Sports photography is all about freezing the action by selecting a high shutter speed, right? Well yes and no.
Action freezing shutter speeds are very useful but when used on certain subjects they can produce an image that fails to convey any sense of speed or drama. This is where the panning technique comes into its own by creating blur in the final image that gives the viewer a sense of the action unfolding in front of the camera at the time the shutter release was pressed.
A good example is a race car. If you shoot a car travelling across the frame at 1/1000 second or higher the subject will look like it is just parked on track because you have frozen any movement in the wheels and the background. Switching to a slower shutter speed and using the panning technique will change this by injecting movement in the background and in the wheels.
So what is panning?
Panning is a technique that combines a slow shutter speed while tracking the subject with the camera to create a sense of speed. More easily put it is a way to keep your subject in focus while blurring your background.
The panning technique takes lots of practice but once you have mastered it panning can produce some eye catching images.
The basic idea is that you pan your camera along in time with the moving subject and end up getting a relatively sharp subject with a blurred background. The best subject for panning is one that is travelling horizontally across the frame parallel to the camera position.
The panning technique is like a golf swing but it is horizontal across your body.
Before you start, pick your shooting position carefully and choose the point you want the subject to be in when you press the shutter release. Study the background carefully to make sure there are no distractions that will spoil the final image.
Start by choosing a relatively high shutter speed, say 1/250s or 1/125s for a race car. You then track your subject as it comes into view, keeping the camera focused on one point of the subject as you follow it.
To track a subject you can use continuous auto focus (AF-C) or you can switch to manual focus and pre focus at the previously chosen point where you want to take the image.
Now swing your body from your hips and as the subject reaches the chosen location press the shutter release and keep following the subject even after the image has been taken, like following through on a golf swing. Try not to grab or snatch an image as this just induces movement where you don’t want it.
To keep a subject in the same position in the frame I use a single focus point and put this on a recognisable point on the object, such as a number panel on the side of a car or the chest of a rider. By keeping the subject in the same position it will be relatively sharp compared to the movement induced in the background by the slow shutter speed.
The panning technique is best used with subjects running parallel with your shooting position but it can be used with subjects travelling across the frame come towards you or even away. Depending on the shutter speed used, and the speed of the subject, only parts of the subject will be sharp.
Take a race car travelling across the frame at 45 degrees as an example. The front of the car will be sharp but the rear will blurred due to the lateral movement of the subject. Once again the result will be pleasing to some viewers and not to others.
Practice Makes Perfect
My advice here is to practice and then practice some more. Panning is not an easy technique to get right but once you have mastered it it is like riding a bike, it becomes second nature. Once you have mastered panning at 1/125s, start moving down the shutter range to 1/60, 1/30 and even 1/15s. In sunny condition you might need to fit a 2 or 3 stop ND filter to allow you to get to the slower shutter speeds.
As you slow the shutter speed down your miss rate will go up, but when you do nail the shot it looks dramatic. I’ve even shot race cars moving at speed at half a second, which can be very difficult to get right. Even then the result is usually full of horizontal and vertical movement and is certainly not to everyone’s liking.
This technique can be used on all sorts of moving subjects. Race cars are relatively easy because they move in straight lines horizontally with very little vertical movement. Subjects like canoeists, power boats or horses move horizontally and vertically and can be more difficult to capture.
Remember panning is not exclusive to sports photography, you can also use it on active children and pets for a very different portrait.
Also try using a bit of fill in flash. Remember to set your flash gun to rear curtain sync if it has the facility so the flash fires just as the shutter closes. If it fires at the start of the exposure the resulting image can look like the subject is travelling backwards.
Panning is a good technique for injecting a sense of action into your images. Find the settings that work for you and your chosen subject and shoot some images.