Panning is a great way to produce images full of energy, motion, and even abstract effects. But how does it actually work? What techniques and settings should you use? How can you capture outstanding panning shots?
That’s what this article is all about.
Below, I share everything you need to know about panning, including tips, tricks, and plenty of examples. Once you’re done reading, all you’ll need to do is practice – and with enough perseverance, you’re practically guaranteed to create stunning results.
Let’s get started!
What is panning photography?
Panning is a technique where you move the camera as you press the shutter button. The resulting photos feature a beautiful streaked blur:
Side-to-side panning is the most common technique, but you can also pan up and down or even diagonally. Note that panning images generally feature a moving subject, such as a car, a biker, a jogger, or a running animal. That way, the photographer can follow the subject’s movement with the camera, and while the surroundings will blur, the subject itself will remain sharp.
Now, not all camera movement will produce a creative panning effect – and even if you do manage to capture an interesting blur, your subject may not turn out sharp. For the best results, you must combine careful technique with specific camera settings, as I discuss later on in this article.
When should you use panning?
Panning is a great way to capture artistic images of moving subjects. It’s also an excellent way to convey motion, plus it just looks really, really cool. Therefore, I encourage you to try it whenever you’re faced with reasonably fast subjects moving in predictable directions, such as:
- Cars zooming down the road
- Wildlife racing across a field
- Birds flying through the air
- Joggers running across the sidewalk
Panning is especially handy when the light gets low and you struggle to capture sharp images the conventional way. If you’re shooting birds in flight at dusk, you may only be able to boost your shutter speed to 1/80s, which will produce a blurry “standard” image but is the perfect speed to create a stunning panning shot. Make sense?
Now, panning photography does involve a lot of misses – even once you gain experience – so if you only have a single shot at your subject (e.g., a rare bird happens to fly by), it’s often best to capture a normal image and leave the panning for another day.
And because panning produces intensely artistic images, it’s not always ideal for more photojournalistic endeavors (e.g., when you’re photographing a football game for a newspaper).
One more thing: To capture a great panning image, the subject should be moving adjacent to your position, not directly toward or away from you. If the subject runs at your camera, you won’t have any opportunity to move your setup – that is, to use the pan technique – and your subject will just turn out blurry.
How to take panning photos: settings and technique
Panning starts with a moving subject. When you’re just getting into panning for the first time, I’d recommend photographing cars; they’re easy to find, they’re predictable, and they go pretty fast (so you’ll have the opportunity to hone your panning speed). Over time, you can graduate to more difficult subjects such as sports players, wildlife, and birds.
So find a location with plenty of subjects, then dial in your settings. Every situation is different – and the results will depend on the speed of your subject – but here are my basic recommendations:
- Camera mode: Shutter Priority or Manual
- Shutter speed: 1/60s
- Aperture: f/8 (though this is flexible and should depend on the exposure requirements)
- ISO: 100
- Focus mode: AF-C/AI-Servo or manual
Once your subject is several hundred feet away, look through the viewfinder and follow its movement with your lens. Don’t wait until it’s right beside you. The sooner you begin the pan, the better you’ll be able to gauge the subject’s speed.
As the subject nears your position, fire off several shots. (The more images you capture, the more you increase your chances of getting a great one!) And keep following the subject with your lens even as it moves away. While it may not seem like it, this follow-through is important.
Finally, review the images on your camera’s LCD. Make shutter speed and exposure adjustments as required, then try again!
Panning photography tips and ideas
Now that you know the panning photography basics, you’re ready for some more advanced tips, techniques, and ideas.
1. For the best chance of success, use your camera’s burst mode
Burst mode allows you to capture several shots in a fraction of a second, and it’s incredibly handy for panning photography.
As I emphasized above, the more shots you take, the more likely you are to capture something great. So before you start panning, switch your camera from its single-shot mode to its continuous shooting mode. (If you’re not sure how to do this, check your camera manual!)
Then, when it comes time to shoot, hold down the shutter button – and keep it held down as you pan and until your subject has zoomed away. Your camera will fire off several shots. And you’ll end up with plenty of files to sort through, some of which will (with any luck!) look good.
In addition to increasing the number of chances you get at a good result, your camera’s burst mode will prevent you from needing to tap repeatedly on the shutter button, thus keeping camera shake to a minimum.
2. Try different lenses
Lens choice also impacts the way the pan looks. A telephoto lens that compresses perspective will create a more dramatic effect than a wide-angle lens, so working with, say, a 70-200mm model can be a great approach. (On the other hand, sometimes a wide-angle look is exactly what you want!)
Note that this has practical consequences; due to telephoto compression effects, a wide-angle lens will require a longer shutter speed to create the same effect as a telephoto.
So my advice is to experiment a bit with both types of lenses and see what you think. Neither is fundamentally better than the other. It’s all about what you want to create!
3. Experiment with different shutter speeds
Panning depends heavily on your shutter speed. Keep your shutter speed too high, and you’ll end up with a tack-sharp image and zero blur effect. Drop your shutter speed too low, and you’ll end up with a smudgy, blurry subject.
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to selecting a shutter speed. While 1/60s is a good starting point, faster subjects will require faster shutter speeds, while slower subjects will require slower shutter speeds. To get a beautiful panning shot of a racecar, you may want a speed of 1/125s; to get the same effect for a runner, 1/30s is a better choice.
So it’s important that you experiment constantly. And after each series of shots, carefully review the results on the LCD. If your subject is looking too sharp, drop the shutter speed. If your subject is looking too blurry, boost the shutter speed instead.
And whenever you have a success, commit that shutter-subject combination to memory. That way, the next time you face a similar subject, you’ll know what to do.
4. Set your camera to Shutter Priority mode
In a previous section, I mentioned that you should use either Manual mode or Shutter Priority mode when panning. Personally, I’m a big Shutter Priority fan. Here’s why:
Shutter Priority lets you select a shutter speed while your camera chooses an aperture. In other words, it lets you focus on the most important setting – the shutter speed – while leaving the rest up to your equipment.
(You can also choose an ISO, though I generally recommend setting this to 100 and just forgetting about it unless you’re in very dark conditions.)
Shutter Priority 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.
But if you were to use Manual mode, then you’d need to constantly adjust the aperture to capture a good exposure – and you’d probably miss lots of opportunities in the process.
5. Use a tripod
It’s absolutely possible to pan while handholding, and it’ll sometimes give you great results.
But here’s the thing:
Shooting handheld at a slow shutter speed can introduce a slight camera shake – which will manifest 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, I encourage you to 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 such an image-stabilized lens, I highly recommend you test it out!)
6. 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 out 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 on Canon). This will help your camera continuously focus on the subject as it moves across the frame. Begin focusing on your subject when it’s off in the distance, then keep the center focus point trained on the subject’s center mass 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 photos.
And remember: No matter which focusing method you choose, always set your camera to its burst mode and hold down the shutter button as the subject moves by!
7. Position yourself correctly
To give your lens enough space to focus, ensure you keep some distance between your camera and the moving subject.
If you position yourself too close to the subject, your lens may struggle (and fail) to focus, 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 capture a great shot.
Also, when you’re selecting your position, choose a nice background. Don’t just stand wherever. Instead, move until you find a background that helps 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. Then the background provides context and helps set the scene:
That said, you can also create beautiful panning shots with a uniform background (e.g., green trees). Just avoid ultra-busy backgrounds; you want the background to complement the subject, not overwhelm it.
8. Add in flash
There are no rules with panning, and while most photographers work with natural light, you might also like to experiment with using your flash.
Now, because flash bursts are extremely fast (far faster than the maximum shutter speeds offered by most cameras!), the goal is to combine a single flash burst with a panning technique – while still using a slow shutter speed.
You’ll want to set your camera to its slow-sync flash mode, then carefully choose when the flash fires after you press the shutter button. You can choose to fire the flash at the beginning of the shot or at the end, resulting in very different panning effects, so I certainly encourage you to experiment!
Also, this slow sync flash technique will only work if the subject is close enough and your flash is powerful enough to have an impact, so make sure you get reasonably close (and check your results on your camera LCD after you’ve captured a shot or two).
Finally, if you do use a flash, you’ll want to test a variety of exposure settings to get it looking right. In some cases, you may need to pull back the strength of your flash by a half or a third.
9. Be patient and flexible
If you’re going to try panning for the first time, you should approach it with an experimental attitude. It can be a lot of fun, but it can also be quite frustrating.
If you’re at a special event where you have fast-moving subjects (like racecars), you’ll probably want to mix up your style of photography. Don’t just use this technique for the entire photoshoot – make sure you also capture some more conventional shots while using fast shutter speeds. That way, you’ll end up with a variety of shots, and even if your panning images don’t turn out so great, you’ll still have some good photos to share on social media, with clients, etc.
Also keep in mind that it’s unlikely your main subject will ever be completely sharp and in focus. This technique is about getting a relatively sharp subject in comparison to its background. In fact, some blurring of your main subject will actually add to the feeling of motion in the shot.
10. Don’t be afraid to pan on sunny days
As you now know, panning involves slowing your shutter speed way down.
And while this is easy enough in poor light, on a bright sunny day, you might struggle to lower that shutter speed without causing overexposure.
Fortunately, there are a few ways to handle this. First off, lower the ISO on your camera to ISO 100, and make sure that your aperture is set to an extremely high f-number, such as f/16. (Normally, high f-numbers cause blurring due to diffraction, but since panning photos are slightly blurred anyway, it won’t be an issue!)
If narrowing the aperture and lowering the ISO still don’t give you a slow enough shutter speed, try adding a polarizing filter or a neutral density filter to the front of your lens. These will block some of the light, allowing you to capture a detailed image at the necessary shutter speeds!
11. Don’t forget about the composition
Panning is tough enough when you’re just thinking about technical factors, but once you understand the basics, it’s important to also pay attention to composition.
You see, when panning, it becomes very easy to focus solely on keeping pace with the subject, to the point that you end up simply placing it in the center of the frame. And while this can work, sometimes it’s better to mix things up – perhaps by placing the subject toward one of the frame edges, toward the top or the bottom of the frame, etc.
One more quick tip: Use the compositional aids in your camera to help you. If your camera has a grid-focusing screen, use that. If not, use the AF points that are etched in the viewfinder. Think about the rule of thirds, and how you can give a scene additional dynamism by placing the subject a third of the way into the frame rather than smack-dab in the center!
Additional resources for capturing high-quality panning images
If you’re looking for a more hands-on panning tutorial, check out this video from Gavin Hoey for Adorama TV where he demonstrates how to do panning. He also walks through the camera settings you can use to get started and how to adjust them as needed!
Next, we have a different approach to adding motion blur to your photography by photographer Doug McKinlay. In this video, he talks about the need for a neutral density filter if there is too much light, and about using a tripod to blur moving subjects or part of your scene with long-exposure settings.
Finally, here’s one more video that has a really good demonstration of how to execute panning (plus what you shouldn’t do):
I hope that gives you some ideas and starting points for adding panning and motion to your images!
How to master panning photography: final words
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!