Photographing Moving Subjects – Mastering Panning

Panning creates a feeling of movement, but it may take practice


What is panning?

Panning is the technique of tracking the moving subject, in this case a car, with your camera ( image above: 1/40 sec at f/13, ISO 200, 180mm ). This ensures that the moving subject is relatively sharp and the background is blurred. The result is an image that conveys the feeling of movement and relative speed. Panning is an excellent technique to use when capturing fast moving subjects such as racing car, motor bike, cyclist or running pet.

Shutter Speed is key - but it's not that simple

The following images show the impact of changing the shutter speed.



Shutter speed was set relatively high at 1/1000th sec; the impact is very little blur in the background together with an almost "frozen" subject.

Why is that? - At a high shutter speed the subject does not move very far relative to the camera and the background blur is almost only due to depth of field as a result of aperture setting.

1/1000 sec at f/5.6, ISO 800, 200 mm
1/1000 sec at f/5.6, ISO 800, 200 mm

Next time shutter speed was set at 1/125th sec; that resulted in pleasing background blur together with a sharp subject.

Why is that? - At a lower shutter speed the subject moves considerably further relative to the camera producing significant background blur which is due to movement whilst the lens is open.

1/125 sec at f/9.0, ISO 160, 120 mm
1/125 sec at f/9.0, ISO 160, 120 mm

Finally the shutter speed was set at 1/40th sec; producing a very blurred background but a subject with few sharp areas.

Why is that? - As the shutter was open for quite a long time and the camera lens was moving from left to right, the background is very blurred. However the camera and lens weren't moving at the same speed as the bike and rider are not fully sharp.

1/40 sec at f/16, ISO 160, 200 mm
1/40 sec at f/16, ISO 160, 200 mm


It's not all about Shutter Speed

Although shutter speed is the most significant setting, there are other factors (I won't go into the maths) like speed of subject, distance from subject to camera and size of camera sensor. A good starting point is shutter priority (Tv or S or T), 1/125 sec with as small an aperture as light will allow. Be prepared to experiment by reducing the shutter speed. When the difference between blurred background and sharp subject is at it's greatest is my preference, but you may prefer something different.

Other techniques exist e.g. 2nd curtain sync. flash, but more on that topic another time.

John Stephenson

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