Panning for Action Gold

Freezing motion is one of the trickiest but most rewarding challenges in all of photography. The world around us is in constant motion, but cameras can only capture that action in short bursts. If your subject is moving too fast, you get a blurry picture.

All Blur Is Not Equal

I've got a solution for that pesky motion blur, but first I want to point out that there are really two different ways your photos can become blurry. Motion blur--in which your subject is moving too fast to be frozen by the camera's exposure--is one way. But camera shake can blur your pictures as well. If you are holding your camera (as opposed to mounting it on a tripod), then the picture's sharpness is limited by how steady your hands are. The slower the shutter speed, the "softer" your picture will look.

Here, for example, is a photo that suffers from camera shake as a result of hand-holding the cameras indoors, in low light.

You can distinguish motion blur from camera shake this way: Camera shake blurs the entire photo, while motion blur affects only the subject that's in motion. Of course, you can easily have both kinds of blur in a photo, but it's important to remember that the fix is different for each. If you want to reduce camera shake, you need to shoot with a faster shutter speed or, ideally, brace the camera on a tripod or some other support. To control motion blur, well... keep on reading.

Minimizing Motion Blur

There are two ways to control motion blur: You can try to stomp it out by increasing your camera's shutter speed, or you can use the motion to your advantage.

When you're shooting fast action, shutter speed is the most important camera control you've got, so use the camera's Action or Sports mode, or set the camera to Shutter Priority and dial up the shutter speed as high as possible. Here you can see a fast-moving subject that has been frozen in place using this technique.

Panning the Action

A more creative option is to turn the motion inherent in your scene into an advantage. The technique is called panning, and it simply means that you pivot your body as you take the picture, trying to keep the subject centered in the viewfinder throughout the exposure. What you end up with is a compelling photo in which the background is blurry, but the subject is sharp--and the whole photo conveys the impression of speed and excitement.

Taking a good motion-blur photo using panning is as much art as science: You'll need to practice. Make sure the camera's shutter speed is low enough to blur the background, but not so slow that camera shake ruins the shot. I recommend starting at 1/15 or 1/30 second. To get ready for the photo, start tracking the moving subject in the viewfinder while it's still off to the side, and turn your body in a smooth motion as the subject crosses in front of you. As it reaches the point closest to you, gently press the shutter release and continue to pan with the subject as it moves off in the other direction. For the best results, you'll want to follow through, in much the same way a golfer or a baseball player keeps swinging after hitting the ball.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique. Every month, the best of the weekly winners gets a prize valued at between $15 and $50.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "The Brave Chicken," by James Pyle, Media, Pennsylvania

James writes: "A friend and I were on a scooter trip through Laos when we fell short of our destination. A hill-tribe put us up for the night and this chicken gave us a visit in the morning." He took the photo with a Nikon D70 using natural light.

This Week's Runner-Up: "Hidden Wonderland," by Betty Pauwels, Franklin, New Hampshire

Betty writes: "I went out shooting and stumbled upon a scenic area that I never seen before. Overall, my photo outing was a bust, but finding this one spot made the whole trip worthwhile." Betty took this picture with a Canon EOS 40D.

See all the Hot Pic of the Week photos online.

Have a digital photo question? Send me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have the Digital Focus Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

This story, "Panning for Action Gold" was originally published by PCWorld.

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