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Panning: Photography Panning Techniques Explained

Panning is a great technique to try if you want to give a sense of movement in a photograph. It’s also ideal if you just want to make a more creative, arty image instead of a straight record shot.

There are two types of panning photos – moving the camera to follow a moving subject, and moving the camera while photographing a static subject.

Photography Panning

The technique is quite similar for both of these. Basically it involves moving the camera while the shutter is open, so you’ll need a longish shutter speed for this to work. The exact length will depend on various factors, including the distance between yourself and your subject, but I find that for static subjects, somewhere around 1/15 sec to 1/8 sec is a good starting point. For moving subjects, try starting at about 1/30 sec. The great thing about digital is that after taking a few shots, you can review them on the back of your camera and adjust your settings accordingly – in film days you just had to hope!

Photography Panning

Panning a moving subject: the idea here is to follow the moving subject during the exposure, so that the subject appears relatively sharp, while the background is blurred and streaky, giving a sense of movement. This can work well with animals that are running, whether it is your pet dog, or a herd of wildebeest. It’s also great for sports photography – cyclists, runners, or racing cars are all good subjects.

Photography Panning

Try to envision what the background will look like once it is streaky, and if necessary adjust your position to include colours or shapes that you think will work.

If your camera has an autofocus option that tracks a moving subject, this will be ideal. Otherwise you’ll need to pre-focus manually at the point where you think you will press the shutter release.

Photography Panning

Position yourself so that you can track your subject smoothly from one side to the other in a roughly parallel path. Then begin to follow the subject with your camera before you press the shutter release. Once you have the movement going, press the release, and don’t stop moving the camera until you hear the shutter close.

Panning a static subject: this can be used on all sorts of subjects. You just need to visualise how the colours and shapes in the scene will look once they are streaked – imagine painting the colours across a canvas. Trees work particularly well, and for these I would pan vertically from bottom to top. You can move the camera in any direction though, and the general rule of thumb is to follow the lines of your subject.

Photography Panning

It’s best to use manual focus mode for this type of panning, as the autofocus can sometimes get confused if it loses the subject as you move the camera.

Move the camera smoothly in the same way as described above.

In both situations, you can either hand hold the camera while panning, or have it on a tripod which has a swivelling head.

Also in both situations, take lots and lots of photos – they will all be slightly different. Some will end up in the bin, but with luck you will get a few that will look fantastic!

Geoff Harris

I am a photography journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill, Steve McCurry and the late Mary Ellen Mark. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time.

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