Showing Speed: Using Panning When Shooting Action

Showing Speed: Using Panning When Shooting Action


Panning is a great way to capture children at play. Exposure is 1/15, f/13, ISO 100. Canon EOS 5D Mark II with EF 24-105 f/4L IS at 84mm.

For the most part, photography is all about freezing a moment in time, stopping the action in front of you. But there are times when freezing the action fails to show the full story.  People move.  Often, at high speeds. Sometimes freezing the action fails to pay homage to the speed on display on the field, or the track.  Showing speed or motion is less important when shooting individual people in action, because a person in motion flexes muscles, contorts their expressions, creating a compelling image.  However, when photographing vehicles, such as in auto racing, the ability to show that speed is paramount.  If you use a fast shutter speed to stop the action, a car will simply appear as if it’s parked on the track.

Panning is a simple technique for showing speed, but it requires some practice, and a willingness to experiement a little.  First of all, you’ll want to slow your shutter speed way down.  Easy enough in poor light, but on a bright sunny day, it becomes a problem.  There are a few ways to handle this.  First off, lower the ISO on your camera to ISO 100.  For panning, I like to set the camera to Shutter Priority mode.  This allows me to choose the shutter speed I want, and the camera will then set the proper aperture.If stopping down the aperture and lowering the ISO still don’t give you a slow enough shutter speed,  try using a polarizing filter on the lens. A polarizer will lower your exposure by two stops.  Another option would be a neutral density filter, which can be found in greater than 2-stop densities when necessary.

A wide angle lens requires a slower shutter speed to create a dramatic panning effect, but with cars moving as fast as those at a NASCAR race, it doesn't have to be THAT slow! Exposure: 1/40, f/22, ISO 100. EOS 5D Mark II, EF 16-35L II at 35mm.

Your shutter speed will vary dependent on the subject and the speed at which it moves. For an athlete running, it could be as low as 1/15 or 1/20.  When shooting auto racing, your shutter speed could be as fast as 1/125.  The slower the shutter speed, the greater the illusion of speed will be.  You’ll have to match the speed of your subject with your speed of panning the camera as the subject passes.  This can take some practice. The best way to practice that I’ve found is to stand on the sidewalk of a busy street and photograph passing cars at various speeds.  Set your drive to Continuous shooting and hold the shutter button down to take several exposures of your subject as it passes.

It takes some practice, but try to pay attention to composition when positioning the subject in the frame.  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.  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.

Lens choice also impacts the way the pan looks.  A telephoto lens that compresses perspective will create more dramatic effect than a wide angle will, which means the wide angle lens will require a longer shutter speed to create the same effect as a telephoto. Experiment a bit with both to create different effects.

Add panning to your action repertoire for a different take on motion in your photos!

Exposure: 1/60, f/16, ISO 100. EOS-1D Mark IV, EF 100-400mm f/4-5.6L IS at 210mm.

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

Some Older Comments

  • Jenny R March 27, 2013 01:04 am

    I've tried panning bee-eaters swooping over water. Very tricky.

  • Richard March 18, 2013 08:08 am

    Very nice photos and thanks for the tips. Saw your Alaska photos, I live in Alaska very nice.

  • Subhash Dasgupta February 3, 2013 05:17 pm

    Thanks for helpful tips. I will try

  • Lowden Stoole January 29, 2013 08:06 pm

    Thanks Rick. I will experiment with what you have shared on my bird and wild life shots.

  • Saran Rai January 28, 2013 03:06 pm

    I have been longing to learn about panning for a long time. Thanks for including this article this has helped me a lot.

  • Rick Berk January 27, 2013 07:40 am

    For those who asked about focusing- I use autofocus, in Continuous or AI Servo mode. I put an AF point on the subject, and allow the focus to continue tracking the subject. If the subject is moving parallel to the camera, continuous AF is less important, but in many cases, as with some of the NASCAR shots I've done, the subject may still be moving towards or away from me slightly, in which case the AF helps me stay sharp where I want it.

  • gary shirey January 26, 2013 05:32 am

    This article makes me want to it. The example photos are outstanding, and the shooting data accompany each is priceless. Can't wait to try it for myself.

    Question: Are there any "thumb rules" or formulas for motion blur?

  • Robert53 January 25, 2013 09:16 pm

    How about focusing. I have tried a few times in speed skating. I tend to "loose" the skater using only a single focus point and then it starts focusing on the background. Do I need to set the dynamic AF field in a Nikon D700, and how many focus points then. I only used the single point AF and continues focusing of course.

  • Steve January 25, 2013 12:30 pm

    It's almost as hard as adding links to these comments, which I seem to have great difficulty doing.

  • Steve January 25, 2013 12:26 pm

  • JM Arrazola January 25, 2013 11:25 am

    Practice, practice, practice...

    Here is a collection of panning shots i took:

  • Walter Chambosse January 25, 2013 11:20 am

    Many nice panning images included in and attached to this article thank you. I read through the attached articles and have a question that remains unanswered. I photograph many hundreds of cars at the drag strip and on the salt. No matter how wide open the aperture only a small amount of the vehicle is in focus. The faster the vehicle is coming towards or away the more limited the amount of focus. This can be seen in the third image included in this article, the hood is in focus, by the time you get to the door you are getting pretty soft. Even if you except that you will not get the complete car in focus, how do you control which end is in focus. I have tried both panning faster and slower with no predictable result.

  • Al Moore January 25, 2013 10:29 am

    I agree with the constant practice and using a busy road to practice on. Here's one of my favourite shots I took at a recent cycling event in Sydney.

  • Tom January 25, 2013 10:28 am

  • Tom January 25, 2013 10:28 am

    i love the technique, i too need to practice. This photo was the one that worked out of about one hundred taken.

  • oz January 25, 2013 09:56 am

    Do you use AF ?
    I was told focus on a spot then turn it to M ?
    what do you think?

  • Juan Manuel January 25, 2013 09:45 am

    Practice, practice, practice....
    Here is a set of some of my panning shots:

  • Scottc January 25, 2013 07:41 am

    I enjoy panning, I've got some great NASCAR pics on film. It is a perishable skill though, needs to be practiced regularly.

  • les January 24, 2013 02:22 am

    I take a lot of racing car pics but my cheapy camera can only manage single shots in the time frame.
    I have to pick my spot, pan back round the circuit until I am at the point I would have to press the button (dreadful camera lag), get comfy, pre-focus where the shot will be taken then swivel to pick up my cars. Usually it take 3 or 4 shots before my timing/panning is spot on - middle of the frame & in focus except for those wheels and background.

  • ccting January 23, 2013 06:23 pm

    why experts use monopod rather than video tripod for panning?

  • Zain Abdullah January 23, 2013 02:57 pm

    Thanks for an informative article and for sharing awesome panning pictures. Doing panning is fun but for street shooting some purist call it cliched for street shooting. I am pleased to share a few of my panning street shots here:

  • James January 23, 2013 03:44 am

    To get a crisp image of the subject concentrate on keeping an AF point on a precise spot on the subject, e.g the corner of the windshield or the end of the handlebars. You will find it much easier than trying to keep the whole subject in the same place in the frame.

  • James Fairgrieve January 23, 2013 01:50 am

    I take shots at motorsport events sometimes, and probably the most useful tip I have is in regards to feet placement. Decide beforehand, where your feet will be pointing at the end of the pan. Plant them there, then wind back at the hips, to the starting point. Tucking your elbows into your side, to help steady the camera, when the subject comes into your viewfinder, start "unwinding" from the hips as you follow it. With just a little practice, you can develop a really nice smooth panning technique.

  • Mridula January 23, 2013 01:30 am

    I have tried it occasionally and I would agree it requires practice!