Mastering Panning - How to Photograph Moving Subjects

Mastering Panning – Photographing Moving Subjects

Previously we’ve covered the topic of shutter speed and looked at how increasing and decreasing it can have a significant impact upon the images we take – particularly if the subjects in those images are moving.


Today I’d like to take a brief look at a related topic – that of photographing moving subjects by ‘panning’.

Panning is a technique that can produce amazing results (if you perfect it…. or get lucky) but is also one that can take a lot of practice to get right.

The basic idea behind panning as a technique is that you pan your camera along in time with the moving subject and end up getting a relatively sharp subject but a blurred background.

This gives the shot a feeling of movement and speed. It’s particularly useful in capturing any fast moving subject whether it be a racing car, running pet, cyclist etc.

I’ve found that panning seems to work best with moving subjects that are on a relatively straight trajectory which allows you to predict where they’ll be moving to. Objects that are moving side to side are challenging and can result in messy looking shots as the motion blur can be quite erratic.


How do you do it?

  • Select a slightly slower shutter speed than you normally would. Start with 1/30 second and then play around with slower ones. Depending upon the light and the speed of your subject you could end up using anything between 1/60 and 1/8 – although at the slower end you’ll probably end up with camera shake on top of your motion blur.
  • Position yourself in a place where your view of the subject will not be obstructed by anyone or anything else. Also consider the background of your shot. While it will be blurred if there are distracting shapes or colors it could prove to be distracting. Single coloured or plain backgrounds tend to work best.
  • As the subject approaches track it smoothly with your camera. For extra support of your camera if you’re using a longer lens or are feeling a little jittery you might like to use a monopod or tripod with a swivelling head.
  • For best results you’ll probably find that setting yourself up so that you’re parallel to the path of your object (this will help with focussing).
  • If you have a camera with automatic focus tracking you can let the camera do the focussing for you by half pressing the shutter button (depending upon it’s speed and whether it can keep up with the subject)
  • Panning-1
  • If your camera doesn’t have fast enough auto focussing you’ll need to pre-focus your camera upon the spot that you’ll end up releasing the shutter.
  • Once you’ve released the shutter (do it as gently as possible to reduce camera shake) continue to pan with the subject, even after you’ve heard the shot is complete. This smooth follow through will ensure the motion blur is smooth from start to finish in your shot.
  • If you have an older digital camera or one that is of a more entry level point and shoot variety you could also have to contend with the dreaded ‘shutter lag’ problem. Shutter lag is when there is a slight delay from when you press the shutter to when the picture is actually taken. If you experience shutter lag you’ll need to learn to anticipate the moment to take the shot and will definitely need to continue to pan well after you’ve taken the shot.

A variation on the Panning Technique

There are no rules with panning and you might also like to experiment with using your flash while panning. This slow synch flash technique will only work if the subject is close enough or your flash is powerful enough to have an impact – but will help to further freeze your main subject while giving the background the motion blur you’re after.
If you do use a flash you’ll want to test a variety of settings to get it looking right. In some cases you’ll probably need to pull back the strength of your flash by a half or a third.

Panning and Patience


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 can also be quite frustrating. If you’re at a special event where you have fast moving subjects (like a car race etc) you’ll probably want to mix up your style of shooting. Don’t just use this technique all day – instead also shoot some shots at fast shutter speeds. This way you’ll end up with a variety of shots and will probably end up with some useful ones instead of just having a collection of blurry unusable ones.

If you want to practice panning (and it is something that you need to practice – a lot), head out into a busy part of your city and practice on passing traffic. That way you have a never ending supply of subjects.

Also keep in mind that it’s unlikely that your main subject will ever be completely sharp and in focus. This technique is about getting a relatively sharp subject in comparison to it’s background. Some blurring of your main subject can actually add to the feeling of motion in the shot.

Once you’ve practiced the panning technique share your results with us in our Forums.

Note: this post is a ‘classic dPS post’ that was previously published but has been updated for today. Also read about the technique of panning in The Art of Panning.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • r.shankar July 14, 2013 11:19 am

    explanation is very simpel and to the point. No confusion and very much useful.

  • Markisen Hamburg May 17, 2013 05:15 am

    This is a wonderful write-up. I will take more time exploring this issue.

  • David Oliveras November 20, 2012 07:44 am

    Great article on this technique. The examples were clear and demonstrated your points well. Another great entry.

  • Alesha Rufener November 3, 2012 08:16 pm

    This posting was saved like a favorite :), I like your website!

  • Anugrah September 23, 2012 01:10 am

    Hi Darren, My name is Anugrah and I'm new to photography. I've Nikon P510. I want to know what is the shutter-speed and other stuffs you did to get the first picture done ?


  • Alireza August 5, 2012 03:51 pm

    Hi, I like panning shots very much and this is the first shot after I read the technique here. Thanks friends...

  • Zorawar August 3, 2012 10:53 pm

    An important setting not mentioned is that the camera should be on AI servo

  • Claire February 25, 2012 01:37 am

    Great advice. I've tried before without really understanding the science behind it but the results worked out okay. Maybe just a lucky shot but I'm proud!

  • Paul February 15, 2012 07:27 am

    Good advice, I've had to dabble with this when photographing equine events; capturing those moments when the horse front legs are tucked right up over a jump is crucial

  • Kishan February 14, 2012 02:36 pm

    Thanks for a wonderful article.. I read about panning a while ago and experimented it while I was in Phuket..Here it is

  • douggyi February 12, 2012 03:51 pm

    Here's a panning shot I took at a Rodeo here in Australia back in January. Canon EOS 7D with Sigma 50~500 lens on a monopod. ISO 100

  • Rishin February 10, 2012 11:01 am

    after reading to one of the other posts here few months ago.. i gave it a try and this is the result..
    i prefer to call it 'Panning-Go-Round' haha.. i had as much fun as my 3 year old niece.. though it'd be better if she had listened bit more carefully :)

  • Chris February 8, 2012 10:50 pm

    Here is one I did in Phuket a couple of weeks ago. Taken by mreastwood

  • Devon Wedding Photographer February 7, 2012 09:37 am

    Totally loving that first shot of the skateboarder, actually all of these are great! I used to shoot a lot of sports so often did panning but since switching to weddings I've not used the technique much, I'm going to try to bring it in from time to time for a different effect.

    Thanks for the encouragement to get me thinking outside of the box!

  • Jim mcGregor February 6, 2012 09:52 am

    Another slow pan shot.

  • Jim mcGregor February 6, 2012 09:48 am

    And another on my Flickr page

  • Jim mcGregor February 6, 2012 09:43 am

    Here isd my result of a panning shot on my Facebook page. Just follow the link.

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