Cameras are very good at freezing moments in time. Browse through your photo collection, and no doubt you’ll have lots of examples in which a fast shutter speed captured an instant and preserved it, seemingly in amber. What’s missing from photos like those, though, are any sense of drama. If you’re shooting moving subjects—at a car race, a sporting event, or an airshow, for example—then you might want to preserve some of that action. You should learn to pan your camera.
Panning is a technique that lets you capture the essence of motion in a photo. By shooting with a somewhat slow shutter speed and tracking the action as you take the picture, you blur the background while freezing the subject. With a little practice, the results can be striking.
Unfortunately, panning does require a little practice. It’s unnatural and a bit counterintuitive; for as long as you’ve been taking pictures, you’ve probably tried to hold the camera as still as possible. Now I’m asking you to move the camera while you take the shot, albeit in a careful and controlled way.
Choosing the right camera settings
Let’s start with the camera settings. If you can control the exposure (like on a digital SLR or compact digital camera), you’ll want to slow down the shutter. Ideally, you want a shutter speed that’s slow enough to blur the background as you move the camera during the exposure, but fast enough that the subject you’re tracking will be fairly sharp.
So what’s the magic setting? Switch your camera to Shutter Priority and dial in about 1/15 second. That’s a good starting place; after you get comfortable panning for action, you might want to try slowing the shutter down to 1/8 second.
What about smartphone users? Good news: You’re not left out in the cold. Even with a vanilla smartphone, you can often get decent panned action photos, because your phone might be shooting with a relatively slow shutter speed anyway. But if you really want to exert control over the situation, try an app like Top Camera, which includes a slow shutter mode.
Learn your body motion
Once you’ve prepped your camera with the right shutter speed, it’s time to practice your swing. Taking a good panned photo is not unlike swinging a baseball bat or a golf club; it’s all about the follow-through. Here’s what to do: Position yourself so that the action passes directly in front of you. Pivot your body at the hip so you can see the subject approaching from the side, and place the subject directly in the center of the viewfinder. Pivot your body so that you can smoothly keep the subject centered. As it is about to pass in front of you—when it’s moving fastest with respect to you and the background—gently press and release the shutter button and continue to turn, keeping the subject in the viewfinder.
This is the tricky part, because many cameras (particularly digital SLRs) blank the viewfinder during the exposure. That means the most critical time to keep the subject smoothly centered in the viewfinder is exactly when you can’t see the subject at all. This is where practice comes in handy; get used to following through with smooth motion even when the viewfinder is momentarily black.
Remember the order of actions: Start panning the camera, then press the shutter release after the camera is already moving. And continue pivoting your body—the follow-through—even after you’ve taken the photo.
You might be tempted to try panning with a tripod, which will help you take a steadier photo. But in fact, tripods tend to get in the way and can keep you from achieving the smooth motion you need for a great panned photo. If you do use a tripod, keep the head loose, so it’s easy to swing the camera around from side to side.
Another handy tip: Don’t zoom in too much. You’ll want to stay zoomed out a bit, both so you can see more of the blurry background and to minimize the impact of the inevitable blur on the subject itself.
Most importantly, practice panning as much as you can, and tweak the shutter speed until you find the right setting that gives you the blur you want while still allowing you to freeze the subject.