If you have it, I highly recommend you test it out!)

sharp bus with blurry surroundings due to panning

5. Focus accurately

When panning, your subject will be moving swiftly across the scene – so it’s essential that you lock focus quickly and accurately.

There are two ways you can make the subject appear in sharp focus while the background appears in motion:

  • Autofocusing technique: If you are just starting with panning photography, or if you cannot anticipate the subject’s distance from the camera, use autofocus. To make sure you accurately focus on your subject, switch on your camera’s continuous focusing mode (AF-C on Nikon and Sony, and AI-Servo for Canon). This will help your camera continuously focus on the subject as it moves across the frame. Also, begin focusing on your subject off in the distance, then keep the center focus point trained on your subject as you pan along.
  • Manual focus technique: If you are sure of the distance at which your subject will pass (e.g., you know your subject will drive down a particular lane of the road), then I recommend focusing manually. Identify where your subject will be, then focus on that point in advance. You won’t have to worry about locking and maintaining focus – when your subject comes by, just pan your camera along and take a series of shots.

Note: No matter which method of focusing you choose, always set your camera to its continuous shooting mode and hold down the shutter button to capture many images.

6. Position yourself correctly

To give your lens enough space to focus, keep some distance between your camera and the moving subject.

If you position yourself too close to the moving subject, your lens may struggle (and fail) to focus on the subject, even if you’re using the manual focus technique described above.

(Why? All lenses have a minimum focus distance; once a subject moves inside this distance, focusing becomes impossible.)

Plus, it’s hard to keep the subject in the frame when it’s large and close.

So take a step or two back, and make sure you have enough space to focus and capture your subject.

Also, it pays to choose the right background. Don’t just pan wherever. Instead, find a background that makes your subject stand out.

Personally, I think panning photos look eye-catching when there is nice subject-background contrast and there are at least two or more background colors. Imagine a background that lacks contrast and has only one color; it would hardly add any impact to your panning photo, right?

motocyclist captured with panning photography techniques

How to master panning photography: conclusion

Now that you’ve finished this article, you should be well-prepared to capture some stunning panning shots.

So go out with your camera. Practice your technique. And have fun!

Now over to you:

Have you tried panning before? Do you have any shots you’re proud of? Share them in the comments below!

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Kunal Malhotra
Kunal Malhotra

is a photography enthusiast whose passion for photography started 6 years back during his college days. Kunal is also a photography blogger, based out of Delhi, India. He loves sharing his knowledge about photography with fellow aspiring photographers by writing regular posts on his blog. Some of his favorite genres of photography are product, street, fitness, and architecture.

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