Panning photography – capturing action with motion blur

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 a moving target. 

What is panning in photography?

Panning photography is a camera technique where you move the camera while the shutter is open to capture the panning movement as motion blur for a streaky background in a photograph.

Panning photography is just one of 4 ways to capture motion blur in photos, 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 the panning effect in photography for a sense of movement with camera motion.

Biker with blurred background using panning photography

Camera settings: shutter speed 1/60th, aperture f4, ISO 400. Focal length: 48mm

In this series of panning shots, 1/60th was the fastest shutter speed I used. You can see examples at different settings further down. It took several attempts to work out the best shutter speed for the bike’s speed so that she was going fast enough to ride properly, but slow enough for me to capture the moment.

Panning for motion blur in photos

Most of the time photographers try to freeze a moving subject in an image so that they’re sharp. The problem with always avoiding capturing subject movement or camera movement is that it doesn’t show movement in a photo in a dynamic and exciting way. 


Panning to include movement

Motion blur with panning photography throws all the careful motion freezing techniques out of the window! Instead panning shots bring movement and 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 movement can make a photo wonderfully unique and the energy it conveys is perfect for a city environment.

Panning photography 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 while the shutter is open to blur the scene.

That’s exactly what I did for the photo below.

panning shot of abstract landscape scene

For this panning shot I used a shutter speed of 1/6th. Because it was mid afternoon on a bright sunny day, my other camera settings had to compensate for the very slow shutter speed. So my aperture was F22 and I set my ISO as low as I could go at ISO 31.

And here’s the very ordinary scene in my local park that I used to create an abstract panning shot.

landscape scene for a panning shot

How to create a sense of motion with panning

Panning photography is a lot easier than it looks, especially when you just want to create an abstract image. Like with many photography techniques, all you need is some guidance to get you started and then some practice.

Panning shots with moving subjects are a bit more complicated, but creating unique images is very rewarding so it’s well worth putting in the effort to learn panning techniques.

My tips for successful panning photography cover:

  • 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 of panning photos with moving subjects so that you can start capturing unique portraits today.

Direction of movement

The direction of movement depends on the subject’s plane of motion in portrait photography. It could be:

  • Vertical panning, in other words up and down panning on a vertical plane
  • Horizontal panning, in other words side-to-side panning on a horizontal plane

Aside from the plane of motion, how a subject moves in panning photography plays a big role in the outcome of the photo. When panning with a subject in focus, they need 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 subject movement from left to right of frame is considered good composition in photography.

With that said, in the below image the motion is more from back to front and only slightly side to side. The sideways movement is also from right to left, which proves that there are no hard and fast rules in photography! You have to experiment.

Biker photographed with motion using panning

Camera settings: Shutter speed 1/40th, aperture F5, ISO 500. Focal length: 35mm

Space in panning shots

Following on from the direction of movement, when capturing a moving subject ensure that there’s space in front of your subject for good composition.

According to the rule of space, subjects in photos need to have space to move into.

From a composition point of view, space behind your subject, and not in front, feels like they’re about to smack straight into the side of the photo. So if your subject is going left to right, it’s best if they’re on the left of the frame or towards the middle, but not in the right half of the frame.

Positioning your subject for panning

Speaking of space, for a successful panning portrait you must also consider how much of the frame you’ll fill with your subject.

When you include a moving subject as your main focal point in an image, try to ensure that they’re not too small in the frame as they’ll get lost in the motion. 

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

Motorbike rider with motion blur
Camera settings: shutter speed 1/50th, aperture f5.6, ISO 500. Focal length: 38mm

Focus tips for panning photography

To help keep your subject in focus when panning, use group area autofocus and select a small focus area with a few focus points. The exact terminology differs between manufacturers, but they’re fairly similar:

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

Using single point autofocus makes it difficult to lock onto subject movement and a wide autofocus area won’t maintain focus on your subject.

Set your focus mode to focus continuously and use continuous shooting mode (also known as burst mode).

Continuous autofocus for:

  • Nikon and Sony is AF-C
  • Canon is AI Servo

At the end I’ve included a series of 6 images taken in 1 second using continuous high shooting mode. Keep reading to see how different each image is.

I highly recommend using back button focus if photographing with a DSLR camera.

Panning photography camera settings

Unless you photograph the same type of movement at the same type of speed, your camera settings will be different every time you do panning photography. The lighting conditions will of course also affect your choice of camera settings – lighter conditions vs darker conditions.

Moving biker photographed with frozen motion

Camera settings: Shutter speed 1/200th, aperture F2.8, ISO 500. Focal length: 45mm

Unlike a similar image further up, where I used a shutter speed of 1/40th, there’s no panning motion in this image as the shutter speed was too fast and instead froze the movement.

Shutter speed for panning photos

To keep your subject in sharp focus for a good panning shot, you need the right shutter speed to match the speed of the moving target, 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. You want the subject to be as sharp as possible while the background and foreground are blurred. This’ll take a bit of trial and error, and will vary according to the subject’s speed of movement, so don’t expect to know straight off exactly what shutter speed to use.

Start with a shutter speed of 1/30th for panning shots with a moving subject. Then adjust it from there if you feel it needs to be faster or slower. Faster subjects need faster shutter speeds, so you’ll need to experiment with different shutter speeds. 

In panning photography shutter speed is the most important camera setting, so takes priority over aperture.  If you’re not comfortable using manual mode, the next best is shutter priority mode.

Aperture for panning shots

Use a small aperture for a large depth of field to help get your subject’s in sharp focus. Start at F22 or F16 and go wider if you don’t have enough light. 

However, because panning photography requires a longer exposure time it’s usually easy to use a narrow aperture, which you’ll need especially if don’t have an neutral density filter (or ND filter) and it’s daytime. Because a neutral density filter prevents some light entering the lens, it can help for setting a slower shutter speed in daytime photography. 

Panning technique to convey subject movement

Camera settings: shutter speed 1/40th, aperture f5, ISO 500. Focal length: 34mm

ISO for panning photography

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

Equipment you need for panning photography

The good news is that to capture a feeling of movement using the panning photography technique all you need is a basic camera, with the ability to set shutter speed, aperture and ISO, and a lens.

Best lens for panning photos

You can use any lens for panning motion blur, but a longer telephoto lens helps you achieve the best 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. It also helps to blur the background.

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

All the motorbike photos in this article were taken on a 24-70mm lens at various focal lengths from 34mm to 62mm. I had no choice. We were on the side of a mountain and the only space I had was the width of the road, so a long focal length was out of the question as I didn’t want to tumble down the mountain.

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


Stabilize with a tripod

Even though you’re adding blur with movement, it’s best if that movement is as stable as possible to avoid 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 anything that might move in an unexpected direction, rather handhold the camera and concentrate on panning 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

For all the motorbike panning shots in this article I handheld the camera, because we didn’t have much time for the shoot. The sun was rising fast, it was a cold winter morning and we were both freezing. So she would ride past in one direction, then turn around while I ran across the road and positioned myself for her to come back the other way.

The next 6 images were captured in 1 second.

Panning examples showing movement blur

Camera settings: shutter speed 1/40th, aperture f5.6, ISO 640. Focal length: 62mm. While F5.6 isn’t ideal for panning shots, because of the low light and not wanting to push the ISO higher to avoid noise, F5.6 was as narrow as I could go.

In the next three images in the series, I wasn’t able to freeze the subject’s motion for the first two, but got it by the third image. However, I quite like the effect, especially in the middle image.

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 aren’t 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, using 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. Or at sunrise, like these motorbike photos. In fact, lower light can be quite helpful for creating abstract panning images.

Panning photography examples of subject passing on motorbike
Camera settings: shutter speed 1/40th, aperture f5.6, ISO 640. Focal length: 62mm

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.

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about panning photos, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my panning photography tips have helped you understand how to use panning in photography, share that too.

1 thought on “Panning photography – capturing action with motion blur”

  1. Thank you, Jane this is a helpful article. I love the look of panning photos and haven’t been very successful. This will encourage me to go back and practice. Please could you tell me what the alternative to the Focus Area would be on a mirrorless camera? Why would you use continuous low instead of continuous high drive mode? Many thanks again for all the useful information


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