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There’s a difference between panning and panning photography for motion blur. Whenever we track motion, we pan the camera to follow the subject right up to the point that we take the shot. Panning refers to the movement of the camera following the subject. 

What is panning in photography?

Panning photography is a technique where you move the camera while the shutter is open to capture the panning movement, in the form of motion blur, in the photograph.

Panning is just one of 4 ways to capture motion blur, so there’s lots of opportunity to get creative by capturing movement in photography!

4 types of motion blur in photography

Different types of motion blur create different effects and can be used at different times. They are:

  1. Panning
  2. Zooming
  3. Twisting
  4. Slow shutter speed

Today we’re exploring panning in photography for motion blur.

Panning for motion blur

Most of the time we put all our effort into freezing a subject in an image so that it’s sharp. We work to avoid subject movement being captured, as well as camera movement. 

The problem with this is that it’s not always easy to show movement in a photo that has frozen time so well, especially in sports or wildlife. 

Panning to include movement

Panning for motion blur throws all that careful freezing out of the window! It’s an ideal way to bring movement, a sense of speed and excitement to an action photo.

This is why you see panning motion blur used so often in car and motorbike photography. It’s also very popular for photographing sports, such as cycling, horse racing and running.

In street photography panning can make a photo wonderfully unique. Also, the panned movement charges the photo with energy, so is perfect in a city environment.

Panning for abstract images

You can also create really beautiful abstract photos with a painterly look to them by panning for motion blur. 

Simply choose a landscape or seascape scene with a color palette you like and pan your camera horizontally or vertically.

Panning photography for abstract landscape photos

And here is the very ordinary scene I used to create this abstract panning shot.

Use panning photography to shoot abstract landscapes

How to create motion blur with panning

Panning is a lot easier than it looks. Like with many photography techniques, all you need is some guidance to get you started and then lots of practice.

So here’s what you need to know for panning photography:

  • Direction of movement
  • Space in the photo
  • Positioning your subject
  • How to focus for panning
  • Camera settings for panning
  • The equipment you’ll need 
  • Best time of day for panning photography
  • Bonus tip – panning technique

Now let’s get into the details so that you can start capturing panning shots today.

Direction of movement

How a subject moves during panning plays a big role on the outcome of the photo. When panning with a subject in focus, the subject needs to move across the frame on the same focal plane, to maintain sharp focus on the subject. 

In other words, they need to move from left to right of frame rather than from back to front. 

I specifically said from left to right, and not sideways or right to left, because having your subject go from left to right in the frame is considered good composition.

Further reading: Does the left to right rule really matter in photography composition?

With all that said, if you look at the top image of this article (taken by Roman Pohorecki) , the motion is actually from front to back. this works because of the viewpoint of the photographer. It proves that there are no hard and fast rules in photography!

Space in the photo

Following straight on from the direction of movement, you must also ensure that there’s space in front of your subject.

From a composition point of view, if you had space behind your subject and not in front it would feel that they’re about to smack straight into the side of the photo. They need to have space to move into. So it’s best if your subject is on the left of the frame or towards the middle, but not in the right half of the frame.

Further reading: Why the rule of space is so powerful in photography composition

Positioning your subject for panning

Speaking of space, for a successful panning photo you also need to take into consideration how much of the frame you’ll fill with your subject.

If you’re including a moving subject in the image as your focal point, try to ensure that it’s not too small in the frame as it will get lost in the motion. 

It works best if your subject takes up at least 25% of the frame.

How to pan for motion blur in photography

Photo by Salo Al. Camera settings: shutter speed 1/50th, aperture f16, ISO 100, focal length used 50mm

Focus tips for panning

To help keep your subject in focus when panning, use group area autofocus select a small area. the terminology differs between manufacturers, but they are fairly similar:

  • Nikon – select group as part of the dynamic area options
  • Canon – AF point expansion
  • Sony – zone autofocus

A single point would be difficult to lock on during movement and a wide autofocus area won’t maintain focus on your subject.

Set your focus mode to focus continuously. On a Nikon and Sony this is AF-C and on a Canon it’s AI Servo. 

Further reading: 3 creative photography tricks using continuous shooting mode

Camera settings for panning

Shutter speed

When using panning for motion blur, while keeping your subject in sharp focus, the trick is to use a shutter speed that is just right, combined with a smooth panning motion.

If your shutter speed is too slow, or your panning motion is too slow, your subject will be blurred. We want the subject to be as sharp as possible while the background and foreground are blurred.

Start with a shutter speed of 1/30th. Then adjust it from there if you feel it needs to be faster or slower. 

The faster the subject, the faster your shutter speed needs to be.

Aperture

For landscapes and seascapes start with a shutter speed of 1/15th.

To help ensure that your subject is in sharp focus, use a small aperture for a large depth of field. Try f22 and go wider if you feel you don’t have enough light. 

With a slow shutter speed though you’ll be able to keep the aperture small, which you’ll need especially if you’re not using an ND filter and it’s daytime.

Photography tips for better panning shots

The settings for this photo were shutter speed 1/13th, aperture f4.5 and ISO 400. The photo would have been better is the aperture had been smaller so that both bumper car riders were sharp. The limited aperture would also have improved the overall sharpness by restricting the amount of light in the lens. It would also have been better if the riders had been going from left to right across the frame, but that is being picky and not every scenario fits neatly into composition rules.

ISO

Keep your ISO as low as possible to allow for a slow shutter speed.

Equipment you need for panning photography

Lens

You can use any lens for panning motion blur, but a longer telephoto lens is the best option for optimum results.

The wider your focal length the more you need to move the camera to achieve motion blur. So a long focal length makes it easier to achieve dramatic movement.

If you don’t have a telephoto lens though, don’t let that stop you!

Did you get the free cheat sheet with all these panning tips summarised on one page for printing at home? Here it is again.

Tripod

Even though we’re adding in blur with movement, it’s best if that movement is as stable as possible so that you don’t end up with wobbly motion blur. 

If the subject that you want to track will move in an expected way, use either a tripod or a monopod for smooth panning from left to right with no up and down wobbles. 

For photographing wildlife that could move in an unexpected direction, rather handhold the camera and concentrate on moving as fluidly as possible.

If you don’t have a tripod or monopod just make sure that:

  • You hold your camera correctly with your arms locked up against your body
  • Move the camera by twisting your whole torso when panning and not just the camera

Further reading: How to hold a camera correctly for sharp photos

Best time of day for panning shots

The great thing about panning photography is that it doesn’t matter how bright or harsh the light is, because shadows are not a concern in motion blur photography. The only reason bright light might stop you is if you can’t get your camera settings down enough for a slow shutter speed.

If it’s too bright, then a neutral density (ND) filter will help you to slow your shutter speed down enough for panning motion blur.

Because you don’t have to worry about freezing motion, you can shoot later in the day for panning photography. In fact, lower light can be quite beneficial for creating abstract landscapes with panning.

Tricks of panning shots for motion blur

Photo by Skitterphoto. Camera settings: shutter speed 1/8th, aperture f5.6, ISO 800, focal length used 17mm

Bonus tip for panning photos

Start panning before you click the shutter button and keep going until slightly after the end of the exposure to achieve a smooth and continuous panning motion

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Panning shots are great for showing action and movement through motion blur. Learn the tricks of panning photography for dynamic action photos and abstract landscapes with motion blur. Discover how easy it is to create exciting, different looking photos that will wow! #panningshots #motionblur #photography #actionphotos